Hu(man)ity? Part I: Gender Neutral Language

Many have heard already that there is a movement to change the English language to include more “gender neutral” terms. Basically, “gender neutral” terms are words that seek to omit any reference to the male sex in them, the reason being it excludes women and is sexist. Examples of this new trend are instead of saying words like mailman, fireman, policeman, etc… one must now say “mail carrier”, “firefighter”, or “police personnel”. Even the word “freshman” is now banned in some colleges, with the new politically correct term being “first year student”. Notably, sophomores, juniors and seniors are exempt from this politically correct tirade! On its surface, the movement to be more inclusive by using gender neutral language seem like a step forward for acknowledging the other half of humanity, but in reality, it only serves as an inconsequential and quite absurd issue.

The crux of the matter rests on the assumption that our Western Culture, and other cultures around the world are deeply patriarchal and do not view women with the full personhood of men. The male sex is the default for “humanness” or personhood, and women are excluded for being full persons. A sub section of this wider concern brought up in most everyday uses of the “gender neutral” movement is that unlike in the past, women are entering more parts of public life and the workforce, so it is outdated to refer to people in various professions as “men”. While this seems like a big deal, it is really inconsequential in the grand scheme of women’s issues. Firstly, it was historically the case that the overwhelming majority of people such as policemen, firemen, businessmen and such were indeed men, hence the term. Since women have entered these professions much more recently, it is not unreasonable that such terms are a holdover from when it was men exclusively. While many may argue that it is just as easy to change the terms to reflect a more current reality, it is unrealistic for everyone to just stop and drop using terminology they grew up using their entire lives.

Another argument is also that if one is talking about a female person in any of these roles, terms like policewoman, businesswoman, etc… do exist. Not to mention, in other languages, like Spanish and German, terms for male and female professionals are the norm, even to the extent that we do not have in English. Masculine and feminine endings exist in many languages and both are used in contexts that we do not have, such as addressing people, introducing yourself to people, even describing people! Examples include the word for “farmer” in German (Der Bauer vs. Die Bäuerin), which do not make that gendered distinction in English, and to describe a hardworking man in Spanish one would say he is trabajador, but for a woman, she is trabajadora. In some languages including Arabic, one uses different masculine or feminine endings on words used to ask people things like their name or “how are you?” for examples, depending on gender or even for talking about yourself if you are a man or woman!

An Arabic example:

How are you? m – (kayfa ḥālak) كيف حالك؟
f – (kayfa ḥālik) كيف حالك؟
Reply to ‘How are you?’ أنا بخير شكرا و أنت؟
m – (Ana bekhair, shukran! Wa ant?)
أنا بخير شكرا و أنت؟
f – (Ana bekhair, shukran! Wa anti?)

An Ancient Greek example:

I’m … years old Ἔτεα … γεγονώς (Étea … gegonōs) – m
Ἔτεα … γεγονυῖα (Étea … gegonuía) – f

It is clear from many many languages around the world, the female sex is represented and acknowledged in language alongside the male sex to an extreme extent, compared to English! “Man” is clearly not the default linguistically for many peoples! Perhaps some of the claims that the male sex is the inherent default state is a bias for English speakers whose language is highly simplified grammatically compared to other languages, and do not use heavily gendered language. Maybe English speakers view being male as more prominent judging from language alone, but that would mean everyone else is far more aware of the other half of humanity, which I disagree with in that English speakers aren’t.

Another prominent example of how the “gender neutral” movement has gotten more ground is in academia. The word “man” in the more general sense of “humanity” is not banned or heavily discouraged in scholarly works. Again, the argument against it is that it is sexist and excludes women being considered too, but this does not hold up. A traditional definition for “man” is a human of the male sex, and for humanity as a whole. “One small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind” shows these two distinctions: it was literally a small step for a man to go onto the moon but it was a great “leap” for the knowledge and achievements of humanity as a species.

The word “man” has many a time been used clearly in the context of meaning humans as a whole, not just males specifically. Many argue that this is reflective of a patriarchal view for men being more “human”, and that when one says “man’ in that context, they are really thinking only of what men think, do or experience. However, one cannot prove that simply by using “man”, or by extension, “he” as the default pronoun. Stylistically, alternating “he” and “she” or “s/he”, “he/she” and “they” in the singular can be very confusing! Just because it is the traditional habit of choosing “he”, it is too far a projection to say it was done with sexist intent or implications. One could easily write “she”, but it is simply the stylistic convention to use “he”. Nothing more, nothing less. Not to mention, the words “humanity”, and “humankind” still contain the word “man” in them! One could just as easily argue these terms are built around the word “man” as a stem, even the words “human” and “woman“! Therefore, they are sexist and unacceptable too! Some feminists have indeed altered the spelling of “woman” to “womyn” just to get rid of the word “man” in it! At least this level of ridiculousness has not yet reached mainstream academia or the mainstream media, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did! We already have gender neutral pronouns!

I find this whole “gender neutral” movement, banning the word “man’ to mean humanity, or forced usage of gender neutral words for different occupations to be ultimately illogical and inconsequential. Women face much more concrete issues than whether or not some academic uses the word “man” in their journal article or philosophical treatise or someone says the word “policemen” or describe the police force as a whole for an example! The fact that these terms were traditionally used, and reflect a different era does not make them detrimental to women any more than any other historical cultural holdovers we have from our past! The reason why we call boats “she” comes from Old English, when we had grammatical genders. Do we need to call boats “she” anymore? No. We can change it to reflect our current situation today, but it is a harmless holdover from a bygone era. Same with using the word “man” as in humanity, or talk of people in certain jobs with the suffix “-men”, without implying that women are not in the human race, or in the workforce. People who use such terminology have no hidden sexist or patriarchal agenda, they are simply speaking to people who should intuitively know they mean both men and women. English simply does not have that distinction in its grammar like other languages. To me, the whole issue is mainly another case of politically correct censorship and newspeak tying to force its own agenda by controlling how we express ourselves linguistically. Overall, this issue I argue, should be blamed on English’s lack of gendered grammar, not on the inherent sexism of “man” 😉

Related image
A “gender neutral” being conceived by the comic play write Aristophanes. The story he wrote said that men and women were once one creature, who must now find their “other half”.

9 thoughts on “Hu(man)ity? Part I: Gender Neutral Language

  1. Just a note: your caption under the “gender neutral” graphic has a typo; it’s “playwright” not “play writer”. I suspect an auto-correct malfunction. Nice essay!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hope they never ban the word “fisherman”, as I’d personally take offence on behalf of the lead singer of this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4I8ywFV2818 . As it’s customary to take offence by proxy nowadays anyway. And yes, I happened to be listening to that particular song, by an eerie coincidence. And knowing he was a fisherman by trade, it just popped into my head. I hope “fisher-person” never becomes necessary.

    The word “man”, so disputed and questioned nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You hit it right once again , as the highly visible woman’s movement pushes hard for sweeping language change regarding how they are addressed, real issues of woman’s suffering worldwide takes a distant back seat. This both in media exposure and in the financial backing needed to support everything from law enforcement to changing flawed laws that those who exploit can avail themselves of time after time, victim after victim.

    You called this precisely with your presentation of the facts. Women are in dire , desperate need of help from all types of real , violent abuse and exploration yet the majority of our media choose to move heaven and earth to support the woman’s movement in re-inventing the English language . Yes, some terms become outmoded as society changes, I certainly understand the need for it. Huge money is being spent on all of this, where it needs to be spent of changing the laws and infrastructure as it relates to protecting women in real need.

    Yours is a clear , honest and factual voice in an all encompassing sea of inconsequential protests. Stay with it, balanced, sensible people need your voice.

    The Common man

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve long thought that English must be the least sexist of all languages as inanimate objects are neuter (as they should be), except when sometimes used poetically, eg a boat being referred to as ‘she’. The gender neutrality of English is I believe one significant reason why native English speakers struggle with other languages. As it is, ‘firefighter’ and ‘police officer’ are so common no-one would think about them; and in Britain the person who delivers your mail is the ‘postie’ (a slang term that Aussies use as well). The ‘wimmin’ or ‘womyn’ spelling is so ludicrous that even most feminists have abandoned it, with ‘wimmin’ being more common in the 1980’s than now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard that argument about gendered languages being sexist due to separating gender, but in this context I believe that they are actually not sexist in that they acknowledge the female gender far more than in English while English does not make as many gendered distinctions when talking about males and females. Radical feminists are arguing that English uses “man” as the default, whereas it’s not the case in many other languages.

      Like

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