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Our linguistic lag on all things sex
By Roland Sussex
Updated Wed 9 Apr 2014, 10:10am AEST
Norrie May-Welby’s High Court win raises some interesting questions about our language and sex. (ABC News)
English has been rather slow in finding terms for people who don’t identify as “male” or “female”, and a recent High Court decision makes this issue all the more pressing, writes Roland Sussex.
The High Court’s decision in favour of Norrie May-Welby’s campaign to register as a person of “non-specific” sex has more than just legal and social implications.
It also leaves us with a new problem of language – well, an old problem now made public and more pressing – of how to refer to people of “non-specific” sex, and how to address them.
Katrina Fox wrote about the earlier stages of this saga on The Drum on March 31, 2010.
To clarify – academics can’t walk away from a chance to talk about definitions – this is all about sex. Gender is something else: the property of nouns in many languages to belong to classes that look like sex but aren’t.
In French, for instance, the word “lune” for “moon” is feminine. In German the corresponding word “mond” is masculine. Masculine, feminine and neuter belong to gender and are part of grammar. Sex is part of the real world, as are male or female, or – now – “non-specific”.
Sometimes gender and sex line up. The French word “taureau” for “bull” is masculine and refers to a male animal. But in French “sentinelle” for “sentinel”, usually performed by a male, has feminine gender. Go figure.
Some people use the terms “gender” and “sex” interchangeably. We will be more discriminating: we are talking about sex in language.
Norrie has undergone “sex reassignment surgery”, to the point where doctors are unable to assign Norrie to either male or female on the grounds of either biology or personality. This partly overlaps with the hijra in India, one of many terms for transgender people on the subcontinent. Some hijra refer to themselves with female pronouns and expect others to do so too. Others identify as male, or “third gender” or “third sex”.
English has been rather slow in finding terms for this group of people. But in terms of sex and language English has already come a long way towards removing, or at least marginalising, discrimination. This has been one of the really positive outcomes of political correctness.
For instance, we’ve succeeded with job names. A generation ago female job names like “stewardess” could only refer to females, but male job names like “steward” could include both males and females. Now we have removed the distinction and try not to refer to people or occupations in ways that identify the sex. “Flight attendant” and “fire officer” do just that, and include both or either males and females. A few female-only jobs remain, but not many: “actress” (in the Oscars, say) and “ballerina”.
We have done a similar job on pronouns. “He”, “him”, “his”, and “she” and “her”, are now only used in clear reference to a person of that specific sex. It used to be that “he” was taken to include “she”. That’s not equitable, and we have moved on. Great.
But that creates another problem: how to refer to a person without specifying their sex?
The answer is to use “they”, “them” and “their” even when we are referring to a single person: “If anyone wants more ice-cream, they can get it themselves”; “A voter who objects can make their complaint to the local electoral office”. Grammar is less important than social equity. “They” and “their” do not specify sex the way “he”, “she” and “it” force us to.
That’s fine with indefinites like “anyone” or “a”. But it sounds strange when we refer to a definite person, especially one in our presence: “There’s the ambo I saw yesterday. They haven’t changed their uniform – must have been on an all-night shift”. Here the gender of the person should be clear from the evidence before our eyes, so “he” or “she” is appropriate. Until the ambo is someone like Norrie May-Welby.
Norrie is happy with “he” or “she”. That’s wise, considerate and strategic. And sensible, though it will take us a bit of practice to get used to it. Anglo-Australian English doesn’t have a singular third-person pronoun for “non-specific sex” in addition to “he”, “she” and “it”.
“Shim” hasn’t caught on. Australian-Aboriginal Kriol, borrowing from patterns in Aboriginal languages, uses “im” as a sex-non-specific pronoun for “he/she/it” as well as “him” and “her”. That would work nicely, but I don’t fancy its chances of succeeding in everyday Anglo-Australian English.
The transgender community, and people who sympathise with their arguments, have been trying to achieve acceptance for new sex-non-specific pronouns. The most promising are “ze” to complement “he” and “she”; and “hir”, pronounced like “here”, to go with “his” and “her”. So far these well-intentioned proposals have been almost invisible to the general world of English.
So much for pronouns. There remains the question of address. “Good morning, sir” or “good morning, madam” are still fine when we know the sex of the person we are talking to. But only if the person is unequivocally male or female. And there remains the question of how to address mixed-sex groups.
In The Australian, cartoonist Bill Leak parodied this situation. The Attorney-General, in front of an audience, starts off “Ladies and gentlemen”. An angry female member of the audience gets to her feet, shouting, “That’s the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”. The cartoon is called “Agenda bender”.
Well, what else could the Attorney-General say? “Citizens”? “My friends”? “Guys”? “Ladies, gentlemen and non-specifics”?
The time has come to lighten up. If Norrie is happy with either “he” or “she”, we can follow Norrie’s lead. “Ladies and gentlemen” will live on.
Otherwise we will have riots the next time you get on a plane and hear on the PA: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls”.
Emeritus Professor Roland (Roly) Sussex is an e-researcher at UQx, the University of Queensland’s arm of edX. He answers language queries on ABC Radio in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. View his full profile here.
Topics: languages, community-and-society, sexuality
First posted Wed 9 Apr 2014, 7:53am AEST
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