Something you always wanted to know about gender-inclusive language (but were afraid to ask)

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Few other issues provoke more heated debates nowadays than attempts to make language more gender-inclusive. One controversial issue, for example, is the use of the pronoun “they” to refer to a single person, as in Everyone has a right to say what they think. Some people on social media see this use as another attempt of the “loony left” to destroy the beautiful English language with their grotesque innovations. Ironically, the accusers are unaware of the fact that the singular “they” has been used at least since the 14th century. In Germany, the debate is even more heated. People are fighting vehemently about gender-inclusive plural forms, as in Student*innen meaning “all students, regardless of gender”, or StudentInnen, or Student:innen, and so on, instead of Studenten (which is the plural of the masculine form). Some public figures go as far as calling these innovations a “rape” of the German language (see an example in the newspaper Die Welt).

What is lacking, in my view, is a rational discussion based on scientific evidence and common sense, instead of raw emotions. What is the motivation behind these innovations? How justified are they? Do they help to improve the situation of women, non-binary and trans people and minorities? In this and following blog posts, I’ll present some findings from the language sciences to shed light on these controversial issues.

What’s male bias and why is it a problem?

The problem of non-inclusive language has to do with a male bias. For instance, if the speaker wants to refer to both men and women, or doesn’t know the gender of the person he’s referring to, he will use the generic masculine pronoun, as I’m doing in this sentence for the sake of an example. If a language has pairs of feminine and masculine nouns like actor and actress, the masculine form is generically used to refer to men and women. In Portuguese, o filho is “son” and a filha is “daughter”, but the plural for “children” is os filhos (literally “the sons”). According to feminists, generic masculine forms make women and other genders invisible and imply that men are the default, prototypical human being.

Do all languages have a male bias?

Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald wrote a book on gender in language and culture, where she examined about 700 human languages. She suggests that there is enough evidence to conclude that most human languages have a male bias. A bunch of languages have a female bias, but they are relatively rare. One of them is Mohawk, a North Iroquoian language, in which feminine forms are used for generic reference (see this paper by Marianne Mithun). For example, speakers of Mohawk would say “It is time that she should unplant the corn“ to mean “It is time to harvest the corn”. That’s the opposite of what most other languages do.

The dictionary says that the masculine forms are generic, so no one is really excluded, right?

Some people argue that using “die Studenten” in German or “he” in English to talk about all people is just a convention. So what’s the problem?

It would be good if people processed language the way that dictionaries tell them to. Unfortunately, they don’t. Experiments tapping into early and subconscious language processing show that generic masculine forms are not in fact as generic as dictionaries would make us believe. In one EEG experiment, Julia Misersky and her colleagues had German native speakers read sentences containing nouns denoting roles and professions, such as Die Studenten/Die Studentinnen gingen zur Mensa, weil manche der Frauen/Männer Hunger hatten. “The students (MASCULINE)/The students (FEMININE) went to the canteen, because some of the women/men were hungry.” In some sentences, there was a gender mismatch between the nouns, for instance when “The students (MASCULINE)” was followed by “women” or “The students (FEMININE)” was followed by “men”. Misersky and colleagues found that a mismatch affected processing in both situations. To put it simply, the reader’s brain ‘stumbled’ when processing “women” after the masculine form, and “men” after the feminine form. This means that the masculine nouns which are supposed to be generic are not interpreted as truly generic, but as specific to males/men.

In another experiment, Theresa Redl and her co-authors used eye-tracking to test if Dutch speakers demonstrate a male bias in the processing of the possessive pronoun zijn meaning “his” in a sentence like Iedereen was zijn veters aan het strikken, waaronder een paar vrouwen/mannen die al tien minuten geleden hadden moeten vertrekken, maar zich hadden verslapen. “Everyone was putting on his shoes, among whom a few women/men who should have left ten minutes ago, but had overslept.”

In Dutch, the generic use of masculine pronouns is still very common, unlike in English, where it is on decline in favour of the singular “they” after decades of feminists’ efforts.The authors of this study found that men spent more time reading the sentences when “his shoes” was followed by “women”. That is, men were more biased towards the male-only interpretation. Women, in contrast, processed the pronoun generically. This difference in male and female processing has also been observed in other experiments, as shown by Henley & Abueg (2003). Women tend to perceive masculine forms as generic more often than men.

To sum up, there is indeed evidence that women and other genders are at least partly excluded by the use of these masculine forms. This happens subconsciously, which makes the bias particularly difficult to resist. Nothing is more powerful than everyday routine.

Naturally, there are more issues to discuss than one short post would allow. For example, is it possible to interfere in language use “from above”? If you make a language gender-fair, does it necessarily mean that society will also become more equal? If you want to learn more, follow our MPI TalkLing updates on social media. To be continued!

The author thanks Julia Misersky and Theresa Redl for their feedback on this article!

Further reading

  • Aikhenvald, A.Y. 2016. How Gender Shapes the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Baron, D. 1981. The epicene pronoun: The word that failed. American Speech 56: 83-97.
  • Henley, N.M. & Abueg, J. 2003. A review and synthesis of research on comprehension of the masculine as a generic form in English. Estudios de Sociolingüística 4(2): 427–454.
  • Misersky, J., Majid, A. & Snijders, T.M. Grammatical gender in German influences how role-nouns are interpreted: Evidence from ERPs. Discourse Process. 2019; 56(8): 643–654.
  • Mithun, M. 2013. Gender and culture. In Greville G. Corbett (ed.), The Expression of Gender, 131-160. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110307337.131.
  • Redl, Th., Frank, S.L., de Swart, P., de Hoop, H. 2021. The male bias of a generically-intended masculine pronoun: Evidence from eye-tracking and sentence evaluation. PLoS ONE 16(4): e0249309. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249309.
  • And a tip from the editor-in-chief: Criado Perez, C. (2019). Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. London, UK: ‎Chatto & Windus.

Writer: Natalia Levshina
Editor: Melis Cetincelik
Dutch translation: Lynn Eekhof
German translation: Franziska Schulz
Final editing: Eva Poort