Sexism-riddled English language?

Generally speaking, Betty Kirkpatrick is one of my favourite Caledonian Mercury contributors. Her Useful Scots word posts are as a rule both informative and witty. Nevertheless, her latest article was a big disappointment.

She maintains that ‘the English language used to be riddled with sexism and some of this has been removed, although not without controversy’ and then explains in detail that what she has in mind is the shift from words with male and female forms to ‘unisex’ ones. Now from the point of view of somebody grown up in Slavic languages, who later learned some Gaelic and nibbled a bit at French, the very idea that English was, even before this shift, ‘riddled with sexism’, is rather ludicrous.

Where are the ‘gender-sensitive’ articles, adjectives, third-person verb forms and so forth? (Delete as applicable. For example, Slavic languages don’t have different masculine and feminine articles. But then, Slavic languages don’t have any articles.) Where is the missing neuter gender as in Gaelic and French or the unpredictability of a Slavic noun’s gender?

In fact, this last is an absolutely endearing feature for learners of English. ‘You mean I don’t have to learn the gender of each noun as I go, as long as it is an inanimate object like a house or a book it is “it”? What? Even animals? So if I say, for instance, “beaver” or “otter”, it doesn’t automatically imply the gender unless I specify? Infuckingcredible! I love English!’

And in fact, another related endearing aspect for a teenage gay me was the ease with which the lyrics of many a love song sung by a guy to or about a woman could be easily converted into something sung to or about a man. One just turned every ‘she’ into ‘he’ and that was it. Fairly often one didn’t have to make any change at all. In other words, I liked English also for being so unsexist…

At the end of the article Ms Kirkpatrick praises the use of plural pronouns they/their &c for a single person instead of the ‘bit clumsy’ he/she, his/her &c. I have no problem with the former, even use it myself (it is no worse than using the singular after ‘two’ in Gaelic); yet I have no problem with the latter either and don’t see it any clumsier. Certainly no clumsier than some English tenses. Anyway, the idea cannot spread into Czech or French, where her example sentence Each student is aware that they must hand in their essay today would face the problem of the adjective ‘aware’ having different masculine and feminine forms even in the plural…

 

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