In the globalised, 21st century world, traditional language barriers have all but lost their significance and digital advancements have made communication easier than ever. So now we can have a dialogue, it’s time to break down the repressive lexical and semantic walls erected by our ancestors that form the gendered language barrier and to make way for language reform. For the sake of argument, reform in this article refers not only to official lexical and grammatical modifications but also to individual, grassroots changes in vocabulary for the acceptance and inclusion of oppressed groups.
It’s widely acknowledged that gendered language has been used to oppress women and other subjugated groups throughout history. Even now, sexist, queerphobic and racist language pervades our everyday speech, often escaping our notice.
Sure, great strides have been made in altering derogatory and exclusionary language in line with feminist, queer and civil rights movements across the world in the past century. The generic masculine pronoun has largely been replaced by ‘he or she’ and the gender-neutral ‘they’ in academia as well as in informal conversation (the American Dialect Society chose the singular ‘they’ as its Word of the Year 2015).
Even now, sexist, queerphobic and racist language pervades our everyday speech, often escaping our notice.
Also in 2015, amongst the increased profile of trans* celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, the word ‘cisgender’, referring to “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex”, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. This marked a historic moment in the separation of gender, a self-identifier and performative act, and biological sex, the categories into which humans are divided based on their reproductive functions.
Despite this encouraging progress, gendered language still has a tendency to produce an unbalanced binary that favours men, particularly in discussions of hierarchy and power. To take an example, occupational terminology traditionally refers to women as ‘stewardesses’ and ‘actresses’. Some feminist reformers call for the gender-neutralisation of these and similar terms as to avoid the feminine suffix as an appendage to the traditional job title (‘flight attendants’ and ‘actors’ would be the ‘neutral’ alternatives, respectively) and to be inclusive of other (non-binary) genders.
Conversely, other feminist campaigners prefer gender-specification or feminisation of job titles (i.e. encouraging the continued usage of feminine titles, but with more positive connotations) to ensure the visibility of women in language. To promote intersectionality, gender-neutral terminology is usually preferable but this becomes problematic when the neutrality defers to the gendered, often-masculine term (e.g. policeman). However, as already seen with given example, valid alternatives can usually replace the traditional terminology (spellcheck is suggesting I change it to ‘police officer’ as I type this (yay!)).
These linguistic fine points become even more complex in grammatical-gender languages, though. In German, feminist language debate is centred on how to use gender with proper nouns. For example, should a woman athlete be referred to as ‘die Sportlerin’ (using the feminine suffix –in), ‘die Sportler’ or the neuter ‘das Sportler’? In Spanish-speaking countries, some reformers have opted for the @ sign as an innovative gender-neutral alternative to the –o and –a suffixes (e.g. ‘l@s niñ@s’ for ‘the children’). These seemingly-pedantic considerations can effect linguistic changes that promote inclusivity of oppressed groups whilst tackling (cis)sexist language.
an intersectional approach is the only method that can liberate everyone from self-destructive stereotypes and expectations. . . .
Kyriarchy (a neologism acknowledging the intersections of sexism, racism, queerphobia and other forms of oppression) tarnishes our language still and fosters damaging stereotypes. Whether it be through the stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Woman‘ or the pigeonholing of lesbian women and gay men as ‘butch‘ and ‘camp’, these suppositions highlight our narrow perspectives on gender and serve as a reminder of the need for an intersectional approach to language reform.
Of course, there are those who protest proposals for feminist language reform. In the depths of Twitter lie staunch meninist groups who declare that free speech has been violated by ‘political correctness’ when feminists try to redress the imbalance of gendered language. What these trolls fail to notice is the societal inequality to which our everyday language contributes (such as the feminine honorifics Miss and Mrs, which indicate marital status) and that slight alterations (like using Ms or the gender-neutral Mx instead) represent huge steps towards gender equality. Moreover, the pressure for men to fit traditional cis- and heteronormative conceptions of masculinity can harm their mental health and undoubtedly plays a part in the high suicide rates of men in the UK.
The reform of gendered language is vital in tackling kyriarchal structures in our society. However, an intersectional approach is the only method that can liberate everyone from the self-destructive stereotypes and expectations that are placed upon all of us from childhood. Language reform, naturally, is a gradual process but the acknowledgement and implementation of inclusive terminology in our everyday speech can help us, finally, to dismantle the gendered language barrier.