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Jan 26, 2009

“We tend to look through language and not realize how much power language has,” sociologist and linguist Deborah Tannen has said. Earlier this month it was announced that the U.S. House of Representatives would adopt gender-neutral language – a better-late-than-never move seeing that Speaker Pelosi is, after all, a woman and there is (thankfully!) growing representation of women in Congress. Gone are the days are references to a “chairman.” These will now be replaced simply with “Chair.”

With this, one wonders – or at least, I wonder -- how the use of gender-neutral words and phrases can influence behavior regarding sex roles. Case in point: Finland. In the Finnish language, the personal pronoun hän can refer to either “he” or “she” -- there is no distinction. In Finland’s 2007 elections, 12 out of 20 Cabinet positions went to women, creating a 60 percent majority of women. Finland’s president, Tarja Halonen, is also a woman. Could there be a connection? While the question is not easily answered, I believe it is worth looking into.

Feminist author Marge Piercy has even experimented with a gender-neutral pronoun in the English language. “Per” (short for &ldquoerson&rdquo is used in her novel, Woman on the Edge of Time. And an interesting development is afoot. Some students in Baltimore, Maryland were studied by Johns Hopkins University linguists after it was observed they were spontaneously using the word “yo,” as a one-size-fits-all pronoun:

"Yo handin' out papers (She is handing out papers)
"Peep, yo!" (Look at him!)
"You acting like I said what yo said" (You're acting like I said what he/she said)
"Yo been runnin' in the halls" (He/She has been running in the halls)

Hän, per, yo – it all sounds good to me.

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Posted: Jan 26, 2009 3:19pm

 

 
 
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Diane S.
, 2
Brooklyn, NY, USA
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