Gender Neutrality in English

International Women’s day: A Reason to Celebrate Change

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March 8th is a very special day because it is International Women’s Day. On this day, people all over the world pay respect to the hard work that women have done and continue to do. The first International Women’s Day was held in New York City on February 28th, 1909. Some 106 years later we continue the tradition.

In that time, a lot has changed. Women’s position in society is much different than it was back in 1906. Women now have much more power in the workforce and in general have much more independence and freedom than they did before. These changes didn’t come without a lot of struggle though. Many women were arrested and harassed for fighting against their male-ruled societies. With these societal changes, so too has the English Language changed.

Let’s have a look at the ways English has made a shift away from male exclusivity and taken a more gender-neutral approach. (Note: Gender-neutral language refers to language that is applicable to both male and female genders)

Taking the “Man” Out of the Job

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In Old English (an old version of English that came before modern day English) the suffix man meant “person”. However, in present-day English we associate man more with masculinity. So when someone says fireman, or policeman we generally tend to think that the person doing the job is male. Since there are many females who do these jobs now though, these words are now often seen as out-dated and it is common to see their gender-neutral variations.
As such, instead of fireman it is very common to hear firefighter now. Instead of policeman we often say police officer. Chairman is often now referred to as chairperson or just chair. And instead of salesman you might hear salesperson or sales representative.

Removing the Mark of Difference

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Similarly, other jobs which used the suffix “ess” to denote that the person doing the job was female – such as waitress, actress, hostess –are being used less and less nowadays. Though actress and waitress are still quite commonly used, increasingly more and more women are referring to themselves as actors, or waiters or servers. In fact, the Screen Actors Guild gives out awards each year for both “Best Male Actor” and “Best Female Actor”. The idea is that women’s job titles shouldn’t be marked variations from the masculine form (i.e. something is added to the masculine form to make the female form). Because of this, many people in favour of gender- neutral language refrain from using the marked female variations.

The Rise of the Ms.

In addition, changes in the relations between men and women have also lead to a fundamental shift in the way we address one another. Whereas before, women were distinguished by whether or not they were married or single (Mrs. and Miss), today it is much more common to hear woman being addressed with the title Ms. (pronunciation: Miz). When someone is referred to as Ms. we do not know whether they are married or single. With this change, women now have the same privacy that men have enjoyed with the title of Mr. (which is used for both married or single men).

For a more in-depth look at gender-specific titles check out this video:

I hope you found this article informative and had yourself a very lovely International Women’s Day!

Joshua Mover

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