Is English a sexist language?

Adam   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 13:32 GMT
Does that fact that English has no gender (apart from personal pronouns such as "he", "she", and "it", which are masculine, feminine and neuter respectively, and some nouns such as "prince/princess", "actor/actress", and "aviator/aviatrix") actually make English a sexist language? For example, some nouns (e.g. "surgeon") are perceived as masculine even if the surgeon is a woman, whereas other languages would have a masculine AND and feminine noun for "surgeon."
Andy Mad   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 14:17 GMT
i don't think so, in fact surgeon is also a "male" noun in russian, the same goes to psycologist, dentist, driver and many other professions...
Mxsmanic   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 19:10 GMT
One can always refer to living human beings as "it," in order to avoid any hint of sexism; there's no rule of grammar that forbids it. However, by convention, human beings are always referred to as "he" or "she," and using "it" is considered insulting. Some people use "they" for the singular in order to avoid having to choose between "he" and "she," but many people consider this substandard, and it's not technically correct.

Just about everything else in English is "it," except for large animals and/or animals familiar to the speaker. Some romantically inclined people refer to vehicles or other objects as "she," but this is definitely a bit archaic and arguably rather sexist as well. A few people also refer to computers and computer software as "he"; in this case it's more anthropomorphism than sexism.
Damian   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 21:07 GMT
Ed   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 22:52 GMT
ships are reffered to as "she"
Dulcinea del Toboso   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 23:18 GMT
That English words such as "surgeon" specify neither male nor female actually supports the argument that English is *not* sexist. If there were a male and female form of the word, then one would have to choose which form to use in a statement such as "Have you selected a surgeon?".

However, whether there is a male and female form of a word or not, neither possibility makes the language or the speaker "sexist". Sexism exists only in attitude. If most people think "surgeon" refers to a male, that perception will change only when the proportion of female surgeons increase.
Cly   Thursday, August 19, 2004, 12:54 GMT
I'd like to see a non sexual pronoun as " ze " to refer to a hermaphrodite person.
Denis   Thursday, August 19, 2004, 13:39 GMT

<<Does that fact that English has no gender ... actually make English a sexist language? >>

If a language has no gender it doesn't distinguish them!
Can't you see, Adam?
Juan   Thursday, August 19, 2004, 13:40 GMT
Adam sez:
<<Is English a sexist language?>>

No, it isn't. It's actually pretty diplomatic if you ask me. :-)
Damian   Thursday, August 19, 2004, 15:49 GMT
I think English is definitely "non sexist". Gender definitions are not an issue in the main. That's why I used the word "asexual". The definite article "the" covers everything and therefore no gender definition is involved. Languages such as French have just got to be sexist, when nouns, for instance, have a distinct gender....masculine or feminine. This is apart from nouns the gender of which are obvious such as mother, father, brother, sister, etc. Then you have less obvious maison, le livre etc. Then you have German - der, the additional neuter gender - das. If you are native speakers of these languages I suppose you instinctively know which article applies. I'm glad English is non-sexist as we don't have the problem of knowing which to use!

I agree....English IS very much diplomatic, and it can be useful in certain circumstances.
Easterner   Monday, August 23, 2004, 16:37 GMT
I think there is too much obsession with eliminating all gender-specific references from English altogether, to the point of being ridiculous. Now I think of it, I cannot even think of a way to translate the word "sexist" into my native tongue, Hungarian, because nobody here would make it a concern to refer to males or females in the same "asexual" way, as is the case with professions.

Looking at other languages, referring differently to males or females with the same profession is pretty normal. German has "Lehrer" ("teacher") and "Lehrerin" ("female teacher"), which is quite natural, Italian has "dottore" and "dottoressa", Hungarian (a completely "genderless" language, by the way), uses "bírónö" ("female judge") besides "bíró" ("judge"), especially when addressing the given person. Thus we have "bírónö" or "doktornö" corresponding to something like "madam the judge" or "madam the doctor" which is a mark of politeness and respect (as "dottoressa" is in Italian)! Of course this is completely absent from English, where you don't address somebody politely like "Mr Doctor" or "Madam Doctor", but use their last name instead. However, just a look at these examples may prompt you to think twice about exaggerated concern with sexism. And I do think "he or she" is also awkward! I tend to use "he" in English when I think of a person in general, unless the context dictates that you should use "she" (e.g. it's no question what to use when talking about single mothers or female health issues). And I would certainly never use "significant other" :-)!

So I agree with Dulcinea that everything depends on attitude. You can find some useful thoughts on this (written by a woman, by the way) at:
Easterner   Monday, August 23, 2004, 18:50 GMT
Alas, for the sake of correctness, I have to withdraw my last statement! The essay was actually written by a man, though admittedly due to some prompting from a female colleague, so I was just partly right.
Easterner   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 08:20 GMT
Just one more point about using profession names which are marked or non-marked for gender.

I am aware that some profession names with a female form ending in "-ess" have a derogatory connotation. Therefore, even if English has the word "poetess", I would not use it when talking about, say, Sylvia Plath, because that would suggest that I look down on her as a poet, while I think she was a very good one. So it is normal for me to call her a "poet". On the other hand, I am happy to refer to Nicole Kidman or Meryl Streep as "actress", because this word has no such connotation, and it would be very strange to refer to them as "actor".

On the other hand, non-marked profession names do have "male" or "female" associations depending on whether it is more usual to see a man or a woman in that role. When I hear "secretary" or "teacher", I visualise a woman more readily than a man, while "pilot" or "police officer" makes me think more of a man. But that, I guess, has nothing to do with sexism. The associations will be there unless by a miracle the proportions of male or female representatives of a given profession change dramatically overnight.
Damian   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 09:30 GMT
Sexism is ingrained, even with equal opportunities. A surgeon and his daughter were involved in a serious car accident and he was killed. She was rushed to hospital and then directly into the operating theatre. The surgeon involved looked at the victim and exclaimed in horror" "This is my daughter!" Some people hearing this would think that this didn't make sense and was impossible, not realising that the surgeon was the girl's mother.
Jim   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 11:20 GMT
A surgeon and her son were involved in a serious car accident and she was killed. He was rushed to hospital and then directly into the operating theatre. The surgeon involved looked at the victim and exclaimed in horror "This is my son!"

It still works this way I think.