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Possibility Of A Gender Neutral Language English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1652 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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As the story in the Book of Genesis goes God created man and then created women. This joke makes fun of this and is an example of sexist language because it represents men in a light of inadequacy compared to women. But, for every joke that represents men in this light there is an even greater amount of language that is used to discriminate against women. Lu Min (2009) explains that sexist language is that which uses “words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between women and men or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either gender”(26). Phrases such as “best man for the job” or occupational titles such as “policeman” or “fireman” are masculine in their description. This sort of language excludes women who could in fact be the “best person for the job” or similarly, a “police officer” or “firefighter”.

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Language is always changing and in fact in recent years there has been a push for more gender-neutral language as opposed to the sexist language that is already in place. Leaper and Bigler (2004) explain that “there has been a shift in people’s speech and writing away from the generic use of the masculine pronouns ‘he’ and masculine compound nouns such as ‘chairman’. Instead, it is now common to find people using gender-inclusive language such as “he or she” or “chairperson” (138). There is some debate on whether we should have a gender-neutral language or not. Those in support of a gender-neutral language feel that if this were put into place there would be equality for everyone. Those who are against changing the language that is already in place argue that phrases such as “you guys” or “mankind” are already considered gender-inclusive because they refer to all people regardless of gender. They simply see these words, phrases, and expressions as a quirk in the English language. While there are several languages that use masculine forms such as Chinese, Spanish, and Italian, the focus of my paper will be on English in various parts of the world. I believe that the current masculine forms of language are not inclusive and that there should be more of a push for gender-neutral language whenever possible.

Changes in language will inevitably take course through the duration of time and if more people who speak English become aware of the gender-bias that currently is in place eventually we may be able to have a language that is more gender-inclusive. From my research, I’ve observed that there is currently a trend of making language more inclusive. For example, in America in a study done at Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers found that there was consciousness of gendered-biased language as being sexist. Similarly, young people in Australia who speak English, since the 1980s, have been pushing for more generic phrases when referring to individuals. In Hong Kong, speakers of English prefer a masculine form of language but through studying college students they have found that feminist movements in the West are having great impacts on the way young people speak.

Deborah Cameron (1992) cites Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place which “asserts that there is a characteristic register or ‘women’s language’ consisting of certain linguistic gestures and connoting tentativeness, deference, and lack of authority. Women are socialized into using this style of speech as part of their subordinate social position” (15). This is what experts would classify as the dominance approach because it demonstrates a power/powerless relationship among men and women. Another approach that Cameron cites is the difference approach which claims that differences in the speech behaviors between men and women come about due to the differences in socialization. As the author puts it, “in most cultures there is still considerable social segregation of the sexes, and children learn their conversational strategies for the most part in single-sex peer groups. Research suggests that these are organized differently for the two sexes” (15). Leaper and Bigler (2004) invoke the work of Whorfian who says that “language shapes thought” (131). More specifically, they argue that “some previous research supports the notion that the use of gendered language and having gender-stereotypic thoughts are reciprocally related” (131). This goes back to the example of occupational title such as “policeman”, “congressman”, or “waitress” as having to do with the particular person in that position.

As I mentioned earlier there is a group of individuals who believe that the English Language is already gender-inclusive. To this group of individual the phrase “man” would be used as a means of classifying both men and women such as the term “mankind”. This is illogical for several reasons. For example, if we take this idea of the term “man” encompassing both males and females and apply it to a similar set of words we quickly find that it does not hold. We can say that a miniature poodle and an alligator are both animals. The term “animal” like “man” is being used in a generic sense. It would be correct to say that every miniature poodle is an animal. It would also be correct to say that every alligator is an animal. While at a park you may hear someone say “I see an animal”. There is no real need to specify whether that animal is an alligator or a dog if that person is just making an observation. There are certain times, however, that this information may be useful. If someone’s life was being threatened by an alligator you may hear another individual warm the person about to be attacked by saying “That’s an alligator!” instead of just using the generic “animal”.

If we take the generic term “person” which can mean either a male or female and use it in the following sentence: “This person is having a baby” we would assume that this “person” is a female. To say that “this man is having a baby” would not only sound funny but it would also be incorrect. Men simply cannot have babies. So, if the term “man” was generic in what it refers to, either males or females, it would be acceptable to say “that man had a baby”. Again, we run into a problem of the term not being generic in what it is referring to and thus proves that the term “man” does not subsume both terms of describing gender. Kenichi Namai (2000) cites a study by Greenbaum and Quirk that explains that “in English, gender is not a feature of nouns themselves (as in such languages as German or Russian). Rather, it relates directly to the meanings of nouns, with particular reference to biological sex” (771). What the author is basically arguing is that English should not show any grammatical agreements between terms such as those that are used to refer to gender. In the article, Namai gives the example sentence “he hit herself” (773). This sentence is incorrect for what Namai explains as not being a syntactic disagreement with the antecedent and reflexive but says that the conflict arises from a disagreement between the antecedents in terms of sex (774). So if we refer back to the problem of the sentence “that man had a baby” we see that the problem arises from a disagreement in terms of sex. This would mean that the identification of “man” being inclusive of all genders is incorrect.

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Jochnowitz (1982) cites a similar argument from Robin Lakoff who says “My feeling is that this area of pronominal neutralization is both less in need of changing, and less open to change, than many of the other disparities that have been discussed earlier, and we should perhaps concentrate our efforts where they will be most fruitful” (200). This is surprising because this article is written as Jochonowitz claims “from a feminist perspective, yet the author [Lakoff] does not advocate abandoning indefinite he” (200). Murdock and Forsyth (1985) in a discussion of Lakoff say that Lakoff would agree “that the generic he does refer more to men than to women, but notes that the long-range consequences of the oft-used phrase may be fairly trivial” (40). The two studies by Murdock and Forsyth were “conducted to define reactions to gender-biased language empirically” (39). What they aimed at finding out, as the title of their work suggests, is gender-biased language considered sexist. In the first study individuals were asked to evaluate the sexism in several sentences that “contained no bias, used words as man or he in the generic sense, or referred to women in an unfair, stereotypical manner” (39). The second study focused on examining reactions “in a more naturalistic context by asking respondents to evaluate an essay written using all plural pronouns, generic pronouns, or generic pronouns plus evaluative stereotypic phrasings” (39). What Murdock and Forsyth discovered was that the reactions to gender-biased language were taken as being sexist. This goes back to the original argument that gender-biased language is in fact not inclusive of both sexes.

Another particular finding for Murdock and Forsyth that is surprising is that “all do not agree concerning the sexist nature of masculine-biased language” (47). Lead this to ƒ Hong Kong English ƒ  Australian English Look for “Strahan Discussion Note”ƒ  Conclusion


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