Thursday, 10 November 2011

Can language be gender-neutral?

Due to its generally gender-free grammatical system the English language is often considered to be gender-neutral. While languages such as German seem burdened by the connotations of grammatical gender, as the predominant use of the masculine for nouns concerning the human shows, i.e. der Wissenschaftler, der Philosoph, der Religionsf├╝hrer, der Politiker, English appears to offer its speakers an egalitarian alternative: gender-free linguistic universals, i.e. the scientist, the philosopher, the religious leader, the politician. But the question has to be: can language really be gender-neutral?

Looking back over the past 2000 years, society has generally favoured one sex over the other. And due to its favoured position, this one sex was able to excel in public life, that is, science, philosophy, religion and politics, which in turn justified its preference to begin with. This neat circular logic obscured the arbitrary favouring of man over woman and solidified the worldview that man was indeed the ultimate human. However, this (patriarchal) concept would have hardly stood the test of time if it was not passed on from one generation to the next. And how was this concept (predominatly) passed on? In language.

As the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray states: “[i]t has always been men who spoke and, above all, wrote: in science, philosophy, religion, politics” (Irigaray 1993, 121), meaning that it was mainly men who passed on their thoughts and achievements in language, rather than women. Women, as far as public life was concerned, were (almost) nowhere to be seen, and as they were nowhere to be seen in public reality, they will have had an equally limited presence in public language. Terms such as scientist, philosopher, religious leader and politician would have therefore spoken of/to man and not woman.

But what does this have to do with language, or more specifically the English language, today? Do women not have a growing presence in science, philosophy, religion, politics? Are they therefore not challenging the previous understanding of reality? And if they are challenging reality, of what consequence is language? In short, why does it matter if we use terms of the past, terms predominantly associated with man, when our actions allow women to finally be fully human?

Let me try to illustrate my point with the help of some example sentences. ‘The scientist makes a ground-breaking discovery’; ‘The philosopher mulls over the meaning of life’; ‘The religious leader preaches tolerance’ and ‘The politician argues for increased income taxes’. What I am wondering is this: do these sentences make me think more of man, or of woman, or, if the above nouns really were gender-neutral, of equally woman and man? And what consequences might my answers have for woman?

Historically, the above sentences would have led me to picture man rather than woman. However, not just history evokes his image in my mind, present-day statistics tell a disturbingly similar story: “[w]omen represent 15.5 per cent of SET [science, engineering and technology] professionals in the UK” (UKRC 2011), “[t]he proportion of permanent post-holders in UK philosophy departments who are women stands at roughly 24%” (BPA 2011), “women remain under-represented in senior posts (fewer than 10% of ‘dignitaries’), as leaders of larger churches (4 out of 160), and as area/rural deans” (CPAS 2011) and  only 144 out of 650 MPs, roughly 22%, are women (UK Parliament 2011).

So if man was, and still is, predominantly tied to (apparently) universal terms concerning the human, (how) can language be gender-neutral? And if it cannot, what does the conceptual weight of man mean for woman?

As we historically and statistically expect to encounter men rather than women when faced with a gender-neutral term, we might, on the one hand, be surprised to encounter female scientists, philosophers, religious leaders and politicians, meaning that women continue to be the exception rather than the rule in public life and therefore, conceptually, deprived of their full participation in humanity. But even more worryingly, on the other, the linguistic invisibility of women’s achievement today might continue to hamper the imagination of women tomorrow. After all, if we continue to associate the public sphere with (predominantly) man, which place will woman, and man, see for woman?

While gender-neutrality is certainly an attractive concept, I would argue that, due to the weight of history, it continues to work against the full development of women’s potential. If we have no linguistic way of recognising women who excel in science, philosophy, religion and politics, how can we picture these women, today and tomorrow, conceptually? Do we not, at best, allow them to disappear in the shadow of man, and at worst, disallow the acknowledgment of their existence as women, that is, an equal part of humanity? By failing to revise the language of the past, do we not block the conceptual road to a different future?

As the feminist linguist Dale Spender argues: “[f]or women to become visible; it is necessary that they become linguistically visible” (Spender 2001, 162), that is, we need to be able to linguistically recognise them to imagine their existence beyond (their traditionally prescribed roles). Just as the concept of male supremacy was passed on in language, we need to ensure that it conveys women’s equality to generations to come. While the English language might escape the trappings of grammatical gender, the hidden conceptual workings of language make it no less problematic for women’s place in language, and therefore reality. The bottom line is: as long as gender continues to play such a central role conceptually, linguistic gender-neutrality will remain a dangerous illusion.


Irigaray, Luce. 1993. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. London: The Athlone Press.

Spender, Dale. 2001. Man Made Language. London: Pandora Press.

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