Gender-Neutral Language Reform. Necessary Process, or Mere Demand of Hypersensitive Feminists?

Essay, 2012

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


The way in which English language users make distinctions between male and female and between masculine and feminine in their culture will be reflected in the distinctions they make between masculine and feminine in their language, as long as the gender system is a semantic one. Like gender in society, gender in the English language represents a set of constructed categories, categories whose boundaries will change over time, reflecting the evolution of ideas about sex and gender. (Curzan 2003:29)

What has been ridiculed by male columnists as feminists’ “pronoun envy”, and exaggeratedly depicted as their wish to change words like ‘manhole cover’ to ‘personhole cover”, and ‘manipulate’ to ‘personipulate’, in fact, is too important and well-grounded a demand to be ridiculed. Emerging in the 1960s / 70s, the issue of sexist language by many is still seen as a persistent problem today. The continuity of this claim shows that feminists in favour of gender-neutral language use are by no means concerned with trivialities, but with core concepts of language. (Cf. Penfield 1987:6) This essay is based on the positive statement of the above quotation that meanings are not fixed, but language responds to new demands posed on it by its speakers. Its aim is to prove that, especially in English with its natural gender system, strong sexist tendencies exist, and therefore language reform is possible and necessary to contribute to the formal and actual equality of women.

In order to be able to understand the great impact which sexist language can have on women (or other discriminated groups), the importance of language within a society has to be emphasised. In this context, one of the most important questions which theorists have dealt with is, whether language merely is a reflection of the world, and gives names to subjects and objects which would also exist without a term for them, or language can also influence our perception of the world, meaning that those things, which language has assigned a name to, become more obvious and concrete than things were this is not the case (Mills 1995:83). The latter assumption has been suggested by a lot of scholars since the 19th century. The most known agents of the so-called theory of linguistic determinism are Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The theory holds that differences in the structure of language determine the views societies have of the world. In a weaker version, the theory suggests that communities and people name the world differently, emphasising the aspects which are most relevant and important to their lives. This can for instance be shown by the fact that the Native American Hopi language has different words for drinking water in a container and water as a natural element in lakes or in the form of rain, indicating the different value of water ascribed by native people in contrast to, for instance, more civilized European people. Some scholars hold the even stronger view that language produces our perception of the world. As a consequence, the language of our community affects our thoughts to the extent that our idea of ‘reality’ is restricted to and built upon the linguistics forms available. Thus, if a language community has a preformed way of expressing a certain phenomenon, it can be assumed that this concept is a part of their knowledge about the world. (Mills 1995:83p.) Applying this theory to the gender-neutral language controversy, two conclusions can be drawn: First, if gender-bias in the English language was a provable fact, it would be both, a clue for still existing, and a reinforcing aspect of gender inequality in society. Second, this inequality could only be abolished, or at least be reduced by revising the English language and transforming it into a more gender-neutral one itself.

Consequently, at this point a question concerning the precondition for further investigation on the gender-neutral language question has to be answered, that is, whether the debate is really important regarding the English language. In terms of gender, English is generally believed to have only very few references in it. In comparison to the majority of other Indo-European languages, gender in English is a weak linguistic category today. (Cf. Thüne 2006:62p.) In order to understand the still existing gender-bias in English, the largest gender shift in the history of English, which transformed the initially grammatical to natural gender, has to be examined (Cf. Curzan 2003:2). Old English had grammatical gender categories very similar to those of its ‘sister’ language German with the three grammatical genders male, female and neuter. In grammatical gender systems, like for instance those of German or French, the terms of these three grammatical genders are confusing, because the categories only serve to divide the nouns into formal classes which are used as the basis for agreement with other elements in the sentence (e.g., adjectives, pronouns, verbs). In other words, within these systems, there is no link between grammatical gender and biological sex, and no possibility to explain why a word like table in French is feminine and necklace is masculine, based on the features of the referents. (Cf. Curzan 2003:11f.) With its natural gender system, English is an exception among the world’s languages (Curzan 2003:11.). In contrast to its Indo-European ancestors, it is clearly based on semantic features (Curzan 2003:19). By the Middle English period English had lost nominal and adnominal inflectional endings, and had become a pronominal gender system with the pronouns he, she and it being the only grammatical forms to retain the gender system, and the relative pronouns who and which to only distinguish between animate and inanimate (Cf. Curzan 2003:20). Semantically, gender in the English language is a clear category which only affects a restricted class of personal nouns, like wife vs. husband. The gender of these nouns is not marked with gender-specific suffixes, but their rather female or male specific aspect is included within their semantic properties. Consequently, either the “she” or “he” anaphoric pronoun is added. Nouns with lexicalised gender, by contrast, are few, and in most cases refer to people. (Cf. Thüne 2006:62p.)

Even though many speakers and scholars have pointed out the apparent simplicity of the English gender system, those who have attempted to explain the system in detail have been astonished by its actual complexity. As for instance Erades puts it: “[T]he gender of English nouns, far from being simple and clear, is complicated and obscure, and the principles underlying it are baffling and elusive, no less, and perhaps even more so, than in other languages” (quoted in Curzan 2003:20). His statement may seem unfounded, given the fact that the pronominal gender of most nouns in Modern English corresponds to the distinctions of the ‘real’ biological sex of the referents, and most of inanimate objects are referred to by “it”. Nevertheless, there do of course exist exceptions. On the one hand, there are generally acknowledged exceptions, like for example the ascription of the feminine pronoun to ships or countries in poetry. On the other hand, there are exceptions, which are not so clear-cut. These are called ‘emotive reference” by linguists, and are attributed to the psychological and sociological attitude of the speaker toward the referent and the attributes of the referent (e.g. the use of “he” for a dog). (Cf. Curzan 2003:20p.) In cases where the referent is not clear or irrelevant, English speakers are consistently inconsistent in their choice of gendered pronouns. Contemporary sociolinguistic research has shown that speech patterns within communities are often systematic and give information about extralinguistic factors. This fact is especially important referring to the emotive ascription of pronouns (Curzan 2003:23). Applied to the topic of gender bias in the English language, conforming with Thüne’s statement that “whenever there are variants, the choice has sociolinguistic relevance and implications (Thüne 2006:63),” this suggestion implies that the use of pronouns reflects the general conviction of (a part of) society. It is because of its natural gender system and its dependence on the speaker’s attitude towards a referent that gender bias in English is persistent and pervasive, and therefore of great social relevance (Cf. Thüne2006:62p). In the following, gender bias on several linguistic levels of English will be pointed out, and according gender-neutral alternatives will be demonstrated.

On a grammatical level, generic forms have to be examined. These are gender-specific forms of the language which are used in cases in which the sex of the referent(s) is not clear. Many feminists are convinced however, that such forms convey the sense of the male being a universal norm and the female being an individual deviant from this norm. Within these forms, the masculine is an unmarked, and the feminine a marked term. Probably the most known example for sexist language, is the use of the generic pronoun he. The traditional legitimating for using it is that his or he in such cases is not sex-specifically, but generically. As an example shall serve the sentence: “When a student has finished his termpaper, he can send it to the professor” (although the pronoun in the example grammatically refers to a singular male student, they should be taken to include both, male and female authors in general). Research has shown that generic pronouns are actually not being received as also including females. In a research experiment in the course of which students were asked to complete fragmentary stories which contained the generic pronoun he, the majority completed the stories with the use of “he” as a specific pronoun or with a male named character. Thus, the tendency of most readers is to imagine a male when reading he or man, even if the rest of the passage is gender-neutral. (Mills 1995:87). To avoid the ambiguous meaning of seemingly generic pronouns, there is a set of possible strategies. The most convenient choice is to use the plural noun instead of the generic noun: “When students have finished their termpapers, they can send them to the professor”. A second option is to use s/he: “When a student has finished his/her termpaper, s/he can send it to the professor”. This option is suitable rather for single sentences than for repeated use throughout a text. Another way, which obviates the need for a personal pronoun at all, is to passivise the sentence: “When termpapers have been finished, they should be send to the professor”. (Cf. Mills 1995:96). That generic forms are not only often interpreted in a wrong way, but also used inappropriately, can be seen at various examples, such as an advertisement for Lufthansa stating: “What does today’s business traveller expect of his airline?” Reading the slogan, one would expect that both, male and female business travellers, are being addressed. Actually, the accompanying picture disambiguates the text as it illustrates an aeroplane full of male business travellers. The only female participant who can be detected, is the air-hostess serving them. This advertisement demonstrates the use of a supposedly generic pronoun which is instead being used in a way which can only be interpreted as gender-specific. In Addition, gender-specific pronouns are often used in discriminatory ways to relate to people working in a gender-stereotypical profession. Thus, scientists, professors and engineers are necessarily classified as being males, and nurses, secretaries, and librarians as being female. (Cf. Mills 1995:88) As a consequence, women may for example not feel addressed and demotivated when, in a job advertisement, the prospectively employed technician is referred to as he. An evidence for this assumption is that sex-unbiased job advertisements have been found to encourage more high-school females to apply for male-related jobs (Cf. Mills 2006:85).


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Gender-Neutral Language Reform. Necessary Process, or Mere Demand of Hypersensitive Feminists?
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für englische Philologie)
Linguistic Theory and the Grammar of English
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gender-neutral, language, reform, necessary, process, mere, demand, hypersensitive, feminists
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Juliane Amthor (Author), 2012, Gender-Neutral Language Reform. Necessary Process, or Mere Demand of Hypersensitive Feminists?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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