Gender sensitive writing

First of all, I am not a linguist! But I am speaking to the converted, when I say gendering is important: the old he/she dichotomy creeps into most sentences in some way.  FYEG being constituted by persons with different linguistic backgrounds, I thought it could be interesting to compare the different ways of gendering language. If I am completely honest, I have been carrying the suspicion around with me that English is the potentially most gender neutral language and instead of blurting out my theories as I usually do without a lot of back-up, I thought I would do some research on this to back up my claims but I doubt a real conclusion can be found 

Here is why this suspicion has built up in my obsessively gender deconstructing brain: many nouns that are gender specific in German and Romance languages are not male-specific in English like doctor, student or judge. The French docteur, the German Student, the Spanish juez are all male and the equivalent female version is used when the person in question is female (la médecin, Studentin, la jueza)– which a lot of people do not do. In gender neutral nouns you still have the underlying assumption the person behind the noun is male though.

Also in English, you are traditionally forced to identify a person with a gender-specific pronoun, so he or she. I have heard the pronoun they being revived from ancient English to refer to a person when you do not wish to represent them as woman or man. The Swedes even recently took to formally creating the third pronoun hen (besides han and hon)! In German and Romance languages you need to get a bit more creative to avoid the gender-specific pronoun – like speaking in gender neutral plural rather than singular in German. In French and Spanish even the plural is gender-specific though (it just turns male as soon as ONE dude joins a group of women).

English as all other languages is nested in a patriarchal culture and the aim of gender sensitive writing – as I see it – is to break with this culture, that is more specifically to rupture unconscious pre-formed images we have that derive from patriarchal culture. Concrete example: We hear ‘scientist’ and – let’s be honest – none of us thought of a black woman in a white lab coat.  In German I can say Wissenschaftlerin or Wissenschaftler_in* with a gender gap (making a little break before the -in), usually causing some irritation.

So I started thinking for me gender sensitive writing and speaking is just about that small moment of irritation when we hear a word or a phrase differently than usual – even if it is not further explained and does not lead to a full-blown gender discussion. It’s about rupturing the pre-formed images.

My brisk and completely amateur conclusion thus is: I think you may need less words in English and the Scandinavian languages to gender your language, but if gendering is about causing some good old irritation, you may even have less opportunities to do so (ha!). So, whatever language, cause some irritation, you have the opportunity!