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Inclusive language has been a major platform of the feminist movement. Those who oppose it claim that the masculine form can be used to incorporate both genders; some believe that this should change, and some believe it's already starting to.
It's had a significant impact on Christian denominations, as the language of the Bible is almost exclusively male-focused. Versions of the Bible that use inclusive language have been produced, with varying levels of acceptance amongst the Christian community.
A very common example of inclusive language in English is the use of the singular they (or generic they). This is applying the words they or them, which are conventionally plural pronouns, as singular pronouns where him or her would otherwise be used, when talking about somebody whose gender is unknown or a generic "somebody."
For example, "if anybody asks me about it, I'll tell them they can try it for themself (or themselves)."
The singular they has been used in English literature for hundreds of years, but is still a disputed point among some uptight prescriptivists, who see singular use of a plural pronoun, and especially variants such as themself instead of themselves, as a corruption of English grammar (though singular use of "themselves" seems to be more common than "themself"). (Amusingly, a few centuries ago some used to say the exact same thing about the use of "you" to refer to a single person.) Another issue is that while the "singular they" has a large degree of acceptance when referring to a generic person, it tends to look strange when referring to a named, specific person. For example, take the sentence: "When I found out who stole my phone, they're gonna wish they were never born!" vs. "Leslie called their friend yesterday to voice their concerns." The first sentence would not look out of place in typical speech, but the second one looks awkward, and given the normal use of the singular they, one may have a hard time discerning the meaning. The second case is not usually an issue, as the gender of a specific person will be known in the vast majority of cases, but it presents a problem when being used as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to non-binary-gendered individuals. For more information on alternatives to "singular they" when referring to these individuals, see the section "Neologisms" below.
It also should be noted in the context of the Bible translation issue that Hebrew and many other languages have historically used their equivalent of "he" as their generic pronoun rather than "they," such that a translation of these languages into English would have to choose between literally translating the male pronoun into "he" or translating the gender-neutral intent of the pronoun into "they."
When speaking in the third person, "one" is often used in this way, though it usually comes off as formal or overdone. ("One can starve to death if one refuses to eat".)
Another popular form is to use "he/she", "he or she", "him/her", "him or her", "(s)he", or "s/he", when gender is unknown. This usually extends to using "Dear Sir/Madam" as a form of address in letters where "Dear Sir" would otherwise be the default, and other similar practices.
A flaw of the "he/she" formation is the assumption that a person must be either one or the other, and hence this language excludes those who do not conform to the traditional gender binary (such as those who choose not to identify with a gender). It's also awkward and somewhat limiting in its prosaic formality.
Gender neutral pronouns
Many neologisms have been created to fill the gap in English's set of third-person pronouns, or even possibly replace gendered pronouns altogether. Although most of them gained not much acceptance at present, some are more widely used:
- Spivak pronouns, which were formed by chopping off the th of the third person pronouns (they, them, their, theirs, theirself). They are ey or e, em, eir, eirs, and eirself.
- Ze or zie, hir or zir, hir or zir, hirs or zirs, and hirself or zirself, a set popular in the genderqueer community.
- Xe, Xem, Xyr, Xyrs, Xyrself, a derivative set of the ones above.
While there is a significant group of people who use and advocate for gender-neutral pronouns, there is still some debate on which ones to use, creating an apparent lack of consistency likely harmful to getting any set or standard adopted by the greater populace — much like Linux and its many distros' situation. The respectful thing to ask is "what are your pronouns?" and then use them.
In English, gendered language is confined to pronouns and to a few nouns generally referring to occupations (actor/actress, barman/barmaid, etc) and family members (aunt/uncle, father/mother). In some languages, almost every word is gendered, with all nouns and adjectives varying according to gender, and sometimes even verbs, although it should be noted that grammatical gender is not always related to biological sex or social gender, and some languages distinguish between animate and inanimate objects (sometimes the term "noun class" is used instead of "gender" where divisions do not approximate to sex). In some languages, there is no concept of gender: examples include Finnish and Estonian, Malay and related languages, and Georgian. Persian has two genders, common (for people of whatever sex) and neuter (broadly, for inanimate objects). But even in languages with no gender it is still possible to be sexist, and the relationship between degree of gendering in language and degree of sexism in speakers is unclear (it is hard to extract language from other cultural factors).
German is strongly gendered by European standards, although it includes a neuter gender as well as masculine and feminine (famously mädchen="girl" is neuter). Hence one solution to gender-inclusive language is to use the neuter. An increasingly widespread replacement to gendered terms like Studenten=male student/Studentinnen=female student is to use hybrids like Student(inn)en or StudentInnen - which work ok in official documents but pronunciation is less clear. Some dialects of German have seen a reduction in genderedness, with Niederdeutsch using de=the for both male and female, in contrast to standard German der and die.
French divides all nouns into masculine and feminine, indicated by articles, adjectives, and some verb endings (in participles and the perfect tense); it also has male and female forms of many nouns. French has historically used the masculine as all-inclusive gender but there has been a more widespread movement to use "male and female" instead of "(default) male" such as "les Français et les Françaises" (male French and female French) not "les Français" (male French considered as all-inclusive). As with German, typographical tricks such as a centre dot can be used to create gender-neutral nouns like musicien·ne·s="musicians", instead of musicien (m) and musicienne (f); however this is controversial.
Mandarin Chinese is gender neutral in spoken form. When written, there is a gendered third-person singular pronoun, with different forms for he and she. However, this was only an early 20th century innovation, probably in imitation of Western languages such as English, and previously a gender-neutral pronoun was used. At the same time, equivalent moves to promote gendered spoken pronouns were never successful. There is now a movement to return to older, gender-neutral written forms as well.
Japanese does not have many gendered features in its grammar, and because pronouns are seldom used, what gendered pronouns exist are not often encountered. However Japanese has a wide range of linguistic differences in vocabulary and style of speech that are traditionally gendered: men and women are supposed to speak in different ways, with men more abrupt and direct and women using more polite forms and honorifics amongst other differences. More recently, these gender differences have become less common and people do not always speak in the way expected of their gender.
- There is at least one example of singular "they" in the King James Bible.
- , That false and senseless Way of Speaking, Mark Liberman, Language Log.
- Wikipedia has some
- Though it should be noted that for the most part these "derivatives" are not so much distinct pronouns as spelling variations: xe, xie, zie and ze mean the same thing and are pronounced identically, approximately /tzee/, and differ only in spelling. The genderqueer community seems to have a consensus that the singular gender-neutral pronoun has the vowel /ee/ preceded by a sound that contains /s/ or /z/; putative pronouns that don't have this form (such as co, thon, or li) don't meet the consensus and so aren't generally accepted. A standardised spelling will probably evolve in time.
- See the Wikipedia article on Grammatical gender.
- See the Wikipedia article on Gender neutrality in genderless languages.
- See the Wikipedia article on Persian grammar.
- The Push to Make French Gender-Neutral, The Atlantic, Nov 24, 2017
- Germans try to get their tongues around gender-neutral language, The Guardian, 24 Mar 2014
- French language watchdogs say 'non' to gender-neutral style, The Guardian, 3 Nov 2017
- A Gender-Neutral Pronoun (Re)emerges in China, Victor Mair, Slate, Dec 2013
- See the Wikipedia article on Gender differences in spoken Japanese.
- See the Wikipedia article on Third-person pronoun.