Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At Louvre Art Gallery in Paris, this is an art of Botticelli . According to Heidi Harley, an Associate professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, one of these lovely young ladies in the art would represent Grammar.

The Historic Role of Gender in Language

In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron, a professor of Language and Communication at Worcester College of the University of Oxford and a leading expert in the field of language and gender studies, describes the ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ position.

Every language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved and as the patriarchal control over the society prevailed for a long time, the language has also been organized with male-centric views. So, in many languages, we find there are multi-gender systems similar to biological differences of nature. In most of the languages (except Japanese), the nouns and pronouns either have ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ gender. In English, there is also a third gender known as ‘neuter.’ But in Hebrew, Greek, German, Spanish, French, and Portuguese and in Indian languages like Hindi, there are only two genders and the prepositions or verbs have been modified according to the gender of the subject.

In comparison to these languages, my own language, Oriya, has gender-neutral characteristics. Though like English, in my language, there are three genders, but the variation is that our pronouns have no gender and unlike Hindi, our verbs and prepositions are not modified according to the subject. Many Indian languages besides Oriya like Tamil, Assamese and Bengali have also gender-free pronouns.

This type of characteristic can also be seen in Persian, Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Quechuan, Filipino, and Tagalog. In some way, Chinese language can be marked as gender-neutral unless it contains a root for "man" or "woman."

For example, the word for ‘doctor’ is ‘yīshēng’ and can only be made gender-specific by adding the root for "male" or "female" to the front of it. Thus, to specify a male doctor, one would need to say nányīshēng. Under normal circumstances both male and female doctors would simply be referred to as yīshēng.

The Pronoun Problem

In English, if the gender of a subject is not known, then often, the ‘masculine gender’ is used. For example: When a student comes into the room, he should pick up a handout. Here ‘student is a gender-neutral subject but a masculine gender ‘he’ is used for the pronouns. Like in Hindi, if anyone is coming, they say: Koi ata hai. Here the verb ‘ata hai’ is modified according to masculine gender whereas the gender of the subject (Koi: Anyone) is not known. In Oriya, we have no such baffle situation. Here Kehi asuchhi does not cite the gender of the subject. But in most of language, this gives feminist a good reason to think that this ‘male dominance’ contributes to making women invisible from grammar. The generic use of masculine pronouns, in referring to persons of unspecified gender is also termed by the feminist thinkers as ‘sexist’ norm of language.

In English the pronouns are highly gender-concerned. But how will they be treated when the gender of the pronoun is not known? Feminists have advised us to use singular ‘they’ instead of using ‘he’ or ‘she.’ For example , we can say , When a student comes into the room, they should pick up a handout. The Chicago Manual of Style (abbreviated in writing as CMS or CMOS, or verbally as Chicago) is a style guide for American English published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press. The CMS, in its 13th edition, strongly reviewed this attempt of using singular ‘they’ and wrote: “Nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.” But later in its 14th edition, the manual revised its stance and recommended: "The 'revival' of the singular use of ‘they’ and ‘their,’ citing...its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austin, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare." 15th Edition §5.204 deals specifically with gender bias and nowhere does it mention the writers stuff. So they changed it again -- proves it’s a hot topic!

The Gendered Nouns Problem

Some feminists also find the use of some terms like Chairman, Fireman, Policeman, Mailman, Fisherman, Businessman, Milkman, Spokesman, Gunman, Mankind, and Brotherhood objectionable as the words reinforce the idea that men are more powerful and have higher priority over women. A women's femininity becomes invisible when they accept being categorized in male gender-biased terms. It also means that women are only being recognized when classified in a masculine group. During the 19th century, attempts were made to make a feminine term for these masculine job-specific terms. This produced words like ‘doctress’ and ‘professoress,’ and even ‘lawyeress,’ all of which have fallen out of use; though waitress, stewardess, and actress are in contemporary use for some speakers.

Janice Moulton first marked her objection on the use of ‘Lady Doctor’, ‘Lady Typist’, ‘Lady Supervisor’ as these jobs are meant for men, whose use has been extended to cover both men and women. She thinks that these norms are highly insulting for a woman and a number of new words are also recommended such as: chairperson, spokesperson, firefighter, mailcarrier, etc., as substitutes for the "sexist" words in common use. [See: Moulton, J., 1981, “The Myth of the Neutral ‘Man’”, in Sexist Language, M. Vetterling-Braggin (ed.), Totowa. NJ: Littlefield and Adams: 100–115].

Another common gendered expression, found particularly in informal speech and writing, is "you guys." This expression is used to refer to groups of men, groups of women, and groups that include both men and women. But "a guy" (singular) is definitely a man, not a woman, and that most men would not feel included in the expression "you gals" or "you girls." Similarly, the way the words Mr., Miss, and Mrs. are used also make the feminists annoyed because "Mr." can refer to any man, regardless of his marital status while women are defined by their relationship to men (by whether they are married or not). A feminists solution to this problem is to use "Ms." (which doesn't indicate marital status) to refer to women.

Feminists hope that by means of such reforms in the universities, the language of all society might gradually will be reformed, and that by means of such a reform in the language, the consciousness of people would be rendered more favorable to feminist ideas. But they oppose the job-specific terms when used to define the gender-specific status of the job holder. In India, nobody would ever call Mrs. Indira Gandhi as “Lady Prime Minister” or Ms. Pratibha Patil as “Lady President.” But these words in Hindi or other languages have been treated as ‘masculine.’ Still now in India, these maleness of norms are not being identified by neither any feminists nor any intellectual.

But in Western linguistics, the scholars and feminists are more concerned about these ‘maleness’ of language. Increasing numbers of women are calling themselves actors rather than actresses, especially in the live theatre. The Screen Actors Guild of America (SAG) annually gives out awards for "Best Male Actor" and "Best Female Actor."

When my first novel was translated into Bengali and was published from Bangladesh, the Pratham Alo, a leading daily of that country, reviewed that novel. The reviewer of that book cited me as a ‘Lekhika’ (woman writer) in his review and to that, the translator of that book, Morshed Shafiul Hassan, got irritated with the use of such a gender -biased term for me.

The Patriarchal Problem in the Bible

Though Semitic religions are more male-centric (here God is always masculine), it is in the liberal Christian mind that attempts have been made by the churches to make a non-sexist, generic, and gender-neutral version of the Bible. The earliest example of such an effort was the Inclusive Language Lectionary published by the National Council of Churches in 1983. This new Bible excluded 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and 1 Peter 3:1-6. In 1990, the excluded portions were also adapted into the new version of that Bible. It did not, however, substitute gender-neutral language in reference to God, and it did not incorporate many of the misinterpretations proposed by feminists. And in doing so, it did not satisfy many liberals.

The American Bible Society published an abridged version of the New Testament in 1991 and then a complete version of the Bible in 1995. In that edition, while they did not use gender-neutral language for God, in Genesis 2:18, Eve is called not a "helper" but a "partner" of Adam.

In another example, the Greek text of Matthew 16:24 is literally, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Contemporary English Version shifts to a form which is still accurate and at the same time, more effective in English: “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.”

Later in 1994, a group of liberal Roman Catholics published The Inclusive New Testament and the next year liberal Protestants published a similar version of The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version. Both these versions featured gender-neutral language for God along with many other politically-correct alterations designed to combat racism, homophobia, and ageism, etc. The liberties taken with the text of Scripture in these versions were however so blatant, that they were met with resistance in the popular press.

Up until 2004, 18 versions of the Bible had been published in non-sexist, gender-neutral generic language. [See: The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy by Michael D. Marl owe, 2001, (revised January 2005)]

Solving the Problem

In 1999, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued guidelines for eliminating sexist stereotypes and language in common writing. This can be downloaded from HERE.

Gender-neutral language has gained support from most major textbook publishers and from professional and academic groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Associated Press. Today, many law journals, psychology journals, and literature journals do not print articles or papers that use gender-inclusive language.

But in India, there is no debate so far insisting on gender-neutral language. This is due to lack of gender discrimination consciousness and awareness. So while some progress has been made, there remains much room for improvement and development.


  1. Thanx Sarojini for initiating a very relevant debate through this highly thought-provoking article covering the areas of Syntax, Sociolinguistics, Psycholinguistics, socio-cultural perspectives and the traditional orthodox attitude and gender bias of men. I remember Indira Gandhi reacting to terms like 'Pradhanmantrini', or 'maanniiyaa adyakchha' during the Nam Summit in delhi. I strongly believe that gender-biased or coloured terms are an insult to individuality of women and therefore love words like 'dost'.Hindi has a gender-based pronominal system, feminine forms for many content wordsand is reflected even in subject verb agreement. But Hindi also shows respect to feminine gender. Many words which express or mean strength or masculinity are feminine in Hindi, some glaring examples being, 'shakti, taakat, laathee, sena, fauz, police, poojaa, kamaaii, urzaa, moonch, daaRhii, talwaar, bandook, maut, bhhokh, pyaas, vaasnaa, ichhaa, chaatii, party, sarkaar, santaan, aulaad, and even MARDAANGII. Time permitting I would like to share so many things on this vital issue. God bless you!

  2. Wonderful blog by sarojini Sahoo! Equally good comment by Prof. Rajkamal.
    I do not know how far am i true but I have always felt that our consciousness was/is never 'discriminaitng' towards feminine issues. I say this in comparision to Christian or Western consciousness. So what Rajkamal has said is very true. There are so many words in Hindi that signify 'Power' and they are used as feminine, for example, 'Meri taakat...', 'Sena aa rahi hai...', etc.
    Yes, there are domestic violence and other issues where female are not given equall rights. But the basic intention in it not negation of female. It is in acceptance. We do not negate female as 'Fallen Eve'. Or for that matter see the myths. Rarely we find good female character in Greek/Roman myths. Most of them ar femme fatal. Where as in Hindu myth there are glaring examles of 'Savitri', 'Kali', etc where they are not considered as some 'fallen object' but as elevated as any male God.
    This difference in consciousness leads towards feminine issues. The West has 'given' freedom to women. Here also 'giver' is greater than receiver. We do not 'give', we 'share'. All our rites and rituals are incomplete without female counterpart.
    A few more things next time!!!

  3. As usual its a well researched article.Thanks.Yet I feel women have to cover so many milestones that discussing syntax at this stage looks extravagant.
    I know four languages quite well. Amonst all these Four languages, Hindi appears to be only gender sensitive language.

  4. a lovely article... i am to say that in malayalam, theverbs are free from gender... it is there in tamil and kannada, both the languages i know to spaek. regarding gender, we malayalees are quite similar to english. there was a movement by the feminist writers to redefine this structure of language... so its better you contact mrs. sarah joseph, progressive writer she can give more information to you. search in google...

  5. I want to know few things from writer of the article
    o.k.languages are MAN made so is grammar i.e why there is gender discrimination as writer of the article says and these should be removed from languages but then what about discrimination by nature .will author like that male and female should have same organs and man should also bar children in same way as female have to

  6. Biological differences in men and women never be treated as a discrimination by nature. In which respect men are to be considered superior to women? They both are complimentary to each other to build a natural human world. Shyam Sakha should follow my blog carefully to obtain my ideas on gender discrimination.

  7. one needs only to go to Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Revierie"

    om page 50 ,Bachelard goes straight to Edmund Jabes' "Les mots tracent" and quotes Jabes:

    "Words are bodies whose members are letters. Their sex is always a vowel."

    and then Bachelard continuses wit quote from/of Gabriel Bounoure's preface to Jabes' boo, 'Je batis ma demeure' (a penetrating preface):

    ...that the poet "knows that a violent, rebellious, sexual, analogical life is deployed in writing and articulation. The changing nuances, the the fine and shaded colorations of the feminine vowels are married to the consonants which outline the masculine structure of the vocable. Like us, words have sexes and like us are members of the Logos. Like us they search for fulfillment in a kingdom of truth; their rebellions, their
    nostalgias, their affinities, their tendencies, like ours, are magnetized by the archetype of the Androgyne."

    anyway now back to the USA (NOAA) weather channel as
    my son is as we speak in the Hurricane Hunter P-3 airplane

    in this latest developing storm/hurricane


  8. नर-नारी दोनों से योग के बिना संसार नहीं चल सकता। अर्धनार्येश्वर इसी का प्रतीक हैं।

  9. Dennis Fitzgerald7:20 PM

    Very thoughtful article. I'm not much of a linguist and really have only one fluent language - English. I was always been puzzled as to why some languages, French, for example, assigns gender to nouns that seem to have no relationship to sex such as table or chair or door.

  10. Thanks Sahoo for giving a beautiful launch in that area where no one has entered. It is really a meaningful thinking ehich i believe that so many would look in to that area, particularly the feminists from Asian continent. I am sure of making use of your idea in my UGC MRP. It is something on Gender Issues in Dattani's Plays. I have already started my work and moving seriuosly on. You have given enough scope and area siting from all languages. When languages have this much gender elements, this has to be seriously viewed. All the best for yet another initiation in this less probed zone.

  11. सृष्टि की संपूर्ण वस्तुओं की मुख्य दो जातियाँ -चेतन और जड़ है .चेतन वस्तुओं (जीवधारियों )में पुरुष तथा स्त्री जाती का भेद होता है ,परन्तु जड़ पदार्थों में यह भेद नहीं होता .इसलिए संपूर्ण वस्तुओं की तीन जातियाँ होती हैं -पुरुष,स्त्री और जड़ .इन तीन जातियों के विचार से व्याकरण में उनके सवाचक शब्दों को तीन लिंगों में बाँटते है -१.पुल्लिंग २.स्त्रीलिंग ३.नपुंसक लिंग .अंग्रेजी व्याकरण में लिंग का निर्माण बहुधा ऐसी व्यवस्था के अनुसार होता है .संस्कृत ,मराठी ,गुजराती आदि भाषाओँ में भी तीन लिंग होते है ,परन्तु उनमें कुछ जड़ पदार्थों को उनके कुछ विशेष गुणों के कारण सचेतन मान लिया गया है.जिन पदार्थों में कठोरता ,बल ,श्रेष्ठता आदि गुण दिखाते हैं उनमे पुरुषत्व की कल्पना कर उनके वाचक शब्दों को पुल्लिंग ,और जिनमे नरमी,कोमलता,सुन्दरता आदि गुण दिखाई देते हैं ,उनमे स्त्रीत्व की कल्पना करके उनके वाचक शब्दों को स्त्रीलिंग कहते हैं .शेष अप्रानिवाचक शब्दों को बहुधा नपुंसक लिंग कहते है.हिंदी में लिंग के विचार से सब जड़ पदार्थों को सचेतन मानते है ,इसलिए इसमें नपुंसक लिंग नहीं है . यह लिंग नहीं होने की वजह से हिंदी की लिंग व्यवस्था पूर्वोक्त भाषों की अपेक्षा कुछ सहज है ;परंतु जड़ पदार्थों में पुरुषत्व की कल्पना के लिए कुछ शब्दों के रूपों को तथा दूसरी भाषों के शब्दों के मूल लिंगों को छोड़कर और कोई आधार नहीं है .अतः यह कहना कि पुरुष प्रधान समाज ने व्याकरण में लिंग -निर्धारण तथा उनका औचित्य स्त्री-समाज को दबाने के लिए बनाया हो ,अनुचित होगा .भारतीय समाज भले ही पुरुष प्रधान रहा हो ,परन्तु शक्ति की पूजा आदिकाल से करता आया है. अर्थ समझाने का यह भेद अगर पुरुष -स्त्री वर्ग में विभेद व् शोषण का कारण बनता हो ,तो सही मायने में डॉ सरोजिनी साहू द्वारा उठाया गया मुद्दा निसंदेह एक शोध का विषय है. इस ओर ध्यान आकर्षण के लिए डॉ सरोजिनी साहू को बहुत बहुत बधाई !


  12. The gender issue in languages is one of the major issues that needs to be questioned by the feminists apart from other agendas.The feminist all over the world have questioned many givens of the society.And the givens or the structures were advocated by men including language.A research in this area would certainly lay bare the sexist nature of languages .And how power is weilded by means of words and their masculinity.A gender neutral language is not impossible but it will require a kind of rigorous deconditioning.I am glad that feminist like sarojini sahoo has initiated a debate on this matter.Another noteworthy thing in Hindi language is that all the abuses are associated with women,or with the maternal side.Why the derrogatory words are feminine if i may ask?

  13. le Tumbillon11:26 PM

    I consider myself a feminist, I would say a radical feminist except that I am not as concerned with theoretical issues as with repelling discrimination and prejudice in real life. Yet I continue to experience moments of surprise when I read something like "The shopkeeper turned the corner and ran into *her friend." Identifying apparently gender-neutral nouns by default with men is an automatic process for many readers or speakers of historically gender-biased languages. I do not question the existence of this bias, but I do wonder if this is a very important issue? That moment of surprise is brief and does not detract from my following the narrative; and would not I think prevent me from being a shopkeeper if I wanted to, and so on. While forms such as "authoress" and "lawyeress" sound ridiculous -- I don't see why we should shun altogether nouns that indicate gender. Do a male and a female poet write about the same things, and in the same way? Of course they do, for the most part, but still most readers can "make out" gender. Gender is not concealable. For better or worse men and women experience the world differently. The bulk of our experience is similar, just as is the bulk of our biology and brains... but the fact remains that there are differences, all of which are probably socially created but for many of which there are also biological and evolutionary bases. Just as gender should not intrude on one's work, neither can gender be left behind. And why should it? Sex and gender are both integral parts of our ego. I can't leave my biology behind, or my gender behind, when I enter a formal setting, than I can leave my age or my history behind. If the gender of the person is known, I like to see words specifying it: such as "firewoman." If nothing else it enables me to visualise the person. Of course it is ridiculous to read things like "the pretty chairwoman wearing a green sari entered the room." But to create a language that takes pains to hide gender does not seem to me to be constructive. Gender cannot be hidden in life and it should not be hidden in language. It is a central part of the human identity. I hope the day will soon come when we can just tick M/F and just get on with our lives :-)

  14. in German the word "spruce" is masculine and the word for
    "palm tree" is feminine.

    in French the word for "apple" (pomme, f.)
    is feminine, and the word for "apple tree" (pommier, m.) is masculine..

    (see Bachelard's The Poetics of Reverie (especially in it s original French-lang edition)

    Anne Waldman, Diane DiPrima, etcs., are POETS I do not nit-pic or disrespect their net-worth by making gender a social-political-economic-religious seems to be
    "the way of the world"

    seems whoever is the dominator (physically and mentally, militarily and religiously, economically compellingly ) defines The Morality that enslaves the the dominee

    what was that old/ancient childrens' jingle?

    "sticks and stones
    will break my bones

    but, words will never
    hurt me."

    that is nonsense... words can and do hurt..

    and so do bullets!

  15. Suraj Prakash9:03 AM

    Not only in German,in Hindi 'Rose' (Gulab) is masculine.The mustache (Moochh) of a man is feminine. Men’s wear shirt (Kameej) is also ‘feminine’ It seems that no one can give any absolute explanation about gender determination in any language.

  16. AM

    How are prepositions affected by gender cosiderations? Kindly exemplify

    Pabitra Kar

  17. Prepositions (Vibhakti) in Hindi are highly affected by the gender of the nouns. To mean one's book, it is said'uski kitab'. Here 'kitab' (book) is feminine , so the feminine term of prpositon 'ki'is used.

  18. A wonderful and well written article initiating thoughts and many more questions unanswered as usual.
    with best wishes!


  19. Itis a very interesting topic for the patriarchal society like India to think on gender and language. The dialogue has been started.
    Imagine, how manymother tongues arethere in india- may be more than 6500 . BUt the linguistics group the many languages in to some languages and group them within 1690.
    All these 6500 languages are mother tongues ,erant from the mothers and these are eliminated.Language is also the victim of gender discrimination.
    Happy to know that some people think on it.

  20. so much study had been done for the,difference for the gender issue wonderful,keep it up

  21. Chittaranjan Misra4:42 AM

    The debate started by Sarojini will generate a body of theoretical responses and I hope will lead to solutions that are socially practicable.
    Every man is born of a woman.Just as a stream cannot flow upwards man can never have total knowledge of and power over the source.
    Man is not the binary opposite of
    woman in the scheme of nature but a partial manifestation of woman.

  22. An excellent thorough post on this subject.

    A related question of language consciousness, though not of gender consciousness, is the use of articles. Among the languages I know, all European, it is significant whether there are definite and indefinite articles normally used, or not.

    English has simple but persistent articles; they don't change with case or gender, but they are rarely omitted: a, an, the; and plural some. Russian has none of these articles. So the Russian statement rendered literally in English, "I saw shoe," would come into English as "I saw a shoe" or "I saw the shoe" -- but only as "I saw shoe" if the conversation has been about envisioning archetypal ideas!

    Does this mean that Russian language helps its speakers think ideally -- while English helps its speakers to think concretely, of physical things?

    This goes far from gender studies, but there is the same background question: how does a language, and particular uses of language, give direction and tendency to our ways of thinking, even of being able to think!

  23. In ancient China there was a secret womens language/writing that was developed by and for women called "nu shu". It was believed to be developed a thousand years ago in a remote area of southern Hunan province. :)

  24. In my teen days, we used a code language to send secret messages in between girls. This language was never used by boys. It was a very much specified girlish language. For example, to say MU JIBINI( I will not go) , we used: Muk nU JIk Baki pIk Naki binI. I am going to post another article on the languages from Mars and Venus at my other blog FEMININE-FRAGRANCE within a fortnight.

  25. शब्दों के लिंग निर्धारण सम्बन्धी समस्या का एक समाधान यहाँ देखिए।

  26. This is a very thought provoking post. Thanks for the initiation.

  27. This is a wonderful and thought provoking article. But I feel the word are not built or design consciously, it is as a result of evolution. No one can say that why some thing is called school, city or country, we accept it as it is without argument. As Dalip barad says” I have always felt that our consciousness was/is never 'discriminating' towards feminine issues".
    मिसा भीदी जॆसे"मेरी ताक़त, सॆना आरही हॆ
    Sarojini Sahoo is a learned and highly respectable woman, To advise her is like "सूरज को चिराग़ दिखाना हॆ।
    I must say it should not over shadow the real issues of women.

  28. Thank You Sarojini for this post. As a native bengali-speaking person I had to struggle with gender-based pronoun initially after coming to the US. I think languages affect the way we think, feel and behave. I am wondering how many Indian languages have gender-free pronoun? I was also thinking how ancient languages like Pali (magadhi) and Sanskrit, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek etc use gender in their personal pronoun.