Gender Neutral Language

By: Jennifer Burns

Gender-neutral language (also called gender-inclusive language, non-sexist language, sex-neutral language or politically-correct language) is becoming increasingly frequent in written and spoken language, and attempts not to favor either gender over the other in contexts where the gender of a person or group of people is ambiguous. The perceived need for inclusive language arises because, according to widely accepted norms of current usage, masculine pronouns no longer communicate a generic sense of "anyone." Indeed, many people find such usage not only inaccurate but offensive. The practice of assigning masculine gender to neutral terms is said to come from the fact that every language "reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved, and English evolved through most of its history in a male-centered, patriarchal society." Many of the masculine terms in Modern English come from words which were not gender-specific in Old English.

For example, the word mann was originally gender-neutral (though grammatically masculine) and could be used to refer to any adult human. For gender-specific usage, wer was used to mean "man," and wÃ?f to mean "woman." Since then, "man" has replaced wer as the primary word referring to male persons, while also preserving its original gender-neutral meaning (people), especially in compounds such as "mankind." On the other hand, the word "woman" (from wÃ?fman, grammatically feminine) replaced wÃ?f as the word for female person. The word "human" is from Latin humanus, the adjectival form of homo "human being" (also grammatically masculine but epicene). There is a growing awareness that language does not merely reflect the way we think: it also shapes our thinking. If words and expressions that imply that women are inferior to men are constantly used, that assumption of inferiority tends to become part of our mindset.... Language is a powerful tool: poets and propagandists know this-as, indeed, do victims of discrimination. In some cases, Gender-neutral language may be achieved through the use of gender-inclusive, gender-neutral or epicene words ("human being," "person," "individual," and so on) instead of gender-specific ones ("man," "he," "businessman," etc.), when speaking of people whose gender is unknown, ambiguous, or unimportant. If no gender-inclusive terms exist, new ones may be coined (e.g., "businessperson"), or there may be parallel usage of the existing gender-specific terms (as in "men and women," "he or she," "he/she," "(s)he," and so on). Inclusive language follows the principles of gender-neutral language and extends them to other areas of language, such as referring neither to adults nor children when discussing a person whose age cannot otherwise be determined.

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