The battle to make French a “gender-neutral language” is emphasizing the country’s inherent sexism

December 19th, 2017 by That the French language remains so central to the culture here wouldn’t surprise most people outside the country. Still, having two teenagers in French middle school has taught me to appreciate how profoundly important it remains for people not just to master their language skills, but to perfect them. Whereas the practice of teaching grammar has slowly faded in American middle schools, our kids still spend several hours each week in their French classes learning obscure verb tenses, drilling into the tiniest nuances of punctuation, and striving toward an accent-less speech. One of the most illuminating exercises is the “dictée.” A teacher stands in front of the class and reads aloud a page of text while students furiously copy it down to be graded later on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It’s impossible for me to imagine a 14-year-old in the United States being subjected to such rigor. The level of eye rolling this would provoke would probably be lethal to the teacher. In sharp contrast, language remains a serious affair in France, where something as trivial as the introduction of a foreign word into casual speech can spark furious public debates among intellectuals as well as regular folks on social media. During the spring campaign for president, the far right denounced Emmanuel Macron for the deeply embarrassing sin of delivering a speech in English while abroad, an act they considered to be borderline treason. The French language, speaking it well, guarding its purity from unwanted incursions or corruptions by bacterial elements that might weaken it, remains an essential battle. And so it’s hardly shocking that a radical proposal to rethink one of the core principles of the French language has caused an uproar and divided thinkers across the political spectrum. In this case, the debate is even more combustible due to the concept that lies at the heart of the proposed changed: gender. A movement known as “Écriture Inclusive,” what English speakers would call “gender-neutral language,” is calling out the French language for being inherently sexist because it favors the masculine usage. Proponents have outlined a complex, if awkward, remedy that its adherents argue is essential for correcting the subtle ways the French language creates stereotypes that are biased toward men over women. Read more: Quartz

Ol’ Man River – how gendered language shapes the way we see the world

November 30th, 2017 by But ol’ man river, He jes’ keeps rollin’ along! Is water male or female – and does it really matter? Unlike languages such as French, Spanish and German, English does not allocate gender to words. Although some things, ships and countries for example, often have feminine associations, there are no grammatical rules to make something either male or female. Cognitive research has suggested that language and the way people use it has a profound influence on how we see the world. Water, for example, is often more associated with concepts of femininity – the river Ganges (Ganga) is well-known as a feminine sacred symbol of Indian culture in addition to being a central source of survival – but in the famed Hammerstein and Kern song, Ol’ Man River, the river Mississippi is portrayed as a man. The feminine Ganges symbolises faith, hope, culture and sanity – and, since the beginning of time, “she” has been as a source of livelihood for millions of people. By contrast, the endless, uncaring flow of the “old man” Mississippi is seen as a metaphor for the struggles and hardships of the men forced to work on it. The allocation of a specific gender to an object or feature of our landscape might not be a result of conceptual categorisation and this is supported by an examination of noun classes and “gender shifts” across different grammatical systems. Is a French car (female) different in any way to a Spanish (male) car or is it just a question of grammar without connotation or semantics? Read more: The Conversation

She? Ze? They? What’s In a Gender Pronoun

January 31st, 2016 by What happens when 334 linguists, lexicographers, grammarians and etymologists gather in a stuffy lecture hall on a Friday night to debate the lexical trends of the year? They become the unlikely heroes of the new gender revolution. That’s what happened here earlier this month anyway, at a downtown Marriott, where members of the 127-year-old American Dialect Society anointed “they,” the singular, gender-neutral pronoun, the 2015 Word of the Year. As in: “They and I went to the store,” where they is used for a person who does not identify as male or female, or they is a filler pronoun in a situation where a person’s gender identity is unknown. “Function words don’t get enough love,” a man argued from the floor. (Function words, I would later learn, are words that have little lexical meaning but serve to connect other words — or “the basic building blocks in language,” according to Ben Zimmer, the event’s M.C.) “We need to accept ‘they,’ and we need to do it now,” shouted another linguist, hidden behind the crowds. Read more: NY Times‎

How Testosterone Affects Language

September 2nd, 2015 by The unfortunate thing about studies on the differences between male and female brains is that they get overstated in ways that perpetuate stereotypes. (“Women are better at nurturing, so why don’t you bring the cupcakes?”) The unfortunate thing about stereotypes is that there’s sometimes a grain of truth at their center that gets distorted to the point of nonsense. The myth is that women are, overall, more “verbal” than men are. The truth is that both genders utter about 16,000 words per day, but grown women do seem to talk more than men do in certain contexts. In childhood, girls tend to speak earlier and with more complexity than boys do, and boys born with high levels of testosterone in their blood are more likely to have speech delays. That’s left scientists hunting for the reasons why: Is it socialization, or differences in a so-called “language protein” in the brain, or in how the body processes testosterone? Read more: The Atlantic

I am neither Mr, Mrs nor Ms but Mx

September 1st, 2015 by For the better part of two minutes, I stared down at the form in front of me. I was attending a formal dinner later that week and the RSVP required I choose whether I was “Mr, Mrs or Ms”. I looked at the question and froze, unsure of what to do. For many people, this choice would’ve caused no anxiety whatsoever. For many people, choosing a title is a simple matter. But for me, picking a title has always been an endeavor fraught with anxiety, confusion and frustration. That’s because I don’t identify as a man or as a woman, I identify as genderqueer. There are many challenges that arise when you live your life outside of the gender binary like I do. I never know which bathroom to use, I don’t know which section of the store to shop in, and I’m frequently harassed on the street by people who don’t understand my gender identity. Above all of those concerns, the bigger issue that people like me face is that our identities are so rarely taken seriously. Read More: The Guardian