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MIT student blogger Michelle G. '18

Gendered language by Michelle G. '18


This morning my mom showed me a newspaper article and asked me my opinion of it. I’ve been thinking about it throughout the day, and felt it was interesting enough to share and discuss. See here:

(sorry for the quality!)

The article is basically about how the Princeton University human resources department released guidelines on the type of language they are encouraged to use in official communications. The title is a little misleading, given that the text explicitly states (contrary to its title) that “no words or phrases have been banned at the university.” Even so, it’s pretty significant that these guidelines have been released, given that they endorse a modification of language which many people would think of as controversial. I don’t think the idea of abolishing gendered language is really being discussed in the mainstream, so for a department at one of the world’s most prestigious universities to support it – at least in formal settings – is big news.

To be clear, this idea is different from the push to integrate a singular use of the pronoun “they” (or other non-gendered pronouns) into our everyday language to refer to non-binary or intersex people. It goes even further than this and rejects the notion that the language we use to refer to people should be gendered at all, instead advocating the use of a non-binary pronoun like “they” to refer to everyone.

When I was talking to my mom, her initial opinion of this was sort of like, “that just seems really extreme.” I think it seems radical because we have used gendered words to refer to people for a very very long time, and it’s just sort of the way we’ve always done things as opposed to being an extreme idea in itself. It would take a period of getting used to, but we know that just because something has been done for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or desirable. I think that if our society were to collectively get together today to create the English language from scratch, then considering our evolving views about a gender-focused social system, we wouldn’t feel the need to construct different forms of language to identify people by gender. It just wouldn’t seem relevant enough to warrant entirely different sets of words for talking about people.

It’s easier to see why this would make sense in a professional setting like an HR department. But personally, I would take it a step further and conclude that it makes sense as a general amendment to language, which would be worth getting past any initial difficulty in getting used to it. I’ve also heard a few people mention the idea around campus, and it’s somewhat of a trend to change your pronouns on Facebook to “they/them” regardless of your actual gender in order to show support for the idea. Getting rid of terms like “freshman” and “alumnus” seems kind of silly, but I don’t see any good reasons for identifying everyone’s gender with obviously gendered terms and pronouns in contexts where it isn’t relevant. I imagine this convention of language just mentally reinforces traditional ideas which reduce the essence of a person to their gender, and contort people into boxes which they can’t possibly neatly fit.

There’s also the issue of coordination – even if I conclude that this change makes sense, adopting it by myself might only end up confusing people. So, it would require a conscious effort to openly discuss the idea and to coordinate the change with other people if it’s ever going to happen. A cool thing about our generation is that we’re less willing to see the world as “fixed,” or to have the idea that things have to be the way they currently are. I think something like this could realistically become commonplace, but would require more than individuals supporting the idea quietly on their own.

Anyway, I just wanted to share because it was thought-provoking, and I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about it too. Is it a good idea? A good ideal? Should MIT follow Princeton, and start doing this too? Or is it impractical, and too extreme? Either way I would say it’s worth thinking about.