Wednesday, June 4

Male De(fault)

Reading this blog entry on “The F-Word” has once again made me wonder about languages ... or rather the importance people put into them.

Naturally, language is important. Without it, we couldn’t communicate with each other. I could not write this post - and even if I did, you could not read it. But that is not what people in discussions as the one mentioned above focus on. This is not the discussion about how important language as a such is - and how much easier a lot of things could be if we all spoke the same language, indeed.

The post I’ve mentioned above is about the fact that the default in language if you’re addressing an audience whose gender you don’t know is male. Mostly it’s ‘he’ people use in that case. Words like ‘mankind’ are also mentioned.

Yes, a bit more than fifty percent of humankind on this planet are female by now, so maybe we should switch to ‘she’ and ‘womankind’ in the future. And English is a very forgiving language when it comes to male/female nouns or pronouns. In German, the syllable ‘in’ has to be added to the word for a job to include women - which is probably why I don’t want ‘he or she’ to be the future in such cases. I see the difficult and high-strung language this kind of political correctness produces in Germany. Let’s show an example, shall we?

If I were to search for a baker in London, my advert in a newspaper (or on the internet) would be something along those lines (without finer details):

Baker wanted, please apply under phone number 123456.

Short, easy to read and easy to understand. And there’s not a single word in there which suggests the job is only for men, is there? Now let us take a look at the same advert in Munich:

Bäcker/in gesucht, bewerben Sie sich bitte unter der Telefonnummer 123456.

Let’s not compare the lengths of the sentences. German sentences tend to be a bit longer than English ones. Let’s only take a look at the first word in both sentences.

In English, the word ‘baker’ applies to both genders. The same goes for other jobs. Whether it’s a hair dresser, a mechanic, a carpenter or a doctor, the word itself does not suggest the gender, our expectations might. So we might expect a mechanic or carpenter to be male, because we’ve grown up seeing and learning such jobs were for boys. (My mother, for example, wanted to be a carpenter - and would have been a good one, too -, but never got the chance when she was young. Girls just didn’t become carpenters then.)

In German, an artificial-looking construction is necessary to show applicants can be both male and female. As words in an advert are expensive (and newspapers and magazines have limits for the length of an article), political correctness has forced companies to create that artificial ‘neutral’ word “Bäcker/in” instead of the longer “Bäcker oder Bäckerin”. This creation is used in almost every sentence in which both men and women are meant (luckily, the German word for mankind is “Menschheit” and ‘Mensch’ is neutral as a such).

I hate reading such sentences - even though I am a feminist myself, at least to a certain degree (I’m not a fundamentalist of any kind). They destroy the natural flow of the language.

So, yes, most languages on earth (at least the three I can speak - German, English and French - and probably most others) set the male as default. And that’s wrong, no question about this. But the development of languages (of the written and spoken language, not the slang of teenagers or certain social groups) is a slow one. Men have basically ruled the world for millennia of years and yet you expect the languages that developed throughout that time to change within mere years or decades? That seems a bit blue-eyed. And the recent ‘reform’ of the German grammar (something really necessary that failed abysmal, just in case you didn’t notice) has shown once more that languages can’t be forced to change more quickly. They move at their own pace.

In addition, how to really replace the ‘he’? ‘She’ isn’t any more appropriate. ‘Zie’ is something I don’t even want to think about, because it’s obviously artificial. ‘They’ might work, but haven’t we had the ‘royal us’ before? ‘He or she’ would be political correct, but it sounds so strung up (and will never become a standard wherever you have to pay by the letter or word). That leaves us with the ‘it’, doesn’t it? Technically speaking, ‘it’ should be perfect. It’s neutral, neither male nor female. It’s short, so no extra money for the additional letters. It exists already (as this paragraph shows). But it’s not even suggested in the post. Why? Why prefer a longer term (that could end up as the English equivalent of ‘/in’ as something like ‘s/he’) or the slightly old-fashioned-sounding ‘they’ to a simple ‘it’?

Because ‘it’ is for animals and inanimate objects (in English, French and German are different matters) - that would be my guess. It would be the ultimate political correctness, as it is - humans are animals, despite the fact that they have created some sort of culture. But even feminists don’t want the ultimate emancipation - being equal to all beings on earth. (And no, that remark is not here because I’m actually an anti-feminist and making fun of the brave feminist fighters. It’s here, because, even as a feminist, I can’t stay 100 percent serious when it comes to any topic. That’s my nature.)

On a lighter note, I’ve had a problem with the English language recently myself. I plotted the basic ideas for ‘Teria’ and realized that English is not very helpful if you want to put women in control. I have thirteen kingdoms on the planet Teria, each of them ruled by a queen (because that’s the whole point of the story). Still, I need to call them ‘kingdoms’, because the word ‘queendom’ does not exist. (It doesn’t exist in German either - and if it does in French, I’ve either never learned or forgotten it.) And that from a country which was ruled by various queens in the past ... a shame.

I have written about such topics of language before and I come to the same result I came to then:

As long as women are still ‘second choice’ in many other areas, I don’t see words as the main thing we have to fight for.

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