Gender neutral language

Gender-neutral language use: hype or trend?

14 minutes to read
Lisa Reijmers

Gender-neutral language has become an increasingly important topic of discussion over the past decades. We nowadays tend to pay more attention to the way we address people with the aim of preventing offence. Why is this a relatively new way of conduct? What contributed to people’s current awareness regarding this topic? Which factors influence the development of this phenomenon? And how can we explain people’s different attitudes towards the use of more gender-neutral language? This article will dive into the roots of the debate about gender-neutral language use to create a better understanding of this phenomenon.

A brief look into human history

Currently, growing efforts are put in the education and awareness of people to use more gender-neutral and therefore more inclusive language. For instance, employers train their employees to address others in a gender-neutral way, since it is no longer acceptable to assume that all people identify themselves as female or male. However, the origin of people’s desire to use more gender-neutral language goes further than just this. 

We live in a heterogenous world, meaning that all different aspects of life are diverse rather than alike. We live in different countries, we speak different languages, different dialects, we believe in different Gods, etcetera. Even though we all live on the same planet, life is characterised by differences and inequality. Looking at history, people have been discriminating each other based on various grounds like, for example, race, gender and sex. The presence of male figures has always been leading in human society; as leaders, as warriors, as heroes, as enemies and as messengers of religion to name a few.

Marie Curie the only female scientist at the Solvay Conference in 1927.

Women, on the contrary, had to come a long way to be as visible and meaningful as men in human history. If we just take the revolution of science as an example, I bet that there are not a lot of women’s names popping up into your mind while thinking about historic developments. Marie Curie was the first woman who won a Nobel Prize. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. To put this into perspective: a woman was recognized by the scientific community on this level just over a century ago. Looking at the idea that science stems from about 500 B.C., with philosophers like Socrates, this example reveals that we currently find ourselves in an early stage in the revolution towards equality. 

Thus far a light has been shed on two influencing factors that encourage gender neutral language use: the distinction between the possible genders along with their acceptance in society, and the (historical) position of men and women.

Many attempts have been made to reform language with the aim of securing the equality for discriminated social groups.

Inequality is also expressed through language. Over the past decades, many attempts have been made to reform language by changing words or introducing new terms with the aim of securing more equality for discriminated social groups. For instance, one of the first language amendments in the United States was to call Afro-Americans ‘black’ rather than ‘negro’ in the 1960s. More recently, in 2012, Sweden proposed a third gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ as an addition to the already existing Swedish pronouns for she (hon) and he (han) (Gustafsson Sendén, Bäck, & Lindqvist, 2015). Similar attempts in different countries have been made in order to reform language for the sake of inclusion. 

One phenomenon, different perspectives

To fully understand the desire for more gender-neutral language, it is important that the phenomenon is looked at from different perspectives. Appadurai (2010) calls these perspectives ‘scapes’. He claims that the different scapes unify in global culture. Since flow, exchange, and mixture across social boundaries have always been present in human history, the origins of a phenomenon can only be understood if you take the ‘longue durée’ into very serious consideration (Appadurai, 2010). In other words, each phenomenon can only be understood if it is analysed from different viewpoints and placed in the context of an ever changing and globalising world. The linguistic scape as well as the historical scape of gender-neutral language are analysed below.

The world's overview of different grammatical gender structures

Linguistics and gender, how do they relate?

Gender inequality is deeply rooted in language. To understand how this works, we will address different grammatical gender constructions, since these represent a major part of the structural complexity of languages. Three types of languages can be distinguished: grammatical gender languages, natural gender languages, and genderless languages. Firstly, in a grammatical gender language every noun has a grammatical gender. The gender of personal nouns tends to express the gender of the referent. Examples of these grammatical gender languages are German, French, and Spanish.

Secondly, in natural gender languages, for instance English and Swedish, personal nouns are gender-neutral (e.g., neighbour or teacher). If one wants to refer to gender, this is expressed pronominally with, for instance, the use of ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Neither personal nouns nor pronouns indicate gender in genderless languages such as Turkish and Finnish. Here, gender is only expressed through attributes such as ‘male/female [teacher]’ or in lexical gender words such as ‘woman’ or ‘father.’ As a result, gender and linguistic gender irregularities are significantly more visible in grammatical gender languages than in natural gender, or genderless languages (Sczesny, Formanowicz, & Moser, 2016).

Claims implying that language is fundamental to gender inequality are reinforced by empirical data.

Societal gender equality is proved to be associated with the way gender is encrypted in language (Stahlberg, Sczesny, & Braun, 2007). Research has shown that people in countries with grammatical gender languages experienced less social gender equality than people in countries with natural gender languages or genderless languages. This indicates that a greater visibility of gender asymmetries is associated with societal gender inequality. An investigation on sexist attitudes completed by Wasserman and Weseley (2009) generated additional evidence for this relationship. Respondents (native English speakers as well as multilingual speakers) demonstrated higher levels of sexist attitudes when the survey was conducted in a grammatical gender language (Spanish or French) than in a natural gender language (English). 

Claims implying that language is fundamental to gender inequality are reinforced by empirical data that demonstrate, for instance, that when reading masculine words intended as generic, readers tend to predominantly associate these words with men (Sarrasin, Gabriel, & Gygax, 2012). These findings show that, from the perspective of gender equality, grammatical gender languages present a particularly complex and difficult case.  Finally, lower levels of sexism and negative attitudes towards women and higher levels of openness towards gender-neutral language use were exhibited amongst people from a country with a natural or genderless language (Sarrasin, Gabriel, & Gygax, 2012).

A Spanish example

Spanish is a great example of a gendered language (meaning that nouns are divided into a feminine group and a masculine group) that seems to trigger exclusion. Grammatically, the masculine dominates the feminine in Spanish. Every starting student of Spanish will learn that the masculine plural is used for any group with a male element, regardless of the proportion of the feminine group. For instance, if someone has three sisters (3 hermanas) and one brother (1 hermano), the presence of the one brother makes one say: “tengo quatro hermanos” (I have 4 siblings).  The receiver of the message would not know whether this person has actually four brothers or a mixture of brothers and sisters, unless this is specified.

In short, the masculine form in Spanish is the default, unless there is a reason to use the feminine. Moreover, while the -o masculine ending is changed to -a to produce feminine words like hijo (son) and hija (daughter), and perro (male dog) and perra (female dog), the same is not accepted with terms for the names of professions held by women: “la primer ministro,” (the prime minister) “la abogado,” (the lawyer) and “la médico,” (the doctor) (Eisenberg, 1985). The latter shows the nature of the Spanish language that causes not only complexity regarding the addressing of women, but also a sense of being excluded through sexism from a cultural perspective.

Implementation of a more gender-neutral language

As mentioned earlier, Sweden proposed a gender-neutral pronoun anyone could be addressed with. In English ‘they’ and ‘their’ can be used to not specifically address one’s gender. Before, pronouns like ‘ey’, ‘ze’, ‘xe’ were proposed, but without the desired success. Users of Facebook are given the opportunity to be gender-neutrally addressed with they/their. When Facebook is not informed about someone’s gender it nowadays automatically uses this gender-neutral form (Scott, 2019).

In Spain and Latin America people invented other alternatives to address all genders at the same time. For example, ‘nosotros’ which means ‘us’ if you want to refer to men or men and women (remember that masculinity is dominant in the Spanish language) and ‘nosotras’ if the us-group only consists of women. Several gender-neutral language reforms that replaced the -o or -a ending were proposed particularly after social movements in the 1970s like: nosotres, nosotrXs, nosotr@s or amiges, amigXs, amig@s (Acosta Matos, 2016). It might not be surprising that some of these language reforms are hard to be taken seriously by authorities looking at them from a professional and linguistic perspective, as some of these alternatives cannot be pronounced.

A gender-neutral pronoun challenges the traditions of a binary gender system.

However, research on the use of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun 'hen' came up with some interesting results. Essentially, it faced a number of hostile reactions and negative attitudes, but over the course of only a couple of years, attitudes towards the word became largely positive. It also became evident that attitudes regarding this more gender-neutral language use are polarised, meaning that people either feel very positive or negative about the gender-neutral pronoun. Although people's attitudes became more positive over the past few years, the actual use of 'hen' barely increased. The more participants identified themselves with their gender identity, the more negative attitudes they held and the least often they used the gender-neutral word. Women were slightly more positive and used ‘hen’ more often than men. Gender identity in this case proved to be a much stronger predictor than biological gender. This supports the idea that a gender-neutral pronoun challenges the traditions of a binary gender system (Gustafsson Sendén, Bäck, & Lindqvist, 2015).

Gender-neutral language use and feminism 

As the Spanish examples already hinted at, the reform of language regarding gender emerged in several countries during the late 1960s and 1970 with the second-wave of feminism (Mucchi-Faina, 2005). Feminism is divided into four waves. The first wave campaigned for women's right to vote in the 19th century and early 20th century. The second wave fought for legal and social equality for women by challenging the prevailing androcentric assumptions, in which men were dominating all metropolitan countries. Depending on a country’s culture, history and politics, feminism took different routes in each country. Overall, feminism had a profound impact on society and in academia, which led to social change (David & Clegg, 2008).

Where minority groups in the past would be punished when fighting for their rights, they were allowed to do so ever since the 1970s. The reason why this happened around this time, can be tracked back to a long process of developments in human history which gradually produced this particular change in society. The foundation of the United Nations, after the Second World War, created new consciousness regarding political status within the framework of human rights. Minority groups — including women, immigrants, children and refugees — finally had the capacity to exercise pressure on goverments regarding their rights as human beings (Appadurai, 2010). This was the start of many human attributions, like feminism, that encouraged societal changes, which can be linked to the rise of the urge for more gender-neutral language.

Spanish women protest for equality

The rise of the post-bureaucratic society correlates with these developments. At work, people increasingly started to gain more rights, because they were formally allowed to unify and protest for better work conditions. In addition, women from this point of time began to occupy workplaces previously unattainable to them. Together with this change, new arguments against the dominance of masculinity where emphasised.

Taking the example of professional titles again, it should be noted that various titles in different languages are not only masculine because of their grammatical gender, but also because the associated professions were historically only open to men. Consequently, the issue from this perspective is not so much related to linguistic androcentricity, but to professional exclusion. The relevance of language only became evident when women began to occupy workplaces that were formerly occupied by men (Mucchi-Faina, 2005). From this point, people were triggered to wonder how women should be addressed in various different situations, e.g. in job vacancies, in newspapers, in law descriptions and in politics.

From a global perspective...

Globalisation is a crucial element in the understanding of the process of social change. For example, cultural artefacts including languages, ideas, but even things like hair- and clothing styles, travel more and more rapidly than ever across regional and national borders. As Appadurai (2010) says: “This acceleration is a consequence of the speed and spread of the internet and the simultaneous, comparative growth in travel, cross-cultural media and global advertisement.” 

Human behaviour has radically changed over the past two decades due to the emergence and development of the Internet. Communities are no longer limited by physical boundaries and people have more and more freedom to stand up for their rights and beliefs. Besides, the accessibility of the internet and social media platform keeps on increasing. As a result of this dimension of globalisation, people from all over the world unify online to connect, to support each other and to make collective statements. Humans are social beings and it is in our nature to feel the urge to belong to a group we can identify with (Kroon, 2019). Our contemporary globalised world brings our behaviour related to this urge to another level. Information about anything is easily and quickly accessible via our mobile devices, which makes it hard to miss out on anything.

Texts, videos, and pictures from all kinds of categories are going viral and make others aware of particular phenomena. This is done to provoke attention, change and support from others. People with authority and power are addressed by minority groups via the internet and social media. These attempts, which aim to induce change, tend to gain a lot of engagement from all corners of the world that is targeting both the senders and receivers. Everything becomes increasingly public due to these globalisation processes and it seems that these collective protests are increasingly paying off. Therefore, a growing number of people experience feelings of concern regarding several phenomena and occurrences, which are often in some way related to the rise of the debate about gender-neutral language use. 

To illustrate the other side of the impact of globalisation on gender-neutral language we should return to the Spanish language one more time. As said before, the implementation of the @/X was not accepted because it cannot be properly pronounced. However, these symbols are actually used in informal written communication for instance on social media or and WhatsApp. Since there are no limitations or specific requirements people have to take into account while chatting online with their acquaintances, globalisation and digitalisation make allow people to use these symbols in words even though they are not officially accepted.

Hype or trend?

It is evident that the issue of gender-neutrality in language has several layers. Each layer describes the roots of the phenomenon from a different perspective, and all together they provide an in-depth understanding of the origins and the impact of gender-neutral language use. The years after the 1970s have been crucial for the accelerating fight for gender equality in all layers of society. This was the time language reforms regarding more gender-neutral language were legally proposed. Eventually, the emergence of the Internet and social media had a big influence on debates about equality, resulting in the battle for more gender-neutral language.

To conclude, the wish for a more gender-neutral language is definitely not a hype, but a trend that gradually increases its impact within society through the ever changing and globalising world. Gender-neutral language use is still far from being the norm, but everything changes... panta rhei. It is in our nature to resist change, but I believe that it is just a matter of time until gender-neutral language use finds its way to everyday life. We have already started to change, and will gradually get used to new changes while more gender-neutral languages slowly make their arrival. And in the meantime, let us not close our eyes for living beings who suffer from inequality. 


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