The Case For Ungendered Language


JOURNAL / Culture

October 2020

Journal / Living

Issue 01

Languages shape the way we think. Languages are also arbitrary and culturally produced. The implications of these two statements said together are enormous. Changing our language can change our culture. To craft an equal, inclusive and enabled world, we can start by un-gendering our language.

One-quarter of the 7000+ world languages use gendered grammatical systems. In gendered systems, all nouns are arbitrarily assigned genders. Often these are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and the assigned gender varies across languages. For example, the sun is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. The reverse is true for the moon, which is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish.

A leading contributor to this school of thought (linguistic relativity), Lera Boroditsky, conducted numerous studies to understand how this arbitrary association of gender with words affects the way people perceive objects. One study by Boroditsky and colleagues tested native speakers of German and Spanish by asking them to describe (in English) the first three adjectives that came to mind for 24 different objects. Each of the 24 objects had opposite genders between the languages, as in the sun/moon example above.

The study found, in general, that participants described objects as more stereotypically masculine if the word for the object was gendered masculine in their language, and vice versa. When asked to describe a key (noun, e.g. a door key), german speakers whose language classifies a key as masculine, were more likely to associate it with adjectives such as “hard”, “heavy” and “jagged”. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, who classify a key as feminine were more likely to describe a key as “intricate”, “golden” and “little”. If this seems like a trivial difference, consider the implications on wellbeing from our language reinforcing binary gender stereotypes every, single, day.

There are many arguments against the use of gendered grammatical systems. One of particular significance, conducted in 2012 by Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell and Laakso examined whether the presence of gendered language classification systems within a given country had the potential to predict overall levels of gender equality in that country. They found a strong positive correlation between countries that speak gendered languages and lower rates of gender equality. That is, countries with gendered languages have less gender equality.

In fact, the only argument for gendered grammatical systems is that they can assist to clear up ambiguities and speed up the recognition of words by a small fraction. That’s a tiny price to pay for a more inclusive, equal and enabled word.

In the English language, we don’t have gendered grammar. But our pronouns are limited to ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’. The former two imply genders that we know are not representative of our entire community. The latter, referring to someone as ‘it’, is dehumanising. Because of this and other limitations, we often make binary assumptions about other people’s genders. These assumptions send potentially harmful messages about the ways we are supposed to appear or act because of our gender.

We all desire and deserve to feel a sense of belonging. Embracing an expanded list of genders in our language means that every one of us has the opportunity to experience the empowering feeling that comes from finding a definition that accurately describes how we feel. Using the correct pronoun to describe someone else is a way to respect them and recognise their rights. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s “red” hair is her “lifelong sorrow”. When Anne’s neighbour described Anne’s hair as “a real handsome auburn,” her outlook changes.

Language – it shapes the way we think, perceive and notice aspects of our world.