Among the tremendous trifles that surfaced during the run-up to the presidential elections was this question: If the president is a woman, do we have to call her Rashtrapatni, since pati means husband? But if we turn to 1966, the year in which Indira Gandhi became prime minister, no one suggested that she should be called Pradhan Mantrini—the appropriate form in Sanskrit.
Pati does not always mean husband. Freedom fighter and Gujarati novelist K.M. Munshi, the founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, was called Kulapati, head of the dynasty, not husband. In Rajasthan, Pratibha Patil was called governor, not governess, understandably. Governor is treated as a gender-neutral form. Likewise, we could treat Rashtrapati as a generic noun, remembering Humpty Dumpty’s words, “When I use a word, it means?what?I?want it to mean.”
Without attempting to answer this riddle, we may look at the none-too-trivial linguistic issue in the background. The 1960s saw the rise of a movement against sexism in English, spurred by the women’s liberation movement. It steadily gained momentum and by the turn of the millennium, the use of gender-neutral language had come to be regarded as politically correct and?socially?fair, allowing us to accept the changing roles of men?and?women?in?our society.
The debate about sexist language has focused on three features of English: The use of man as a generic term covering men and women, the names of occupations, and the use of pronouns in English.
Linguists say that the old English words for man and woman were “waepmann” and “wifmann”.?Here,?“mann”?mea-nt human being, not a male person. Today, with its meaning?restricted?to?the adult male, there are problems. Sentences like “Man has conquered nature,” “Man accomplished his first space walk in 1965,” can signify excluding women from recognition as equals in society?and suggest that it’s a male prerogative to create history.
Champions of bias-free language suggest that this usage can be avoided by following some guidelines. Instead of man, we can use humans, human beings, people, or persons. “Man in the street” and “the common man” can be replaced?by?“the average person” or “common people”. “Manhood” and “man-days” can be replaced by “adulthood” and “staff days”, respectively. It is best to restrict the use of man/men to contexts referring to human males.
In the last four decades, there has been a shift towards the use of occupational names that do not refer to the sex of the individual. We have seen “air?hostess”?replaced?by?“flight attendant”.?“Actress”?has virtually disappeared from our vocabulary;?and?“anchorman” has been clipped to “anchor”. The US department of labour has guidelines for gender-fair occupational names. Here is a short list of biased words followed by acceptable alternatives in parentheses: fireman (fire fighter), businessman (businessperson, executive), farm maid (farmhand), housewife (home maker), postman (mail carrier), Congressman (Congressional representative), lawyers and their wives (lawyers and their spouses). An expression like male nurse points to an assumption that all nurses are women. Only use the sex marker only when it is relevant and necessary.
Another problem area is the use of pronouns. In 1850, Parliament approved the use of generic he “to include females”. A simple sentence like “Every student must submit his report by Monday” carries a barbed sex reference in the pronoun “his”. Old grammar books?ask?us?to?use?“his?or?her” in such sentences. But “his or her”,?repeated?over?a page, can sound clumsy. There are other solutions. The easiest is to use the plural. “All students must submit their reports by Monday.” Using a different sentence structure can sometimes eliminate “he”.
The use of if-clauses often requires?the?use?of?“he” as a generic pronoun. The structure can be changed to avoid this. “If anyone has any questions, he can meet the convener.” (If you have...). Sometimes, it is enough to replace “his” with an article: “After filling out the details, the student should drop his envelope in the box” (use “the” in place of “his”).
Some writers have cut the Gordian knot by violating grammar and using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent: “Anyone who wants to join the picnic must bring their money tomorrow.” This usage, despite its bad grammar, is accepted in all but very formal writing.
The search for fair language continues, and you could also contribute to the effort. Whenever you hear a phrase that suggests a stereotype or draws unwanted attention to the sex of an individual, try to think of an alternative. If you pursue this issue, here are some questions that could sensitize you to the kind of remedy you have to seek. Would you feel comfortable if a letter addressed to you begins with the salutation, “Dear Sir or Madam”? Which of the following sounds most acceptable to you, female doctor, woman doctor, lady doctor? Can the title grandmaster be conferred on a woman qualified for it?
To end where we began, if a woman occupies Rashtrapati Bhavan, will the first citizen and the first lady be the same person?
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org