In recent years, a very interesting linguistic debate has taken center stage on social media, spanning nearly every language around the world. The global conversation revolves around feminist language reform, proposing gender neutrality for languages with grammatical gender. What is gender-inclusive language and why is it important?Are we able to tip the scales of justice by making “minor” adjustments in the way we speak?
What is gender-inclusive language?
According to the United Nations, using gender-inclusive language means, “speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes.” Employing gender-inclusive language looks different in each language. Using gender-neutral pronouns, adjectives and nouns doesn’t pose a problem in English for example, but for gendered languages like Spanish and Portuguese, where words are assigned an arbitrary gender, a new structure must be created.
Interestingly, this creative process has already started, mainly as a result of the feminist fight to gain equality and visibility. Gender-inclusive language is different to other linguistic discussions in history in that it is not an abstraction, or an arbitrary rule only determined by a scholar’s opinion and disconnected from our everyday life. Rather, it is a living phenomenon, taking shape as we speak.
An example of this language reform can be seen in the case of Argentina. As reported by The Washington Post late last year, an 18-year old feminist activist from Buenos Aires became quite notorious after effortlessly using gender-neutral language on TV. During an interview about the legalization of abortion, she systematically replaced the gender-indicating letters, “a” for feminine words and “o” for masculine words, witha neutral “e.” Although this has been a regular practice in young Argentinian circles for some time, the use of “e” has not been officially accepted by the Royal Spanish Academy. This interview ignited a controversy about the “correct” way to employ the Spanish language.
Why is gender-inclusive language important?
As described by the UN, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias. There is evidence that countries in which gendered languages are spoken there tends to be lower presence of women in the workforce.
The study conducted by the World Bank also reveals that language has a profound impact on, and is informed by, our political views and conceptions of gender roles. Gender-inclusive language is then a key tool for changing these conceptions in a way that helps promote equality and justice in those countries and around the world.
Even if more conservative groups disagree, younger generations are constantly slicing and dicing words and phrases,reassembling them in novel ways that stretch the limits of language structures. Some words become more popular than others, some are discarded, but the movement towards gender-inclusive language remains relevant.
Are languages becoming more gender-neutral?
As reported by the language specialist app Babbel, gender-neutral pronouns are relatively common in languages like English (they) and Swedish (hen), although they are still not fully accepted as the norm. For Swedish in particular, this pronoun was first introduced in informal use in the 60’s, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the word finally appeared in a dictionary. The pronoun “they” has always existed in English, but its use to denote gender neutrality has had its ups and downs in history. . This shows that, when it comes to how language is related to gender equality, there is a complex social process that is intertwined with language use.
For languages with grammatical gender, such as Spanish, French, German, Russian, Italian and Portuguese, the process of establishing gender-neutral structures is likely to take a little longer than in English. Spanish is well on its way, with word-ending alternatives such as e, @ or x –instead of the female “a” and male “o” – gaining popularity. In Argentina, even the president has adopted the “e” version of some words in his speeches. In most languages, queer and feminist communities have become the protagonists of the language creation and re-creation processes, which other groups then reproduce.
The phenomenon of gender-neutral (or inclusive) language is part of a larger and more complex shift in awareness. Ultimately, we must make sure we reflect on our own use of words and the effect they have on the people around us. Whether we change the way we speak or not, we are still a part of larger social development that has taken the world by storm.