Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Gender in language

This Friday is International Women's Day. There are many issues relating to gender equality that are worth discussing, but one that particularly interests me is the use of gendered language.

Most languages have not only different words for men, women, boys, and girls, but different personal pronouns for males and females, and different nouns for various professions depending on the person's gender.

Many people's first names also tend to be either male or female, though there is a trend in Israel to give girls what used to be male-only names. This might be considered as empowering to girls, but in many classrooms now people have to distinguish between two children with the same name but different genders, so they end up saying things like "Tal-the-girl" and "Tal-the-boy", rather than using full names as they would when there were two children of the same gender with the same name.

It seems that in most societies it is considered important to know whether a person is male or female, even in cases where this fact is, objectively, completely irrelevant. For example, if someone says: "I went to my doctor", a listener might ask: "What did he say?", and if the doctor is female, the reply would probably start "She said...", emphasizing that the person being discussed is a woman. This would seem to be more common when discussing non-traditional gender roles. For example, in Hebrew there are feminine forms for the professions "nurse" and "teacher", and because the vast majority of these professionals are female, the feminine plural noun is usually used. Similarly, in English people have to specify "male nurse".

The desire to use more inclusive forms in English has made people try to avoid saying "he" as the general form, and because "he or she" is inconvenient, the tendency is to use the plural wherever possible and say "they". However, many people seem to be using "they" as the gender-non-specific pronoun even in the singular, and I have heard this said even when the person's gender has been determined. For example, "My friend's sister had a job interview, but they didn't get the job". Perhaps just as "you" became both singular and plural eventually "they" will replace "he" and "she", though at the moment this seems unlikely.

Hebrew has an even more clearly gendered system, because even "I", "me", "you" (singular and plural), and "they" have masculine and feminine forms, and the verbs agreeing with these subjects are also gendered. This makes it impossible to be vague about gender, for example in a love song. "I love you" will specify whether the "I" and the "you" are male or female.

I have been wondering what it is like to have a language without genders. Apparently the following languages either have no genders or fewer ways of marking a gender: Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Persian, Basque, and Turkish. I am more confused by what I have read about Chinese and Japanese.

Would speakers of such languages still feel the need to find ways to convey whether their doctor was male or female? Do they have clearly gendered first names? Could we live in a society where language and naming conventions did not make everyone's gender such a big issue?

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