Monday, 10 October 2011

My landlord the landlady – A comedy of errors

I'm moving house and the entailed linguistic treatment of my current and future landlord brought to my attention our legal language and its apparent universality. Although my landlords’ sex clearly makes them landlords and not landladies I have to call them ‘landlady’ and sign contracts naming ‘he’ as ‘she’. To my dismay, the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition clearly states: a ‘landlady’ is “a woman (in legal use also a man) who rents out land, a building, or accommodation” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011*) – making each landlord, on paper at least, a landlady.

Despite the 1987 UNESCO “Guide to Non-Sexist Language” urging that: “owner, proprietor” should be employed instead of ‘landlady’ (UNESCO 1987/1999, 6*), my 2010 contract further says: “[t]he Landlady confirms that the information provided to the Agent and the Tenant is accurate to the best of her knowledge and belief” (Ginger Lettings 2010*). But it is not just that it makes me sad that my landlords are linguistically nowhere to be seen, I also find it hard to picture them beyond language – and to do them some justice in an unjust world, I try to replace in my mind at least every ‘she’ with ‘he’.

However, when ‘landlord’ passes my lips on the phone to the lettings agency, the (male*) agent is quick to have my language corrected: “it’s not the landlord, it’s the landlady”. And as we both sigh, he* at my linguistic inadequacy, and me at the unsuccessful quest for acknowledging my landlord for being a landlord and not a ‘landlady’, I turn to the UNESCO report for the moral of the story: “language does not merely reflect the way we think: it also shapes our thinking” (UNESCO 1987/1999, 4). So if we refuse to acknowledge both sexes equally, we continue to give one sex rule over the land, on paper and in life, for all eternity.

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*Grammatical gender reversed.

Ginger Lettings. 2010. Certificate of Prescribed Information. London.

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