Speaking of Gender | Crooked Media
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December 06, 2022
Speaking of Gender

In This Episode

Language can reflect and reinforce gender expectations. Are there ways to make language more inclusive?





Ahmed Ali Akbar: Let’s start today’s episode with a thought experiment. You’re going to hear a story.


Pascal Gygax: A little story that we use with children.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is Pascal Gygax. He’s a professor at the University of Fribourg and leads the Psycholinguistics and Applied Social Psychology Group.


Pascal Gygax: So the story goes as follows, a father and a son go on a trip. The father is driving and the son is next to him. Then they have a car accident and the father dies straight away. But the son is brought to the hospital. And when the son arrives at the hospital, the surgeon there goes to see this new patient and says, I can’t operate him. This is my son.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: So, how is this possible? Take a moment. Think about what your answer would be. I struggled with it for a second, but here’s mine. Presumably it’s because he has two fathers. He’s raised by two people who identify as male. [buzzer noise] Sorry, that is one possible answer. And Pascal says he’s getting this answer more and more in the last few years. But the answer he rarely gets?


Pascal Gygax: The surgeon is actually the mother of the boy. And it’s very interesting here the surgeon actually is preventing us to actually think about the mother as a possible surgeon.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: I told Pascal, that was pretty embarrassing for me, considering my wife is a student doctor.


Pascal Gygax: It is quite embarrassing for you. I have to admit it. I’m sorry about it.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Actually, in my personal life, most of the doctors I know are women-identified. My daughter’s middle name honors her great-grandmother, who was the first doctor in the family. But when abstracted out, I fall into a pattern many of us do. We assume the doctor is a man. At least in America, that linguistic disparity reflects an institutional one. Women are less likely to specialize in surgery, less likely to complete their training, they’re discriminated against and earn less than their male counterparts. By the way, Pascal runs the same experiment in other languages and finds the same results, more or less. When people hear the word surgeon, they imagine a man. Language and our worldview are tied together, but linguists don’t agree just how much. There’s no doubt, however, that language often reflects and reinforces the inequality in society. That includes inequality along gender lines. And that’s what we’re looking at in this episode. How does gender bias show up in a language and how can we make it more inclusive? From Crooked Media and Duolingo I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar and this is Radiolingo. Today’s episode, Speaking of Genders. [music break] So let’s start with some basics. There’s someone on our team I always turn to when I have questions about language, Duolingo’s Dr. Cindy Blanco. And you’re in New York at the Duolingo office right now, right?

Dr. Cindy Blanco: Yes. Yeah. We have an office in Manhattan.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: I invited her to walk us through three common places gender shows up in the structure of a language. Let’s start with the first concept, grammatical gender. Lots of languages that people might be familiar with, like Spanish and French, classify nouns as either masculine or feminine. I remember this from high school. El sol for example is masculine in Spanish. Or la luna, feminine. But these classifications aren’t universal. A word that is masculine in one language might be feminine in another. The important thing to know is the grammatical gender on inanimate nouns is not like human gender.


Dr. Cindy Blanco: They’re not given one of these gender categories because it has some characteristic that reminds us of human men or human women


Pascal Gygax: There’s no way you can logically think of the grammatical gender of an object and derive it and then get it right.

Ahmed Ali Akbar: Pascal Gygax, again. English doesn’t have gendered objects, but we do have gendered pronouns. That brings us to the second major way gender shows up in language, Cindy explains.


Dr. Cindy Blanco: So in English we might use he or she, but the verb doesn’t change. So, he walks, gives us an idea of a man or a boy walking, and we can change that to say she walks if we mean a woman or a girl, but that walks word doesn’t change. The verb can be used with anybody of any gender.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: The final place gender shows up is on the verb.  Some languages indicate gender on verbs, but not the pronouns, like many North Indian languages. The sentence, he walks in Urdu and Hindi is woh chalta hai. She walks is woh chalti hai. The pronoun, woh, is always entirely genderless, and you indicate gender on the verb, chalta hai or chalti hai. Even if you say I walk, you have to indicate your own gender. Main chalta hoon or main chalti Hoon. And then other languages indicate gender on pronoun and verb.


Dr. Cindy Blanco: In Russian, in the past tense, you’ll have different pronouns [speaks Russian] for a man and [speaks Russian] for a woman, and the verb changes as well. So [speaks Russian] means he walked and [speaks Russian] means she walked.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Regardless of where geneder is marked in a language, the grammar of many of them can center men over women.


Dr. Cindy Blanco: The situation is that masculine words for people are often the default.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Studying Spanish, Urdu, and Arabic, I asked my teachers, how you would gender a room full of, like, 9 women and 1 man? In all three languages, you would grammatically indicate that group as the masculine plural. Even if there’s 100 women and 1 man, you still say amigos, and not amigas. But what if grammatical gender wasn’t marked at all? This always excites me, the idea that some languages are genderless. It always seemed kind of utopian right? Like, completely able to sidestep some of the issues we have in other languages. So we turned to one of those genderless language. Turkish.


Roberta Micallef: Gender is not grammatically marked in Turkish. Neither pronouns nor nouns are specifically marked as masculine or feminine the way they are in French or Spanish or German.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Roberta Micallef is a professor of the Practice in World Languages and Literatures at Boston University.


Roberta Micallef: Turkish third person singular can be he, she, or it. So, it’s considered a genderless language.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Can I ask you what that pronoun is?


Roberta Micallef: In Turkish it’s oh. Persian which has the same one, except in Persian they refer to it as ooh, as opposed to oh.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: You know, in Turkish, if you say, a sentence like the surgeon is late, they walked to their vehicle, the sentence is completely genderless. There’s no information on the noun, the pronoun, or the verb, like all the other languages we talked about earlier. Sounds great, right? My utopia. But it came crashing down quickly. Roberta says there are all sorts of indicators that suggest gender in Turkish, just not in the grammar. It’s in the vocabulary.


Roberta Micallef: When somebody is performing a task that is not generally understood to be appropriate or to be usual for their gender, there is an idea that one should specify what the gender is. For example, if you’re going to talk about a long distance bus driver, if it’s a female, it’s most likely that the article will say [speaks Turkish], female driver. Because it’s not commonly associated with women to be a long-distance bus driver.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: So even though Turkish doesn’t have grammatical gender or equivalent words for he and she, gender still shows up in the way people speak.


Roberta Micallef: Oh, absolutely. I mean although the language is gender neutral, it doesn’t mean that a society is 100% egalitarian between men and women. Languages shape the cultures we’re in, they also reflect the cultures that we exist within. Every social utterance has a cultural and a social construct. So, to say genderless, okay, it’s a category that in a way makes sense, but it also really simplifies a complicated topic.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Not exactly the equal utopian language I had hoped for.  But what it demonstrates is that even without saying he or she we find other ways to signal gender to each other. I’m not saying that it’s itself a bad thing that languages have developed around the gender binary, and that it shows up in all these ways. But it does provide limitations around the way we talk about people and that’s worth paying attention to. That’s what Pascal Gygax studies.


Pascal Gygax: You know, we have a limited set of options to talk about an unlimited world. And because we have a limited set of options, language attracts our attention towards some properties of the world. The fact that you are saying a female doctor, you are attracting the attention towards the female. So language brings us to think about something in a different way than we would if we were to name it a little bit differently. So in that sense, it’s an attentional focus.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: In other words, when our language is infused with gender, it forces us to pay more attention to gender. But this can be a problem, because according to Pascal, our language so often has that built-in bias towards the male perspective, an androcentric perspective.


Pascal Gygax: Language is actually feeding it back, it’s feeding this androcentric perspective.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: We see this androcentric feedback loop when we do things like assume bus drivers or surgeons are male. And Pascal observes it in lots of other little ways.


Pascal Gygax:  There’s also another thing in language that actually pushes us to think of men as the central factor of society, it’s the word order. So, for example, we say men and women. We rarely say, women and men. We say husband and wife. We say Adam and Eve. People have always asked us, is it really important that we care about word order? And then if you think about it, if you think of the couples that you know around you, the person that you name first is probably the person that is most important to you. And when you understand that, you understand what happens if you’re in a society where we always name the same people first, you can see how this will actually nourish how we see those people in society.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: So making language more inclusive might mean intentionally swapping those structures. Or changing our phrasing, I, for instance, intentionally reduced my usage of the phrase you guys to groups of people because it was androcentric. But it took time and effort. My hope is that inclusive language makes a world where more people feel comfortable. Maybe you’ve heard all these pushes to fix English and thought, what’s the big deal? Do a few words really matter that much? For multiple groups of people, like trans and nonbinary folk, the answer is yes. So let’s talk about another group that’s been historically excluded from a discussion where their perspective would be extremely beneficial, trans folks in linguistics.

Lal Zimman: When linguists say, you know, we don’t have a stance on things like what pronouns people should use because that’s prescribing and we don’t do that, actually what’s being upheld is the more powerful group’s norms.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s after the break.



Lal Zimman: Language is often where transphobia or less than fully affirming attitudes toward trans people often shows up. As a result, trans people are often very sensitive to language and the implications that language holds because those implications often have significant and real impact on their lives.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Lal Zimman is the author of some of the only articles in the field of linguistics from the view within the trans community. Lal goes by he or they pronouns, and you’ll hear meuse they in this section.


Lal Zimman: I am a professor of linguistics at UC Santa Barbara, as far as I know, I’m the only openly trans tenured professor in a linguistics department in the U.S. and probably anywhere else.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Lal is an advocate for acknowledging the gender continuum in our language and challenging the gender binary. Their approach is widely but not entirely welcomed in academic circles. That’s because linguistics considers itself a scientific study, and as a result, linguists historically want to observe their subject, not influence it.

Lal Zimman: And so some linguists have continued to express that kind of attitude in response to trans language activism.

Ahmed Ali Akbar: But remember what we’ve learned about androcentric language, if we defend language as we use it today, what’s being upheld is the attitude of cisgendered folks. And that has impacts on people’s wellbeing.


Lal Zimman: We’re seeing a body of literature from psychology looking at the impact that it has on trans people’s mental health, not to have their identities recognized by others. Trans people experience really high rates of depression, anxiety, suicidality. And these experiences tend to be mitigated by having a supportive community. And so part of support means recognizing an identity. And to do that, we have to bring our language into play.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: You’re probably familiar with how many trans and non-binary folk use they/them pronouns, also known as the singular they. Lal started noticing an increased use of the singular they amongst trans folks in the early 2010s.


Lal Zimman: People weren’t really doing things, even in trans communities, like asking what pronouns do you use? And they/them wasn’t always the most popular pronoun in trans communities.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: So how did they/them become a widely preferred option?


Lal Zimman: I think the popularity of they/them pronouns has emerged in part just sort of this relationship between what was going on with people’s identities and social change and what was happening linguistically.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: There are other gender neutral pronouns, like ze/zir, but Lal says that those have recently fallen by the wayside. Despite being an advocate for inclusive language, I have clearly made many mistakes. There’s the surgeon example. I’ve been corrected on trans folks’ pronouns. And it’s something I really want to work on. It’s something I think we should all work on.So I asked Lal, from the perspective of trans linguistics, how do I make my language more inclusive?


Lal Zimman:  First of all, it’s okay if you feel anxious about this. It’s not something that necessarily comes easy to anyone. Trans people also have to learn about these things.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Lal says it’s important to seek out information from trans people about their pronouns, and do the work.


Lal Zimman: Building that muscle of practicing in a space that doesn’t directly impact trans people is a really great thing to do. I think also just being prepared for the fact that if you slip up, if you misgender someone or say something that’s kind of unintentionally cis-sexist or transphobic, to be able to kind of step back and listen to that and and to validate what is being said to you.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: My conversation with Lal about trans inclusive language in English made me think about how other languages can respect people’s gender identity. In Hindi and Urdu, It’s a little bit more complicated when you have to indicate gender on the verb. Like I said, even referring to myself, I have to say main chalta hoon if I identify as a man, and main chalti hoon if I identify as a woman. But here’s something, Cindy gave me an example of how activists are thinking about inclusivity in Spanish.


Dr. Cindy Blanco: There are other kinds of endings that people are kind of experimenting with.  They might say amigos y amigas, the masculine and the feminine, instead of using just one of the forms. Or they might say something like amiges, where they’re using this new vowel, a different vowel that isn’t associated with either gender.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Each language has its own approach to inclusivity. Like in French—


Dr. Cindy Blanco: They’re adding feminine gender for words or situations that were traditionally only masculine.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: For example, the term for president is historically masculine, but now its intentionally being used to also refer to women presidents. But of course, as Lal said, movements to make language more gender inclusive like the usage of they/them as a singular pronoun, have been criticized. There’s this pushback, how dare you change language? Well, sorry to break it to you, but language has already changed. People just assume there’s some pinnacle of pure, unadulterated language that we’re striving for. And maybe I’m sounding like a broken record, but spoiler alert, there is no pure, original form of any language. Language is always changing. That, at perhaps it’s most basic, is what the whole field of linguistics is here to study. Since we’re talking about singular they, it’s worth noting that it’s already an example of language change. Old English had different pronouns when referring to more than one person. But in the 10th century, the English ditched those words and adopted they/them pronouns. These new words were introduced by an invading arm, the Vikings.  And it wasn’t long before they/them was used to refer to individuals as well, the same way trans and non-binary folk use them today. When people complain about language changes, it’s usually not about language itself. They’re complaining about the people who use the language, their social economic status. Their race. Their education. Similarly, the pushback about the singular they isn’t just about pronouns. The idea is that this is a perversion of the natural way of language. But Pascal argues that language isn’t pure of politics, in fact, it is inherently ideological. What we speak has already absorbed all the gendered, politicized viewpoints of the society it’s in. For example, 17th century French grammarians argued to intentionally adopt the masculine as neutral pronoun because men were more noble than women.


Pascal Gygax: I like another metaphor that my colleague Christophe Benetton uses. He says, if language was a fruit, it would not be organic fruit. It would be a transgenic fruit.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Transgenic meaning genetically modified—


Pascal Gygax: Because there’s been so many forces trying to move language in ways that were political, that actually language, any language would be really transgenic. It’s not organic. It’s not a nice fruit that you would actually have and say, it grew in a very natural way. People have always tried to move language in ways that they wanted for a purpose.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Can activism and advocacy affect even the grammar of language?


Pascal Gygax:  I can answer this question by going a little different way, actually. I can say, can activism and ideology actually change the grammar to make it less fair? And actually history tells us that this is the case, because in 19th century, the grammarians both in England and in the States at the same time, decided to remove the singular they. They decided that he generic will become the dominant value. And it didn’t seem to bother them that it was already used for talking about a man,


Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s right. The singular they was used in America and the UK until men made a conscious decision to do away with it. In other words, Pascal argues that if language has been engineered towards exclusion, it can be engineered towards inclusion.


Pascal Gygax: When they did it actually, it lasted for a century. So why wouldn’t we do it the other way? If we can do it in this way, that we can do it in the other way, that’s for sure.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: So more gender neutral pronouns? More gender neutral professional terms? They’re something we can reach for and something we can accomplish, if we look to establish a more egalitarian world.


Lal Zimman: With more visibility of non-binary identities and non-binary pronouns, I think that’s part of what has allowed some states to introduce a marker on IDs other than male and female, for instance. And that has a real impact on people as well.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: But will more inclusive language make the world more equal?


Lal Zimman: So it’s all kind of part of this moving, breathing system where different parts influence each other. And I don’t think that fixing language will fix other things per se. But I don’t know if you can fix the other things without also fixing language.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: To me, that seems like a good way to see this whole inclusivity question. Language is never unbiased, never neutral. We make choices whenever we speak, some intentional, like the pronouns we use to describe people. Some unintentional, like the assumptions we make about a woman’s profession because of what culture tells us is an appropriate type of work for them. So there is room for change. This has been an episode of questions, from me as someone who benefits from the masculine-centric way language is structured, but is interested in making my language more inclusive. I’ve heard the same thing from all the linguists I spoke with. First, languages reflect the cultures we exist in. If the culture values men over women, so will the language. And if the culture isn’t welcoming to folks who are trans or non-binary, neither will the language. But there’s something good we learned too, language evolves. And languages move with the culture too. We won’t make a more inclusive culture without working on our language. But a more gender neutral or trans inclusive language won’t make a difference if the culture doesn’t reflect those ideals.


Lal Zimman: You really have to incorporate it into the way you see the world.


Ahmed Ali Akbar: Radiolingo is an original podcast from Duolingo and Crooked Media I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar, your host, writer and producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Sandy Girard and Katie Long. From Duolingo, executive producers are Laura Macomber and Timothy Shey. This episode was produced and co-written by Elizabeth Nakano and story edited by Lacy Roberts. Our associate producer and fact checker is Brian Semel. Our theme and original music is by Carly Bond with mixing sound design and additional music by Hannis Brown. Additional research and production support from Crooked Media’s Ari Schwartz and Duolingo’s Cindy Blanco, Emily Chiu, Alexa Fernandez and Hope Wilson. Special thanks to Crooked Media’s Danielle Jensen and Gabriella Leverette and Duolingo’s, Michaela Kron, Monica Earle and Sam Dulsimer for promotional support.