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Non-sexist language

Non-sexist or gender-neutral language is writing or speech which avoids perpetuating what is perceived as sexism.

Calling this type of language "non-sexist language" is a loaded term, as it implies that failure to use this type of language is automatically sexist. Less loaded terms, such as sex-neutral or gender-neutral, are not as common.

Table of contents

Common positions

Views on 'non-sexist language' can be split into approximately four groups:

  1. People who believe that 'non-sexist language' is a good thing, use it themselves, and try to enforce it on everyone else. These people often argue passionately for non-sexist language at every opportunity.
  2. People who believe that 'non-sexist language' is a good thing, use it themselves, but do not wish to enforce it on everyone else. These people may try to persuade others of the merits of 'non-sexist language', but are generally less vehement in their arguments.
  3. People who believe that non-sexist language is neither good nor bad. These people sometimes use 'non-sexist language', and sometimes use more traditional forms of expression.
  4. People who believe that 'non-sexist language' is a bad thing, and do not use it themselves. These people may try to persuade others of the problems with 'non-sexist language', with more or less vehemence.

History

Many of the modern masculine terms in use today originated as gender neutral terms in Old English. For example, the word 'man' was originally gender neutral and qualified to specify male or female. While the male qualification died out, the female wíf (which produced woman) survived, leaving 'man' with both its original gender-neutral meaning (people) and its gender-specific meaning, male.

The same sort of thing has historically happened in other languages. The word homo was sex-neutral in Classical Latin, while its descendants such as French homme, Italian uomo, Spanish hombre are all specifically male.[ It is interesting to know that in Romanian "om" is gender neutral. ] But the derived adjectives humain etc. mean human as in English.

Add later history here

Disputed issues

There are a wide range of disputed issues in the debate over 'non-sexist language'. Are there inherently sexist language forms, and if so, what are they? If they exist, should they be changed? If they should be changed, how should this be achieved?

Are some uses of language inherently sexist?

Advocates of 'non-sexist language', including many feminists, argue that traditional language fails to reflect the presence of women in society adequately. In general, they complain about a number of issues:

According to advocates of 'non-sexist language', there are various problems with these uses:

  • They marginalize women and create the impression of a male-dominated society.
  • They can be patronising, for example treating women only as marriage material
  • They can perpetuate stereotypes about the "correct" way for a man or woman to behave.

Opponents of non-sexist language do not accept these arguments as valid.

  • Some regard the whole thing as "political correctness gone mad", as it was ridiculed in the 1980s British satirical show Spitting Image.
  • Some people believe that while these usages may, on the surface, appear to be gender-biased, in practice most people think of them and use them as gender-neutral.
  • Some people disagree with feminism and argue that men and women are sufficiently different that these differences are rightly embedded in the language. In this context, see masculism.

A deeper variant of these arguments involves the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the suggestion that our language shapes our thought processes and that in order to eliminate sexism we would do well to eliminate "sexist" forms from our language. Some feminists are dismissive of these ideas, viewing 'non-sexist language' as window-dressing which merely hides, not changes, sexist attitudes. They typically do not oppose such language, but rather see it as an irrelevance.

Enforcement, persuasion, or evolution?

A tiny minority of advocates for non-sexist language argue that these "sexist" usages should be banned. It is unclear how this would be achieved. Hate speech legislation does exist in some countries, but applies to much more clear-cut and widely accepted cases of perceived prejudice.

The majority of advocates for 'non-sexist language' wish to proceed by persuasion rather than enforcement. One tool of this persuasion is creating guidelines (see below) that indicate how they believe language should be used. Another tool is simply to make use of 'non-sexist language' oneself, and lead by example.

Some opponents of 'non-sexist language' argue that a change in language should evolve organically from changing public attitudes towards gender issues, rather than be achieved either by enforcement, or by persuasion.

Neologising

While some terms, such as firefighter and singular they, are sometimes denigrated by opponents as neologisms, they in fact have a long history that predates the women's liberation movement. At other times new terms have indeed been created, such as Ms. or womyn. The issue is confused by satirists who invent extreme examples of the supposed consequences of 'non-sexist language', such as epersoncipation.

Some critics accuse advocates of non-sexist language of "re-gendering" language, replacing masculine in some cases by feminine terms that are equally sexist. Other critics argue that non-sexist language violates the rules of proper grammar and style.

Guidelines

Many different authorities have presented guidelines on whether, and if so and where, to use 'non-sexist language'. Wikipedia is not a style guide, so we present a selection of such sources here.

  • ...

Many dictionaries, stylebooks, and some authoritative guides now counsel the writer to follow the new guidelines.

These guidelines, though accepted by many, remain in some contexts controversial, and are applied to differing degrees among English speakers worldwide. often reflecting different cultures and language structure, for example American English in contrast to British English. They are also impacted upon, depending on whether a person uses English as their first language or as a second language, regional variants or whether their form of English is based on grammatical structures inherited from a no longer widely used other language (for example, Hiberno-English) or owes its linguistic structure to earlier Old English or Elizabethan English. In these cases, language structure from their native tongue or linguistic inheritance may enter into their terminology.

Non-sexist language in other languages

The situation of 'non-sexist' usage is very different in languages that have masculine and feminine grammatical gender, such as French, German, and Spanish, simply because it is impossible to construct a gender-neutral sentence the way it can be done in English. For example, in French, the masculine gender supersedes the feminine; la femme et l'homme (the woman and the man) has the pronoun ils (they-masculine).

Accordingly, most of the focus has been on more concrete problems such as job titles. Due to the presence of grammatical gender, the strategy is the exact opposite of that of English: creating feminine job titles rather than eliminating them. This is based on the idea that it is insulting to call a woman (for example) le médecin (the (masculine) doctor), as if she changed sex or became somehow more mannish when she went to work.

Finnish

Finnish has only gender-neutral pronouns (it totally lacks grammatical gender) and hän is used always when talking about he or she. It distinguishes however between persons and things.

French

See also the French version of this article (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langage_sexiste)

In French, feminine job titles are created by adding -e (l'avocate), -eure (la docteure), -euse (la travailleuse), -esse (la mairesse), or nothing in some cases such as -iste or -logue (la psychologue). More generally, "non-sexist" styles can include the use of brackets or capital letters to insert feminine endings (étudiant(e)s or étudiantEs) or repeat gendered words (toutes et tous, citoyennes et citoyens).

Words that formerly referred to a dignitary's wife (l'ambassadrice) can be used to refer to a woman in that position; this, like other "non-sexist" forms, is much more common in Quebec than in France. Although the marriage titles have mainly dropped out of use, many cite the possible confusion as a reason for continuing to use such as Madame le Président or Madame l'ambassadeur. For this reason, these remain the most frequent, at least in France.

Spanish

In Spanish, it is usually quite easy to change an -o to an -a, or to add an -a to an ending such as -or (la camarera, la doctora). Other endings can be left alone or changed (la juez but la alcaldesa). -ista is left alone. (One problem is el policía, "police officer", since la policía means "the police force". The only useful feminine term is la mujer policía.) A fashion current in Spain is to use the at sign (@) to replace -o or -a, especially in political writing (¡Ciudadan@s!)

German

In German, creating a feminine job title is usually done by adding -in to the word in question. Job descriptions are usually formulated addressing both sexes (Informatiker oder Informatikerin). Sometimes a form of contraction with capitalization inside the word is used ("InformatikerIn"), which is considered by some people as a corruption of the language, especially if it is overdone by creating feminine forms of gender neutral words (for example a German feminist who called a group of non-feminist women Arschlöcherinnen - female assholes).

Esperanto

Esperanto has no grammatical gender. However, for some categories of nouns such as terms for people, animals, and kin, a masculine real gender is considered generic, and femaleness has to be made explicit by use of the -in suffix. Hence patro is father, but patrino is mother. Plural nouns indicating both genders together can be formed with the prefix ge- (e.g. gepatroj, meaning parents). Some people extend this to using ge- with singular nouns to denote someone of unspecified sex (e.g. gepatro for parent), but this was not used by L. L. Zamenhof, the creator of the language, and some speakers consider it grammatically incorrect.

In Zamenhof's formulation of the language, nouns denoting persons refer to males by default. For example, an amiko is a male friend; a female friend must be referred to as an amikino. Many modern speakers do not do this, seeing it as sexist; they use, for example, amiko to mean a friend of either sex, only specifying the sex if it is relevant, using -in for female and the prefix vir- (or, in one proposal, the suffix -iĉ-) for male. This is more common among those whose first language has no sex-related grammatical gender, such as English and Chinese, than among those whose first language does, such as French or German. Therefore some proponents of this usage suggest that it is more appropriate in Esperanto since it lacks grammatical gender.

Like English, Esperanto has gender-specific pronouns in the third person singular (li, ŝi, and ghi). Canonical usage is for li to be a generic male in a similar way to English he, though this is increasingly uncommon as it is in English. Nonsexist usage can include such constructions as li aŭ ŝi, the correlative pronoun tiu, or a number of rather marginal neologisms such as ŝli or ri.

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Hebrew

In Hebrew, which has a high degree of grammatical gender, virtually every noun (as well as pronoun of second and third degree) is attributed as either masculine or feminine. Therefore, there are laws constituted in Israel that require job ads to be written in a non-sexist form, often with a separator '/' (e.g. "dru'shim/ot", "maz'kir/a") to explicitly proclaim that the job is offered for both males and females equally.

Please add more languages and examples.

See also: gender role.



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