The Problem of Non-Inclusive Language

The Problem of Non-Inclusive Language

Sara Lavazza

When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship. But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

Orwell, George (17 June 1946). “Politics and the English Language”. New Republic. Vol. 114, no. 24. pp. 872-874.

Language shapes the world we inhabit. It imposes its structures, rules, habits, and clichés. Language is not a direct reflection of objective facts but an expression of our perspective on those facts. By crystallizing in certain forms, it conditions and guides that perspective.

The words we choose, or neglect, hold the power to reshape our reality and our thinking.

Language is a social phenomenon constantly influenced by the community. Just as society evolves, language evolves with it, and often, language serves as the catalyst for societal change. Consider revolutions, political campaigns, or propaganda, and the pivotal role words play in shaping ideals, sometimes of liberation and sometimes of oppression. George Orwell’s novel 1984 vividly illustrates this linguistic transformation through the creation of Newspeak, achieved by inventing neologisms and eliminating ideologically non-conforming words or politically unorthodox meanings. The reform of language limits communicative capacity and denies the ability to express concepts contrary to Big Brother’s agenda. Unwanted concepts become impossible to think in terms of words.

If language represents the perspective through which we narrate and perceive reality, it’s no surprise that many languages embody a patriarchal perspective.

The patriarchal system, with its millennia-old male centrality, is deeply rooted and systematically omnipresent, often taken for granted as the norm.

Nearly 75 percent of languages employ a sex-based system, in which the masculine form prevails over the feminine, based on a binary view of gender, thus excluding the existence of other gender identities within society. This male centrality is perceived as normal and unproblematic. However, with critical examination, we can discern how this gender bias in language is but a prelude to discriminatory acts in real life.

For instance, Italian and French have a rule that dictates that in the plural form, if at least one subject is masculine, the adjective is declined in the masculine form. It does not matter if it’s a group of a thousand women and just one man; the prevailing gender will be masculine, obscuring the female presence or absence. This has an effect on the perception of gender power roles, even on children when this rule is explained in school.

"The masculine prevails over the feminine", Illustration from a French Grammar manual
"The masculine prevails over the feminine", Illustration from a French Grammar manual

Journalist Titiou Lecoq recalls that when she was a child, her French grammar book used an illustration to explain this rule, depicting the “overwhelming force” of the masculine gender through an image of a tug of war. When Lecoq’s elementary school teacher explained this rule and showed the image, a general euphoria erupted among the boys, while a sense of disappointed oppression afflicted the girls. Lecoq also points out that this grammar rule did not always exist but was artificially introduced by grammarians to assert the supposed superiority of the male gender in everyday language: “Since the male gender is the noblest, it prevails on its own against two or more feminines, even if the latter are closer to their adjective” (Liberté de la langue française dans sa pureté, Scipion Dupleix, Paris, 1651). Furthermore, in 1767, Nicolas Beauzée of the Académie française wrote in the Grammaire générale, “The male gender is considered nobler than the female due to the superiority of the male over the female.”

This demonstrates how certain language rules were created to uphold a patriarchal view of society and intentionally undermine and discredit the female gender. As Lera Boroditsky explains in “How Language Shapes the Way We Think,” in a patriarchal society like ours, power has historically taken on a male form. Consider some professions: chairman, policeman, spokesman. These nouns explicitly indicate the male gender of those holding these positions. Professions like nurse or midwife, on the other hand, have predominantly female nouns. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in languages with gendered nouns, such as Italian or French. Going through italian job offers, for example, there are many looking for a “tata” (nanny, female) or a “segretaria” (secretary, female), an “avvocato” (lawyer, male) or an “elettrotecnico” (electrical engineer, male). Non-inclusive terminology perpetuates gender stereotypes about what a male or female should or should not do professionally. It also discourages certain categories of people from responding to the offers, giving rise to real discrimination.

This assignment of gender perpetuates biases we have internalized, leading us to think of policing as a male profession and nursing as a female one.

This linguistic bias is not confined to traditional written language but also extends to more recent forms, such as emojis. The article “Type ‘ceo’ into your iPhone keyboard for a sexist surprise” by Mashable confronts us with glaring systemic disparities. Did you know that “only 4 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women?” Perhaps not with certainty, but we can understand the historical and social factors that lead to such an outcome. However, if I were to ask you, what emoji is suggested by the default iOS keyboard when you type the word “CEO” (even in an explicitly female context, such as “she’s the CEO”)? The suggested emoji is always male.

Experiments by Mashable team, typing professions in the iOS keyboard
Experiments by Mashable team, typing professions in the iOS keyboard

The repetition of these seemingly innocuous clichés shapes our perceptions and expectations, placing the male gender in a position of power, relegating the female gender to a supportive role, and disregarding the existence of those who fall outside these two categories. It’s worth acknowledging that Apple promptly corrected this emoji replacement bug, but it serves as a clear example of a phenomenon that occurs in various contexts.

Language perpetuates this hierarchical distribution of power, with the dominance of the male gender, the subordination of the female gender, and the absence of solutions for those who do not identify within these two groups.

Language is an act of identity, as defined by Vera Gheno. Words and constructs define the scenarios we envision as possible. It becomes a matter of equality and freedom of expression. “Oppressed people fight with language to regain themselves, to recognize themselves, to unite, to begin again,” as bell hooks articulates. It is, therefore, crucial for individuals who work with language to reflect on its design.

As type designers, we have deeply pondered all these premises and came to the idea that typography can give a boost to language change, and can initially help provide visual solutions for written language. For this reason, we decided to address the topic in Italian with SPRINT Independent Publishers & Artists' Books Salon through a workshop held on 16 and 23 January 2021, supported by Instituto Svizzero. The genisis of the workshop owes much to the Franco-Belgian collective Bye Bye Binary and to designer and curator Loraine Furter, which made a similar experiment in the French language. The aim was to explore new graphic and typographic forms through the invention of new glyphs, signs and sounds, which can contribute to the debate on gender inclusiveness in the Italian language. The workshop was an opportunity for debate, an exchange of views and knowledge on the subject, in the hope of giving life to new solutions. Each participant arrived at the definition of a visual solution: a new system or sign, a glyph that, as a new letter, can be declined in different fonts. These new letters were used by the participants to create posters and then collected in this publication.

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