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Thoibi & Khamba

Editsplaining sexist grammar in English language




In English literature it is never Juliet and Romeo but Romeo and Juliet. For that matter, it’s never Majnu Laila in Persian or like in Meiteilon, never it is Thoibi  Khamba and never Teav Tum in Cambodian folklore but always the other way around. I presumed that it was just a convention: as we never say white and black but black and white; and that Romeo and Juliet is perfectly fine regardless of how much there is a meaning or not in a rose’s name.

Well, this means the man always comes first though vanity would dictate us to utter ridiculous expression like ladies and gentlemen on social occasions.

Comparatively, this is no different from how the Indians would worship all kinds of goddesses in gold-plated temples; for example out of the millions of them, Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom; however, when the male mortals reach home, they would thrash their wives, kill their daughters for family honour and get rid of female foeticide that is commonly considered as more of a burden than a blessing in various corners of the nation.

A few years ago, some London-based psychologists showed that this male-first-female-latter convention is, especially in English language, a product of 16th century European mores. According to a report in the ScienceDaily:

In the 16th century, naming men before women became the acceptable word order to use because of the thinking that men were the worthier sex.

—British Psychological Society (BPS). ‘Men, not ladies, first: We're still sexist in writing.’ ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100311092431.htm
(accessed December 10, 2016).

Also read the study report: When gentlemen are first and ladies last? Effects of gender stereotypes on the order of romantic partners’ names by Hegarty, P, Watson, N, Fletcher, K, & McQueen, G (2011). British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 21–35.
  
There are a couple of related issues here. Many people have been up in arms against the separation of Mrs from Miss to signify the kind of women according to their marital statuses but for their antagonists, read the males, it is just Mr no matter if they are married or not. A similar issue exists in my native language too. A ‘leisabi’ is the unmarried girl and she becomes a ‘mou’ when she becomes a man’s wife; however, a ‘pakhang’ is an adult man and after marriage there is no particular name for him except that he might become a husband or a father.   

Next, take the style of using ‘actor’ to denote both male and female —but wait, isn’t it just accommodating the female in the male?

Perhaps, language is doing a gender summersault with its pre-programmed rehearsals. The other day, a New Zealander of Asian origin was denied a passport because as the machine was processing facial recognition system, his eyes were closed though he got a normal and small pair of eyes. Similarly, the his-and-hers acknowledgement through language is ‘deeply’ programmed in our brain.

Out of all these terms, the consolation possibly is the term ‘motherland’, which is preferred to ‘fatherland’. If we consider the usage it is again a matter of language with the root word denoting ‘mother’ or ‘father’, which are supposed to be symbolising emotional and political affiliation respectively with that land.

Though globally, Germany is considered as the land of fatherland, in my hometown there are cultural organisations which identify Manipur, currently a province in the republic of India, as a fatherland—while armed groups are fighting for the lost glory of a motherland and ethnic groups are fighting for homelands.

In today’s context, ‘homeland’ seems to be the most appropriate term.  

Why It Matters to Me

In my copy-editing job, I regularly find and at times get confused over the usage of this gender difference. Making the noun plural or using both s/he or her/him (or he/she, him/her) can solve the problem with certain ease but now and then, it is not that simple as it sounds. In short, it is not always possible or logical to change a ‘person’ to a ‘people’.   

Style guides and sheets would offer us suggestions to:
[i] use a noun instead of pronoun
✓    The editor was late as usual.
✗     He was late as usual.

[ii] use third person instead of the first or second
✓    When an editor is punctual, he can do more tasks.
✗     When we editors are punctual, we can do more tasks.

There are as well several other ways to get rid of sexism in writing: like using neutral gender, calling both ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ as ‘actors’ like we have seen above, and substituting words like ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman’ with ‘chairperson’.

I’d consider this phenomenon of feminist consciousness as a product of the Western counterculture, which had its origin in the the Sixties and the Seventies, and further the explosion of media.

In a way, grammar can change the world of writing but it cannot simply stand in as the caretaker of a world grossly divided by sex or gender with people having deeply ingrained concepts of man and woman. Alternatively, life is not a grammar test but experiences of discrimination and sexualisation.

Apart from the connection with editorial judgment, certain reservations exist on the line of sex though I’d say men and women are the same animal without any feeling of gender superciliousness or affinity. In another word, it’s a mere reflection of everyday happening around me though simultaneously realising gender discrimination is way too important an issue than my undue gender defensiveness.

To sum up, language can be profoundly political. Apparently there’s a lot in a title, particularly in its sequence and while relating it to a gender though Juliet would remain wondering what’s really there in a name.



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