“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? – George Orwell, 1984

I just started taking French classes recently (I had taken a year in college, but mostly forgotten just about everything).

Two observations so far (a colleague calls what I’m about to do “fem-rage.” I call it, shouldn’t everyone be enraged?):

  1. Madame vs. mademoiselle. My class is taught by an Indian woman. In the first class, all the men were taught to introduce themselves as “monsieur”. Then, when it came time for the women to introduce themselves, we were each asked by the professor to clearly delineate whether we were “madame” (the professor mimicked wearing a ring on her ring finger) or “mademoiselle”. Why do I have to reveal this information when all the men in the room don’t? I’m told these terms aren’t even used widely to distinguish married vs. unmarried women in France anymore. Interesting that when French gets taught, even at Alliance Francais (an official center sponsored by the French government) in Hyderabad, we are taught that women have to clearly state their marital status, whereas men don’t. (Don’t get me started on all the other ways I have to do this – in the U.S., I often have to check whether I am Ms. or Mrs. or Miss; in India, most all of my official paperwork requires the name of my father or husband)
  2. Ils. Oh, ils. When there are many females, we say “elles” for “them”. When there are many males, we say “ils”. Now tell me, what do we say when there is one female and one male? “Ils.” What about when there are 5 females and one male? Yup, you got it. “Ils.” (The professor laughed about how males always dominate! Ha-ha? I’m not amused.)

If we’re pushing for cultural changes, did we learn nothing from George Orwell’s 1984 about how much language affects our thoughts (and behaviors)? Shouldn’t all of these misogynistic language structures (which by the way, exist in every language I’ve learned so far) – which teach kids from their very first method of communication that males dominate all – be something we’re a little more worried about as a society? A recent, disheartening study showed that not only do male peers think their male peers are smarter, but female peers do, too – even when grades prove otherwise.

Bravo to the Swedish Academy, which introduced the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” (in addition to “he” and “she”) last year. “The pronoun is used to refer to a person without revealing their gender – either because it is unknown, because the person is transgender, or the speaker or writer deems the gender to be superfluous information.”  Again, the northern Europeans beat everyone else at the equity table…I guess barely anyone else is even at the table yet…

I’m also starting Telugu classes. Will report back to you on “interesting” language structures there soon.



One thought on “Why language should be a bigger part of gender equality discussions

  1. We do have gender neutral pronouns in English too, but (from an outsider perspective) ‘hen’ seems to have caught on more than any of ours have.

    English examples:

    ‘hir’ rather than ‘his’ or ‘her’

    ‘ze’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’

    ‘Mx’ rather than ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’, ‘Miss’, or ‘Ms’

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