How is the rise in gender equality affecting language?

15/03/2019 | Rebecca Twose

Here at Language Insight, we value equality and diversity, and so gender equality is an issue that we take seriously as the battle for equal rights continues across the world. Gender stereotyping is a hot topic in politics today as attitudes towards gender in the West are undergoing change. Today issues like the pay gap between male and female employees doing the same job, and misconduct towards women in the workplace, are starting to be taken more seriously.

For years, retailers have used different terminology and colour schemes depending on the gender they are targeting. Products that were aimed at little girls would be packaged in bright pink boxes, and for boys it would be vibrant greens and blues. However, in recent years conversations questioning gender stereotyping have become more common and retailers have been called out if their products involve stereotyping. Morrison’s are just one of several UK brands that have been accused of this when customers were disappointed to find that a T-shirt for little boys said ‘Little man, big ideas’ whereas the female equivalent of the T-shirt read ‘Little girl, big smiles’ implying males were more likely to be intelligent than females. Since then, retailers like John Lewis have started working towards becoming more gender neutral by removing gendered children’s sections from their stores altogether.

Using Gender Neutral Language

The movement towards more gender neutral terminology is something that has been discussed at national and international level as the European Parliament has been working since the 1980s to ensure that it uses language that is gender neutral and non-discriminatory. This has led to some countries like Norway to completely reform its language in order to make it more gender inclusive.

The official languages of the European Union have been split into three categories to make it easier to put strategies in place for each language:

  • Natural Gender Languages

These include languages such as English, Danish and Swedish where there are personal pronouns for each gender (He or She). With natural gender languages, the aim is to reduce the use of gender-specific terms. Therefore, English terms such as ‘chairman’ ‘policeman/women’ ‘stewardess’ ‘headmaster/mistress’ have been officially changed to ‘chairperson’ ‘police officer’ ‘flight attendant’ and ‘headteacher’. This change has led to the disappearance of the older female forms, by making the previous male form unisex for example ‘actor’ is now used to refer to either a male or female rather than just a male actor. Also, more gender-inclusive is used, replacing ‘he’ which was previously used to refer to both genders with ‘he or she’.

  • Grammatical Gender Languages

German, Italian, French and Slavic languages are all examples of grammatical gender languages. This means that every noun has a grammatical gender, and the gender of personal pronouns usually matches the reference noun. With these languages, it would be nearly impossible to create new gender-neutral terms for all of these phrases as it would completely disrupt the grammatical structure of these languages therefore feminisation is an increasingly popular alternative approach that has been taken in these languages to make them more gender inclusive. Feminisation is the use of feminine versions of masculine terms for example, many professional terms such as ‘doctor’ and ‘surgeon’ are masculine terms but ’midwife’ and ‘nurse’ are both feminine, this has unsurprisingly led to feelings of discrimination, therefore, feminine correspondents have now been created for these masculine terms which can used interchangeably.

  • Genderless Languages

Genderless languages include Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian. These languages have no grammatical gender and no pronominal gender. These languages are therefore pretty gender inclusive compared to other languages and don’t need as much attention in trying to make the language more gender neutral.

What does the rise in Gender Neutral Language mean for Translation?

Working in the translation industry means there’s a whole new layer of mystique to this issue of gender, particularly when many translators are working between English and a language that’s very liberal in its use of gendered words. The French language has words that are either masculine or feminine, for example a book is masculine and a table is feminine, but at least when they are translated into English they both become ‘the’. French and some other languages also have words that, regardless of who they’re referring to, are always masculine or feminine which can be problematic for translators when trying to be as gender neutral as possible.

Machine Translation Accused of Sexism

Gender bias in some languages has caused some issues for machine translation tools especially now that gender is such a sensitive topic. In previous years, Google Translate had only offered users one translation per query, even if the query could have either more than one form and more often than not the masculine version was the only option given to users. This meant that terms such as ‘strong’ or ‘doctor’ were only given masculine pronouns, whereas ‘beautiful’ and ‘nurse’ were given only feminine pronouns.

Screenshot of Google translate showing how they now provide translations with options for both genders
Google translate now gives options for both genders after being accused of gender bias

In order to make sure their translation tool was more gender inclusive, Google announced that from November 2018 their tool will suggest more than one translation including both masculine and feminine options. At the moment this is only available in certain, key languages (for example English into French, German, Italian and Turkish), but Google claim they are planning to extend gender-specific translations to more languages in the future.

As attitudes towards gender continue to change, there is no doubt that languages worldwide will continue to be affected. Therefore, making sure languages are politically and socially correct will be an ongoing task, not only for translators but for all languages speakers.

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