Some more things you always wanted to know about gender-inclusive language (but were afraid to ask). Part II


Recently the Dutch language advisory body Taalunie has published guidelines for gender-inclusive language. The guidelines, on which language and gender experts worked for two years, are presented as a recommendation for language users, not as a prescription. This caution is very understandable. Gender-inclusive language is one of the most polarizing topics nowadays. For some people, it is a foolish and annoying invention of the radical left, and for others it is a token of being progressive. At the same time, in the storm of opinions it can be difficult to find thoughtful and evidence-based discussions of gender-inclusive language. In my previous post, I discussed empirical evidence for male bias in human languages and why it leads to exclusion of people of other genders. Still, there remain quite a few questions.

Gender-inclusive language is a modern invention, ruining our ancient and beautiful language. Isn’t that a problem?

True, some gender-inclusive forms are artificially constructed and look exotic, like the German forms StudentInnen or Student*innen representing students of all genders, but this is not always the case. Last time I briefly mentioned the singular use of “they” to refer to one person, and the fact that it was used already in the 14th century, if not earlier. The gender-inclusive forms “he or she” are not a recent invention, either. Take a text fragment, “…every Person is thereby required… to deliver a Declaration in Writing, signed by him or her, declaring in what Place he or she is chargeable, and whether he or she is engaged in Trade or Manufacture…” Sounds gender-inclusive, doesn’t it? In fact, it dates back to the early 19th century (Statutes of the United Kingdom, 1801-1803). The use of “generic” he/him was not enforced legally until 1850, when the English Parliament passed “An Act for shortening of the language used in the Acts of Parliament”. The Act ordered, “in all acts words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females”, unless expressly indicated otherwise. So, you see, gender-inclusive language is not always artificially constructed. It could have been used before more biased forms appeared as the result of a later tempering with language.

Supporters of gender-inclusive language try to change language by decree. But language develops independently of our wishes. Doesn’t that mean that all these efforts are futile?

Indeed, most language changes happen very slowly and without anyone’s conscious control. Nobody told speakers of Middle English that they should drop their case endings and put the verb in the middle of the sentence. But this does not mean that language cannot change from above. The crucial thing is that society needs to be ready for and welcome the change. For example, 50 years ago there was a public debate in Germany about the use of the word Fräulein to refer to an unmarried woman (see this article in the German newspaper Die Welt). In 1972, the government issued a decree, establishing that all adult women were to be addressed as Frau. As a result, Fräulein has almost disappeared. Nowadays it is used only humorously. This change was successful because it was welcomed by most women (and many men). After all, if there is no masculine counterpart Herrlein, why should there be Fräulein? But this kind of change is only possible when language users support this change and find it necessary. Crucially, if the younger generation accepts gender-inclusive language, it has a good chance of being anchored in the system.

Some studies suggest that promoting gender-equal language leads to a more gender-inclusive perception of language. For example, the Spanish government issued some recommendations for a non-sexist language in 1988. They proposed using either gender-neutral (e.g., el alumnado ‘the student body’) or dual forms (e.g., los alumnos y alumnas ‘the students [masc.] and students [fem.]’) in order to avoid the masculine forms (e.g., los alumnos ‘the students [masc.]’). In a longitudinal study, Uwe K. Nissen (2013) asked people to fill in some proper names after masculine plural forms like los alumnos. The survey was carried out twice, in 1995 and ten years later, in 2005. While in 1995 57.9% of the masculine plural forms were interpreted as masculine, in 2005 this bias almost disappeared, with only 50.5% of the forms interpreted as masculine. According to Nissen, an increase in use of explicit feminine forms leads, overall, to greater visibility of women across different forms. We need more studies of this kind and in different languages to see how well language policies and recommendations actually work.

There still remain quite a few more questions about gender-inclusive language. For example, are gender-symmetric forms like he or she better than gender-neutral forms like they? Does gender-inclusive language help the society to become more equal? Let’s talk about this next time!

Writer: Natalia Levshina
Editor: Franziska Schulz
Dutch translation: Caitlin Decuyper
German translation: Franziska Schulz
Final editing: Sophie Slaats