Seeking gender neutrality
- Published: Sunday, 19 April 2015 15:19
Political correctness has been quite successful in getting people to change their linguistic behaviour, far more effective than other kinds of linguistic prescriptions and proscriptions. People really don’t like changing their linguistic habits, particularly if the enterprise smacks of deliberate intervention. Yet even calculated efforts to shift the meanings of words have come up roses. It’s difficult to assess the degree to which these changes are the direct consequence of recommendations made by linguistic authorities and style guides because change comes from people’s personal decisions to alter their language. Societal shifts will always have linguistic repercussions, especially for the lexicon, and PC-driven changes are partly a form of natural linguistic evolution in the face of more general social change.
The title Ms is a good example of what can happen when people are given directives to change their language usage. Though it had been around since at least the 18th century (as an abbreviation of mistress), Ms was introduced in the early 1900s as a new term to replace Mrs/Miss, and therefore equivalent to Mr. In the mid 1980s, linguist Anna Pauwels investigated its use by 250 women. Only 64% understood it in its propagated sense; that is, as a universal title for women which doesn't reveal married status. The rest saw it as a third title applicable to certain categories of women (e.g. divorced, separated, lesbian, unmarried mother, in a de facto relationship, trendy, libber, professional woman). Introducing a brand-new term in this way backfired — the existing 2-way system (Mr-Mrs), became a kind of 3-way system (Mr-Mrs-Ms).