Author Topic: Using nondiscriminatory English – Part 1  (Read 1483 times)

Joe Carillo

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Using nondiscriminatory English – Part 1
« on: April 30, 2024, 09:21:09 PM »
During the past several decades, a sometimes raucous but generally silent revolution has been taking place within the English language. This revolution—call it an induced evolution, if you may—is the much welcome shift of English toward nondiscriminatory grammar, structure, and form. Fanned by the civil libertarian and feminist movements in the major English-speaking countries, this movement has substantially freed the inherently sexist, chauvinist language of Chaucer and Shakespeare from some of its most vexing linguistic biases. For the first time in its over 1,500-year history, and well in keeping with its role as today’s global language, English is now consciously nondiscriminatory in its more formal forms. Informally, of course, it still has to find ways of cleaning up some more of the intractable semantic vestiges that prevent it from expressing total equality and respect for all individuals.

                                                        IMAGE CREDIT: PINTEREST.COM
Concerted efforts have been made in recent years to make English more
nondiscriminatory, neutral, or non-inclusive, such as by eliminating
specifically feminine versions of professions or using “they”
to refer to singular individuals


The language has of late been most successful in handling four problematic tendencies: (1) discriminating against women in word formation, grammar, and sentence structure; (2) universalizing human attributes in favor of men; (3) treating people asymmetrically based on such aspects as gender, age, and ethnicity; and (4) unfairly focusing on irrelevant, discriminatory characteristics of people when describing them in negative situations. We will examine these areas of success more closely, then look at the hard-core semantic structures for which English still has to find enduring nondiscriminatory alternatives.

Nondiscriminatory word formation, grammar, and sentence structure. For centuries, English had been bedeviled by its linguistic propensity not only to treat men as superior to women but also to emphasize the dependence of women to men. We all know, for instance, how inherently sexist the most common English idioms are, like “the man in the street,” “the best man for the job,” “one-man show,” and “man to man.” Similarly, its generic occupational nouns and job titles have for ages been male-oriented: “laymen,” “policeman,” “businessman,” “craftsman,” “fireman,” “postman,” and “salesman.”

Due to pressure from the feminist movement, however, major inroads have been achieved against this blatant sexism in the English vocabulary, making those phrases politically incorrect in educated circles. As nondiscriminatory equivalents for “the man in the street,” for instance, we now have “the average citizen,” “the average person,” or “an ordinary person.” For “the best man for the job,” we now have “the best candidate [applicant, person] for the job”; and for “one-man show,” we now have “solo show” or “one-person show.” In the occupational areas, of course, the following nondiscriminatory equivalents are now routine in formal circles: for “layman,” we have “laypeople,” “nonspecialist,” or “nonprofessional”; for “policeman,” we have “police officer”; for “businessman,” we have “business executive”; and for “fireman,” we have “firefighter.”   

English is also successfully veering away from the traditionally sexist way of adding the suffixes “-ess”, “-ette”, and “-trix” to feminize male words, as in “seamstress” for “seamster” and “poetess” for “poet,” “usherette” for “usher,” “bachelorette” for “bachelor,” “administratrix” for “administrator,” and “mediatrix” for “mediator.” Self-respecting women rightly saw this manner of word formation as trivializing and discriminatory, in much the same way as labeling a female professional as, say, a “woman doctor,” a “lady lawyer,” a “woman reporter,” or a “female accountant.” Such expressions are now scrupulously avoided, particularly in contexts where gender-specific reference is irrelevant. 

Avoiding the tendency to universalize human attributes in favor of men. Because of its inherent male chauvinism, the English language has historically treated men as the universal stereotype for humanity in general, glossing over women to the point of their total invisibility or exclusion. Thus, even the usually politically correct American president Abraham Lincoln couldn’t help but be male-chauvinistic in his “Gettysburg Address”: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth to this continent a new nation…” What happened, the feminists correctly ask, to the mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunts on board the ship Mayflower when it docked at Portsmouth? Today, of course, a politically astute editor or adviser would have easily convinced Lincoln to change “our forefathers” to “our forebears” or, even more semantically precise, to “our ancestors.” We are well advised to do the same in our spoken and written English in the interest of gender equality and political correctness.

Avoiding the asymmetrical treatment of people on such aspects as gender, age, and ethnicity. Another glaring discriminatory aspect of English usage that we must consciously avoid is the tendency to focus on the attributes or background of females in negative or unflattering contexts involving males, as in this statement: “Five suspected drug addicts, four of them teenage male students and the fifth a pretty coed, were arrested in a predawn raid on a drug joint in Taguig, Parañaque City.” (Why focus on the physical look of the woman yet be silent on how the men looked?) Such discriminatory language is now becoming rare in the more enlightened English-speaking countries, but it is still endemic in Philippine journalism, particularly in the English-language tabloids. We still have miles to go before we can finally exorcise such patently discriminatory goblins from our macho culture. (To be continued)

This is the first part of my 1,631-word  essay with the original title “Using nondiscriminatory language” that formed Chapter 135 of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 and published by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
Using nondiscriminatory English – Part 1

(Next: Using nondiscriminatory English – Part 2)        May 9, 2024

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. You can follow me on Facebook and X (Twitter) and e-mail me at j8carillo@yahoo.com.
« Last Edit: May 02, 2024, 06:40:45 AM by Joe Carillo »