Monday 20 May 2013

him/her, he/she, Ms/Miss…What do we use?

At times, the wealth of terms we have at our disposal to refer to someone can become confusing.  For example, should we be saying chairman, chairperson, chairwoman or just chair?  Which is correct and which might be offensive?  Most of us would hope that, over time, language use has become less sexist and one way of investigating this is through corpus based research.  This involves the analysis of large collections of computerised texts, identifying frequent linguistic patterns.  Paul Baker decided to compare four of these large collections or ‘corpora’ from 1931, 1961, 1991 and 2006 to explore whether male and female pronouns and nouns showed any signs of bias in language.
Baker found that, since 1961, there has been a decrease in usage of all male pronouns, especially  he, whilst female pronouns, such as she and her, have increased slightly.  Interestingly, the pronouns I and you have also increased in usage.  This may be due to the fact that written English is becoming more conversational and personalised over time, which could relate to the decline of third person pronouns in favour of the first and second person.

Another type of pronoun which Baker considered was that which attempts to include both males and females, for example him/her, he/she, he or she or s/he. The results showed that they are rarely used and although there was an increase in their usage between 1961 and 1991, the total for 2006 is less than half that of 1991. This suggests that they are becoming unpopular and in time, may even die out.  One reason for this could be that people find some gender neutral terms like s/he distracting or messy.  They seem easier to implement in writing rather than speech, which could prove to be a barrier to their long-term uptake.

When Baker concentrated on the nouns man, men, woman and women, he found that the four words were actually converging and being used as frequently as each other.  However, this wasn’t true when they were considered as affixes (i.e. as part of another word).  For example, the word spokesman still appears to be the most frequently used term, despite other equivalents like spokeswoman and spokesperson existing and the latter being used slightly more frequently in 2006 than ever before.  On analysing his data further, Baker found that spokesman is rarely, if ever, used to refer to a woman and he surmises that perhaps its frequency over other forms reveals the social reality that this is a role that men tend to carry out more than women.

Interestingly, when he analysed the frequencies of the similar type of word chairman / chairperson / chairwoman / chairlady or just chair, he found that, although chairman has always been and remains the most popular choice, there was an increase in the gender-neutral chair in the 2006 data, giving rise to the hope that it may start to replace chairman.  Compared to spokesperson, its popularity could lie in the fact that it is such a neutral term.  Spokes already exists as a completely unrelated plural noun and any word ending in –person can face resistance as it sounds so ‘politically correct’, which users often find off-putting.

Finally, Baker considered the titles Mrs, Miss, Ms and Mr, which have long been of interest to linguists in English-speaking countries due to their inbuilt inequality as labels.  Males are not forced to reveal their marital status with Mr, whereas females have to when they choose between Mrs or Miss.  Ms was conceived in the mid-twentieth century as an equivalent to Mr.  Nevertheless, apart from the confusion surrounding how it is pronounced, it is often connected with being divorced or a lesbian, thereby losing its neutrality.  Baker found that Ms was still very rarely used as a title but, perhaps more interestingly, that all the titles for both genders had decreased over time, so much so that he concludes that if the trend continues, all gender marked titles in English could become very rare in thirty years’ time.  In addition to people becoming more aware of gender inequality in language and the fact that fewer people are married now than in 1931, Baker explains a possible reason for this as being the increasing personalisation of British culture.  Therefore, rather than Mr Smith we may use William Smith or even Bill Smith instead, a much more personal and emotionally involved address. 

Baker concludes, reassuringly, that people are becoming more easily persuaded to stop using a sexist or biased term such as Miss.  He found that if a new term needed to be used then one that sounds more natural and is based on an existing word, such as chair, is more likely to be successful.  However, the invention of a completely new term, such as Ms or -person, is likely to be met with suspicion and resistance.

So in answer to the question of the title, it seems that maybe we’re beginning to NOT use any of the terms.  Such reassuring news is also supported by the fact that the terms feminism and feminist, which occurred just 3 times in the 1931 corpus, were found 59 times in 2006.  Good on her/it/them/us!
Baker, Paul (2010) Will Ms ever be as frequent as Mr? A corpus-based comparison of gendered terms across four diachronic corpora of British English. Gender and Language 4 (1): 125-149.

doi : 10.1558/genl.v4i1.125

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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