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Masculine, Feminine, or Truly Gender Inclusive?

Our ideas about gender roles might vary based on the language we speak.

Key points

  • Languages can have natural gender, grammatical gender, or be "genderless."
  • The masculine forms are usually considered the default or "gender-inclusive" forms.
  • Research suggests that this may create or reinforce stereotyped gender roles.

When the United Nations introduced guidelines with gender-inclusive strategies for six major languages, not everyone was keen to jump on the bandwagon. Some felt the changes altered the symmetry of their language, others felt it was awkward to try to learn to use new forms, while still others questioned the need to mess with what seemed to work just fine for centuries. But has language kept up with the direction the world is moving in terms of changing gender roles?

Gendered vs. genderless languages

Much seems to depend on the type of language we speak.

When surveying the many languages currently in use globally, we find they fall into one of three types: A language might have natural gender, grammatical gender, or no gender marking at all, a language type referred to as “genderless.” These differences seem to play some role in shaping our views about the roles that men and women typically occupy.

In what is referred to as a natural gender language, pronouns reflect biological gender (e.g., she), but nouns do not generally belong to a category like "masculine" or "feminine." English is a natural gender language because it marks gender on pronouns and some animate nouns (like lion versus lioness), but not other nouns like tree, desk, or book. Other languages classified the same way include the Scandinavian languages (although they have a bit of a different gender marking system than English).

In contrast, grammatical gender languages are languages like French, Spanish, Russian, or Hebrew that assign all nouns into a grammatical category of masculine, feminine, or, in some cases, neuter. In such a language, a noun can have both biological gender (i.e., refer to a female) and grammatical gender (be marked as masculine, feminine, or neuter).

Typically, in such situations, natural gender and grammatical gender align so, for example, the word for “girl” in French (la fille) and Spanish (la nina) are female in terms of biological gender and are marked as feminine in terms of grammatical gender category.

Since languages with grammatical gender also must have things like definite articles, numbers, and adjectives agree in gender marking, grammatical gender is pervasive throughout a sentence. For example, to speak generically about a child in French, one would say something like “un (masc.) enfant (masc.) heureux (masc.) est celui (masc.) qui joue avec des jouets” for what in English would translate simply as, “A happy child is one who plays with toys.”

Finally, genderless languages are those that do not have any rules for gender marking. Languages in this group include Finnish, Chinese, and Turkish, which do not have things like gendered pronouns. For instance, a Chinese speaker would use the pronoun "ta" when talking about someone else (e.g., in the third person), regardless of whether that person is male, female, or nonbinary.

The effects on speakers that these different systems have has long been debated, as it depends on whether one takes the view that language can influence how we think, an idea known as linguistic relativity, or whether one believes that language just transmits existing social patterns and behavior rather than creating them. However, the last couple of decades have seen a rise in empirical work on the issue that suggests it's both.

Pervasive gendering

One area of research considers whether grammatical gender influences how speakers think about who should inhabit certain kinds of roles or do certain kinds of work because such marking triggers an association with biological gender.

 Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay
A linguistic gender struggle.
Source: Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay

Researchers comparing languages have tried to determine whether gendered languages where speakers are always attuned to some form of gender marking (which can occur as often as every 10 seconds) and where the masculine gender is the default form might influence or reinforce sexist or biased attitudes.

For instance, comparing measures of gender equity across countries where the primary language was one with grammatical gender, natural gender, or was genderless, researchers found that language type predicted levels of gender equality: countries with a grammatical gender language had less economic and political participation by women.

Associative thinking

Though grammatical gender is mostly arbitrary, the partial overlap between natural and grammatical gender (with matching gender for words for girls, boys, men, and women) might influence speakers to make links to gendered characteristics.

As an example, in a number of studies, inanimate objects get described with stereotypically more masculine (strong, courageous) or feminine properties (warm, nurturing) depending on their grammatical gender. For example, in German, where the word for “bridge” is feminine, speakers described it as being pretty and fragile, while in Spanish where the word is masculine, it was described as strong and dangerous.

This type of association might start very early, as grammatical gender maps to biological gender for some nouns that children are very often exposed to (like moms and dads), potentially causing them to overgeneralize this relationship. To test this, one study compared young German children (with grammatical gender) to Japanese children (no grammatical gender) in the way that they determined whether an animal had a sex-specific biological property (made up by the researchers).

The study indeed found that German children used an animal’s grammatical gender category to decide whether the animal in question had the sex-specific property, e.g., they inferred giraffes had feminine properties because the word for giraffe is grammatically feminine. Japanese children, on the other hand, did not show this same pattern of response.

While this type of association may not mean much socially when describing a cucumber in German (the feminine noun, gurke), it certainly might influence how people view the typical sex of a doctor when the default term is a grammatically masculine noun (doktor).

Does reform work?

In short, it appears that habitual reminders of gender in language can subtly lead us to make certain kinds of assumptions about who we think is most often the "type" to take on different social and economic roles. The proposed solutions generally involve different degrees of language reform, particularly by making female and non-binary terms more linguistically visible. In other words, to change up the way normative gender roles are perceived, “she” and “they” need to become as prominent as “he.”

Are such reforms successful? As far as research might be able to predict, the answer is yes. Studies that compare similar groups' responses to gender-inclusive vs. gender-exclusive language forms have found that shifting away from masculine forms to those less gendered makes a difference in how people respond. For example, in very early research, Bem and Bem (1973) found that women were more likely to apply for jobs that might be stereotypically male when gender-neutral language was used.

More recently, a study with German participants asked people to read a news article about a geophysics conference using either default masculine, gender-balanced (male and female forms), or neutral (unisex) terms. They were then asked follow-up questions that, among other things, asked them to estimate how many women attended the conference. Using the generic masculine elicited the smallest estimate, while using the form that explicitly referred to women and men elicited the largest.

Similarly, in a study with Italian and German participants (both grammatical gender languages) using inclusive male/female words (such as Lehrerinnen und Lehrer, fem. and masc. for “teachers”) helped decrease professional gender stereotyping.

But the ultimate success or failure of attempts at language reform really rests with those in the language trenches who have the power to choose which forms they want to use. On that perhaps the jury is still out, though the last few decades have seen English “they” and Swedish “hen” become widely accepted and Hebrew has been shaken up by modern blended forms of generic nouns.

There is hope out there on the linguistic horizon, but a culture of inclusivity—and support for the adoption of linguistic forms to reflect it—is a necessary prerequisite.


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