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Mind your language

hand holding english word over blur english cards on wooden table

hand holding english word over blur english cards on wooden table   | Photo Credit: Lamaip

Sexist terms are often overlooked. It is important, now more than ever, to make statements gender neutral

The language we use reveals our attitude towards different things, reflects our behaviour and influences our perception. When we substitute the word ‘language’ for ‘face’ in the proverb ‘Face is the index of the mind’, we get to know the meaning of how the words and phrases that we use in our day-to-day communication can manifest our mind to the world.

About three months ago, I had an opportunity to interact with a group of college students at a creative writing workshop. I asked them to write a one-page short story using a doctor, a nurse, a CEO of a company, a primary school teacher and an engineer as characters. Almost in everyone’s story the gender of doctor, CEO and engineer was male and that of the nurse and teacher was female. Here are examples: ‘The nurse cared for her patient.’ ‘The doctor, a gentleman, was always punctual.’

Why did the students associate certain jobs with women and certain other jobs with men, though both men and women hold positions which were once gender specific? The simple answer is that sexist language is prevalent in our culture.

The anecdote reveals our mindset. We have been conditioned to gender-stereotype certain jobs. The moment we think of a nurse, a woman in a white gown comes to our mind, and the moment someone uses the word “CEO” the picture that comes to our mind is a man in a suit. Even when we Google the term “nurse dress” pictures of female nurses are shown. It is because of gender stereotypes. Should our education system be held responsible for this?

If a student asked their teacher whether “God” is male or female, how would the teacher respond to the student’s question? If another student asked their teacher, a Christian, whether they could start the Lord’s prayer as “Our Mother in heaven...” instead of “Our Father in heaven…”, how would the teacher react to the student? (While reading this paragraph even some readers might wonder why I have used ‘their’ instead of ‘his/her’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘he/she’). If we were to write a story using ‘God’ as a character, many of us would certainly use the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to God because our mind has been conditioned to believe that God is male. We have been subjected to a sort of indoctrination and made to think that God has more masculine than feminine characters. The language we use perpetuates patriarchy.

Alternative words

Sexist language exists very much in our culture. Something sexist takes place everyday around us and many of us are not aware of it. Even those who are aware of it don’t consider it a serious issue because they think that it is something inevitable. Haven’t we heard people say, “He talks like a woman” , “legitimate rape”, “As a girl, you should behave properly”, and so on?

I hear teachers and students use sexist terms profusely, either consciously or unconsciously. Many English language textbooks, and newspaper and magazine articles abound with sexist terms. Why should we avoid sexist language? It is discriminatory language. It excludes one sex or the other, suggests one sex is superior to the other, and offends people.

Examples of sexist language are: man-made, manpower, mankind, businessman, chairman, and policeman. The non-sexist alternatives of the words listed above are: synthetic, workforce, humankind, businessperson, chairperson and police officer.

About three years ago, in an article I had used the pronoun ‘themself’ in a couple of places and sent it to a reputed publication. The person who edited the piece thought the usage was incorrect and changed the structure of a few sentences and substituted the word ‘themself’ with ‘themselves’. Later, when I checked with the person, she said apologetically that she was not aware of the existence of the word ‘themself’. I consoled her by saying that even my computer doesn’t recognise the word. The fact that ‘themself’ is used instead of ‘himself’ or ‘herself’ to refer to a person of unspecified sex is not known to many who are quite proficient in English.

It is good to avoid gender-specific pronouns and use gender neutral (gender inclusive) pronouns. Many conservative grammarians question the legitimacy of the use of singular ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’, but standard dictionaries legitimise the use of plural pronouns as substitutes for singular gender-neutral forms. Great writers have used them too such as “I shouldn’t like to punish anyone, even if they’d done me wrong.” George Eliot and “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Oscar Wilde

The University of Warwick’s Trans and Gender Reassignment Policy states that “Whenever possible, all official University correspondence should use non-gendered terminology when referring to a group of individuals or an individual of unspecified gender identity”. It further states that “instances of ‘he/she’ should be superseded by ‘they’”.

The need for celebrating diversity and inclusiveness, empowering women, ensuring equality, creating an environment of mutual respect and dignity is a call to wake up and act. Besides raising awareness among people about the negative impact of the use of sexist language on society, governments, educational institutions and media groups should come up with policy documents and guidelines on gender neutral language. All official documents in the country should use only non-sexist language. Using gender-neutral language is the first step towards achieving equality.

The writer is an academic, columnist and freelance writer. Email: rayanal@yahoo.co.uk T: @albertprayan

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 5:59:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/mind-your-language/article27183031.ece

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