The Use of Gender in Languages

By Raquel W. ’21 

Language is used as our main form of expression. It is something that we encounter in our everyday lives. There are around 6,500 languages in today’s world.  Some languages are more similar to each other than others. For example, Italian, Spanish and French have obvious similarities in spelling, grammar and more because they are Romance languages and all derived from Latin. Latin initially had masculine, feminine and neuter (not masculine nor feminine) nouns, but today, the majority of the neuter words have fallen into the broader category of masculine. All three languages contain grammatical gender which can be defined as a noun class system, made of two (masculine and feminine) or three (masculine, feminine and neuter) classes, that correspond to other parts of the language such as adjectives, pronouns, verbs and articles.  

While some languages completely lack grammatical gender, about one-fourth of the world’s languages have it. However, in recent years, there has been a push for the elimination of grammatical gender with a movement towards gender-neutrality and gender-inclusivity throughout all languages. Along with this would be the implementation of “natural gender” or the usage of the masculine or feminine forms of the word as it would apply correctly to the referent (the subject being referred to in the sentence). In other words, gender would be used as needed or wanted by the referent. An example would be when referring to someone of the male or female gender. Many feminists are pushing for all-around gender inclusivity and argue that the assignment of gender to certain words can bring up certain sexist connotations. Not assigning gender to specific words would make for a more equal status for women as well as people of other genders. However, there is no easy solution when it comes to changing an entire language and many on the pro-side of change disagree about how to handle this. One solution suggests that disposing of the inherent masculine form of professions and not labeling them as strictly masculine or feminine may help to achieve gender equality in society and specifically, in the workplace. Others suggest simply eliminating the gender labels entirely and using (or creating) gender-neutral forms of articles, verbs, etc. To be fair, not all gendered nouns are based upon their relation to sex, but those that are can bias generations to come that a certain profession is meant for one sex or gender more than another. It limits the potential of our posterity.

While this change is well-intentioned, changing an entire language is no easy task. Many gendered languages have been spoken for ages. It seems overwhelming when one considers the number of languages that would need modification. New pronouns would have to be created.  How are the endings of certain verbs and adjectives supposed to be modified? Do the masculine or feminine forms become the new gender-neutral form? To those who already speak the language, adapting one’s ear and tongue to this is not something everyone is ready for. Many traditionalists believe that the adaptation of a language is an unreasonable request. Furthermore, the con side claims that this change in language will not spark actual social change and equality regarding gender. In spite of these claims, research has been done that links the intensity of the masculine-feminine divide in languages to a decrease in female political and labor-force participation. It appears that the most reasonable solution to this dilemma would be to at least provide the option of a gender neutral pronoun that may be used when the referent chooses to remain free of gender distinction. People should be able to identify and express themselves however they would like.

Regarding the present, it would seem that there is strength in numbers. It is up to those who speak the language to change it. In the past, there have been countless times when those who spoke a language managed to modify it due to evolving civilization and culture. For example, in English, in the 20th century, the prefix “Ms.” was created by feminists to be used by all women, whether married or unmarried. Will we choose to raise our future generations in a more gender-neutral environment or choose to keep language the same as it has been for centuries?



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