Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Man, the gender-neutral?

“What a fine example of a man(1) you are”, said the fisherman(2) to the chairman(3), “no wonder they put you in charge!” The tradesman(4) agreed by slamming his fist into his other hand whilst the henchman(5) added with calculated flattery: “who knows”, he(6) said, “maybe one day you’ll even be a statesman(7)”.
The chairman listened with only the slightest glimmer of pride crossing his face before he waved them off diplomatically: “we’ll see”, he said, “but first of all there’s a job to be done”. And with that he squatted down in their midst and gave birth to his first son(8).

(1) “a human being of either sex” (OD 2012)
(2) “a person who catches fish” (OD 2012)
(3) “a person chosen to preside over a meeting” (OD 2012)
(4) “a person engaged in trading” (OD 2012)
(5) “a faithful follower or political supporter” (OD 2012)
(6) “a person or animal of unspecified sex” (OD 2012)
(7) “a skilled, experienced, and respected political leader” (OD 2012)
(8) “a boy” (OD 2012)

Whatever the definitions of ‘man’ and his pronoun might tell us, to what extent can men ever be gender-neutral, that is, fully represent the whole of humanity? If we no longer agree with the patriarchal concept that only to be a man means to be fully human – with women’s only place as his deviation – isn’t it about time we finally said so in language? And in no uncertain terms at that?


  1. YES! It is past that time. I just came back from Sweden and even though it is one of the most advanced countries in the world for gender issues, I couldn't help but be disappointed at their use of "man" in the indefinitive form of sentences: the sentence "one can do it" meaning "it can be done" (which can also be "we can do it" or in other languages "on peut le faire" "lo puede hacer" "si puo' fare") in Swedish is "man kan göra det"

    So if you want to speak in general in Swedish, all you can say is "man does this" and "man does that".

    I think this is awful and it's the real problem of the Swedish language, much worse than the pronoun distinction between hon (she) and han (he) which they are trying to replace with the neutral "hen".

  2. It's the same in German, it also uses 'man' as the 'gender-neutral' pronoun. Feminists have suggested the use of 'frau' (woman) or 'mensch' (human) instead but it hasn't really caught on.

    As German is my mother tongue, I really struggle with this whenever I talk to my friends or my mum. This makes me think, what kind of a 'mother tongue' is a language that categorically silences women?

  3. Exactly! If I were Swedish I would suggest a new word, something inbetween man and kvinna (woman in swedish) to use in the general form. Something like "kvan". Of course it would take time to catch on, but if the government is serious about this it can help making it reality eventually. "Kvan kan göra det" may sound hilarious at first, but once you start seeing it in official documents and you see the authorities use it, you will start using it. Kvan kommer att använda det! ;)