Gender Biased Words

The use of gender-biased words (”Purushartha” in this case) was pointed out in a comment on the last post. I had been thinking about it for quite sometime – somehow didn’t write about it. Now a context is there.

It does not take one any effort to see that almost all the languages are fraught with gender-biased words (what shall we do with the word “Rashtrapati”, if we have a female president someday!). The usages in most of the languages are also similarly biased (Using “He” when you are talking about someone whose gender is not known! Presently I am learning French and there are different words for “they” for the two genders – Ils and Elles for masculine and feminine respectively – but the one used for a mixed group is Ils!).

The “state of affairs” was pointed out to me for the first time by a self-proclaimed feminist friend of mine; sometime during my two years of stay at Ranchi (yeah, I never noticed it myself!). But seeing the kind of feminism she practiced (I would not go into details), I wasn’t inclined to give much thought to her cribbings. What I thought and still think about it is this – true the origin of the words/usages is because of the bias that was prevalent in the society (of course, it still is) when those words/usages were developed. But is language the right place to fight it out? The language is an outcome of the mentality. Trying to change the language without changing mentality can be compared to a situation being referred to in such contexts for ages – trying to address symptoms instead of addressing the disease.

So, where do the language and its corrections come? Language has ever been evolving. If mentality changes probably language will develop suitable words or probably the meanings of the words would themselves change/broaden; who knows? I do not know anything of linguistic – so can’t say how probable any of these possibilities are. But belief is what most of the things finally boil down to.

Later at IITK, I met some people (men!) whose egalitarian views (backed by action!) on the two sexes have left a long lasting impression on me. And no, they were not fanatic about words, but still were extremely careful about (not) using gender biased words and would always say “he or she”. -) Though the fact is that quite a few times, even to them, such clumsy usage did not come naturally and then they would go back and correct themselves! (What a confusing description I am giving). The lesson was this for me. I never doubted genuinity of their intentions and beliefs; and if words/languages did not come naturally even to them, then the language, as such, need not be much of an indicator of mentality. After all, much of the language we use does not come to us consciously! We have learnt most of it without caring about origin and exact meaning. This could as well work the other way. A person might have mastered the gender-neutral terminologies and still be sick at his/her (:D) mind.

Finally for me, since they still tried, I also try. But sometimes, it simply does not work – I am already confused about “Rashtrapati”. And even for “purushartha” or “paurush”, though I do not want to convey a characteristic only meant for “purush”, yet what gender-neutral word can convey those characteristics?

Baggage of history – this time the history of language…

One thought on “Gender Biased Words

  1. Since I am removing the Haloscan Comments, I am copy-pasting the comments I got on this post here.

    I am not sure about other languages but I guess there is more to words like “Purusharth” than gender bias. I am not very well versed but will try to put the idea across.
    I am sure u are aware of the conception of the two kinds of powers at the root of all creation, purush and istree and each one of them has its own characteristics. Now the point to be noted is that they do not corresponde directly to genders in physical world. A female can have much more purush gun than a purush and otherway round. So it makes perfect sense to talk about the purusharth of a woman if the context requires that.
    abhaya | 12.08.04 – 3:25 pm | #

    [Continued..]
    Now these words represent the qualities that are associated with those basic powers. Unfortunately through the history we have started to associate them with specific genders and since language is a mirror of the culture, probably it is okey if we look for replacments that are more in sync with today’s culture/philosophy. But as u urself say, we should look for reasons behind the existance of things before changing or rejecting them.
    abhaya | 12.08.04 – 3:25 pm | #

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