Happy 100th birthday to the Women’s institute (gendered language in English)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the WI (Women’s Institute)  in the UK. This very stereotypically British organisation was actually originally founded in Stoney Creek Ontario in 1897.

Our local branch is just outside the Historic Roman and Saxon cities of Winchester.

WI House from Google Streetview

In Honour of the centenary let’s look at gender in the English Language.

English is less inflectional and less gendered than many other European languages. However, there are some areas where English is still quite gendered and one area is our pronouns.

He/She/It (the 3rd Person):

It’s annoying when students assume that because someone is an academic, and a professor that they are male. Especially as more and more women are staying in academia longer and more successfully. Keep in mind that the only person to ever win two Nobel prizes in different fields was Marie Skłodowska Curie.  So claims that “language hasn’t caught up yet” and “it’s only a recent phenomenon” are hollow and puerile.

There remains some debate about how to talk about lone (or hypothetical) individuals of neutral or neither gender. Using “he” is problematic because the person may or may not be a “he”. Statistically speaking in the UK despite the fact that slightly more male children are born than female this indefinite person is more likely to be female.  Using “she” is just as problematic. Historically, there was a bias towards using “he” but switching to “she” is overcompensating and when traditionally masculinity, roles, and identity are undergoing changes already this could only worsen the impact for many.

If you find “(s)he”, “she or he”, and “he/she” or my personal bête noir “it” awkward, clumsy and generally lacking in style and flair. You wouldn’t be alone. There have been numerous attempts to insert a gender neutral third person singular pronoun into English. The fact that there have been so many attempts should tell you something; they failed. Whether it is “X” “Xe” (incidentally this would be pronounced ‘she’ by speakers of some languages) “ ‘e” or even the Greek letter sigma “∑”. None of them were widely adopted, remained persistent within certain groups, or even consistently applied within the originating academic disciplines and/or schools of thought.

The problem is inventing a new word isn’t easy. Inventing a new word in a closed syntactic category is next to impossible. One thing all the examples above lack is pronounceability. A novel word needs to be pronounceable or it won’t catch on. Another is that English already has words which (in almost all situations) meet this need. What is this magical expression you ask “they”. Yes traditionally they and there are associated with plural 3rd person usage. But, English would not be alone in using a plural for a singular in certain situations. Additionally, this use is already fairly widespread and in most situations does not introduce any ambiguity.

Consider this sentence. “Sam said they’re still coming this morning but they’d be late; they have to drop their children off at school.” We don’t know in this case whether Sam is short for Samantha or Samuel (or perhaps just Sam. But, we do know who “they” and “their” refers to.

Women’s / Men’s magazines:

The glossy press is one area where gendering is still particularly strong. But, both the terms “men’s magazine” and “women’s magazine” are quite dismissive. Perhaps this is because they are being defined by their target audience and assumptions about them as a group rather than their content.

Chairperson:

We’ve probably all heard the joke that “90% of chair people are women” the punch line is that “it’s still only 10% of chairmen that are chairpersons”. Chairperson is one of the terms thought of collectively as political correctness and perhaps because of this not as widely used as it might be. In academia there was already fairly wide use of “Chair” as a role before chairperson became common. However, this remains persistent Google has 24 million hits for chairperson, and 249 million for chairman (more than 10 times as many) so we still have a lot of work to do. And that’s not all, there is still a huge pay gap.

Marginalisation through child terms:

Women are still much more likely to be called girls, than men are to be called boys. Where men are collectively referred to as boys it’s usually an affectionate closeness. While this does cover some uses of girls the term is applied much more broadly.

Personnel Access Conduit Sealing Device:

Image under creative commons from The Tire Zoo on twitr

Image under creative commons from The Tire Zoo on twitr

This is the politically correct term for what was historically referred to as a “Man Hole Cover”. So perhaps correctness can go a bit far. When nobody knows what you mean any more; you’re not using language effectively.

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2 thoughts on “Happy 100th birthday to the Women’s institute (gendered language in English)

  1. Pingback: Father | ELTSU Winchester

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