"The proper study of
mankind is man."
While the dynamic poetry of the 17th century neoclassical English poet
continues to engage readers and scholars alike, the above poetic statement has been cited
not only as an example of Popes (probably unintentional) male chauvinism, but also
as being reflective of the pervasive gender bias within the English language itself. The
use of generic terms such as mankind and man is now associated with sexism and avoided by
most careful speakers and writers of English.
In India, however, gendered English is still in use among many English-speaking people,
whether they are government officials, students, or even, teachers in English-medium
educational institutions. It is a special responsibility of teachers of English everywhere
to make their students aware of the implications of gender biases in the English language
and to help them to use English in a manner that is inclusive of both sexes. My objective
in this article is to address this need for teaching gender-neutral English in the Indian
context, and to share the mixed responses of my undergraduate science students in a
Functional English course.
The needs and conditions of the modern English-speaking world have steered English
toward becoming the most effective and sensitive international medium of communication. We
have increasingly moved away not only from standard techniques of teaching and learning
English but also from standard English itself. For instance, the need to purge English of
Eurocentric biases was recognized and dealt with in most of the former colonies of
Britain, including, of course, the United States and Canada. In India the prescribed
textbooks of English in schools and colleges are no longer mere imitations of British and
American textbooks but are modified versions suitable to Indian social and cultural
realities. The amazing versatility of English has been proved in many different contexts.
But, despite this openness and adaptability of the English language to new words,
concepts, and usages, many speakers of English, male and female, in India and elsewhere,
find it difficult to resist the languages male centeredness.
Language and power
My intention in exposing my students to the merits of using a gender-neutral form of
English went beyond the recent trend in Western academia on political correctness. Given
Indias history of sectarian tendencies and communal conflicts, as well as its
caste/class distinctions and the traditional power imbalance between the sexes, I feel it
is important for Indians who use English to avoid the stereotypical and often harmful
images of people based on their regional origin, economic background, sex, and religious
The power relations within the English language are revealed in its gender biases, the
majority of which rest on the traditional sexual division of labor and on the cultural
assumption of male superiority. Since language is both denotative and connotative, these
gender biases imply and/or project constructions of women as unequal to men. Use of a
gender-neutral form of English strives to correct these distorted assumptions and
projections by making apparent the full participation of both sexes in all spheres of
life. One of the main arguments against male-centered English in its usage is that
discrimination against women is promoted through sexist language. In their essay,
"One Small Step for Genkind," Miller and Swift (1992) offer several examples of
sexism in language and the ways in which the English language reflects a sexist culture.
According to the authors, sexist language is any language that expresses "stereotyped
attitudes and expectations, or that assumes the inherent superiority of one sex over the
other" (1992:220) The use of masculine pronouns for people in general, for example he
in generalized usage, refers to either sex as described by Milla and Swift as an instance
of a linguistic construction that "operates to keep women invisible" or
secondary in status to men (1992:219).
In recognition of the power of language to subjugate groups of people, most reputed
dictionaries and guides to writing in English published in the last 10 years discourage
the use of words or statements that suggest bias or prejudice toward any group. More
specialized books on style and composition such as the Modern Language Associations
Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (1988) offer a list of reliable guides to writing
in nonsexist language. The MLA Handbook, for example, gives its own clear guideline of
what constitutes sexually discriminatory language and its reasonable alternative:
Conscientious writers no longer use he to refer to someone of unspecified sex,
such as a doctor or an executive, lest readers infer that the term can refer only to a
man. To avoid this use of he, they recast sentences into the plural, specify the sex of an
individual under discussion, and occasionally, if all else fails, use he or she or him or
Careful writers also avoid designating sex with suffixes like -man and -ess and
substitute nonsexist terms (1988:34).
English for humankind: Indian responses
My students belong mainly to Tamil Nadu, a fairly conservative state in South India.
Their initial reactions to revising gendered English into a more inclusive form ranged
from amused puzzlement on the one hand to a hostile unwillingness toward adopting a
"feminist," and therefore suspect, linguistic trend on the other. These varied
forms of resistance were easy to understand, given the students previous lack of
exposure to this new concept and their traditional sociocultural backgrounds.
Interestingly enough, with the exception of two girls who expressed interest and concern
in the way language can marginalize one half of humanity, the rest of the female students
refused to see any merit in revising male-centered English. Hesitant perhaps of engaging
in gender issues, these intelligent but self-conscious students perceived the gender bias
in English as nothing more than a harmless linguistic convention.
It is likely that attention to the subtleties of language is unnecessary in science
disciplines in which language is a tool that makes possible the objective documentation
and analysis of various phenomena. In the humanities, however, especially literature,
language is more than just a tool. It is a living, multitalent system of symbols,
assumptions, and associations.
Keeping this difference in mind, I avoided going into the complexities of the language
process. Since I was teaching a first-year university composition and introduction to
literature course, I concentrated on making the students aware of the common instances of
gender bias in English. While doing exercises in grammar or comprehension of short prose
lessons, I pointed out the pervasive use of masculine pronouns that stood for either sex
and explained the cultural and social implications of such usage. Some examples:
1. Each student will be given a diary for his use.
2. Every student must register his name with the teacher 30 minutes before the exam.
3. The headmasters of all the city schools met to discuss the recent crisis.
4. All the doctors and their wives were invited to the event.
The above sentences imply that students, heads of schools, and doctors are male. This
distortion of reality can be corrected by the use of gender-free substitutes such as
principals or heads in place of headmasters, and spouses instead of wives. By recasting
sentences one and two into the plural form, their male-centeredness is transformed into
Discussing the use of gender-free substitutes for other male-oriented terms that are
still used in present-day India, we agreed on the following list:
The Indian cultural context
One student correctly pointed out that India was referred to as motherland what
about sexism in this case? In cultural historiography, India is seen as feminine, usually
as a mother figure. Gandhi, during the struggle for freedom, urged Indians to rescue their
mother who was enslaved by the British. A Sanskrit word such as matrebhumi which
means mother earth or the land of the mother signifies the feminine associations around
the image of lndia. Clearly, this gendering of the nation can be avoided by using the term
homeland instead of either fatherland or motherland.
For those who believe that language and culture are interrelated, that language
embodies and disseminates cultural assumptions and relations of power, the first step
toward transforming a biased society may be to transform the language itself. This was the
response of at least some of my students. Asked to give their views on the "Merits
and Demerits of Gender-Neutral English," toward the end of the semester, 60 percent
were in favor of a degendered language. Some of the responses dealt with the difficulty of
changing language usage and with the possible confusion that would result if a new usage
was brought into effect. A few students felt that since conventions are so deeply
ingrained, usage is unconscious "if the user is not intentionally discriminating
against a particular sex then there is nothing to be perturbed about." On the more
positive side, the responses called for a language in tune with the changing times and a
language that, "if used sincerely, could bring about an ideal society for both men
Note: I wish to thank the students who took the course on Functional English
(199697), Pondicherry University, for providing their responses to the issue
discussed in the above article.
Gibaldi, J. 1988. MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. New York: Modern
Language Association of America.
Miller, C. and K. Swift. 1992. One small step for genkind. In Exploring language, ed.
G. Goshgarian. Harper Collins, pp. 218228.