Friday, 21 July 2017

TfL Tube Announcement Changes: Why all the fuss over positive Gender Neutral Language and Greetings?

This month Transport for London (TfL) took the "brave" (I call it common sensical) decision to change the outdated greeting on the Tube for passengers. No longer will they hear "Hello Ladies & Gentleman" (which erases the existence of young travellers let alone non-binary ones such as myself); instead they will hear a much more cheerful, modern "Good Morning/Hello Everyone" and then carry on walking out to get on with the much more important business of the day- like going to work to put food on the table and roof over their heads. Stonewall praised the decision and Mark Evers, director of customer strategy for TfL wanted to make sure that announcements were "fully inclusive, reflecting the great diversity of London". Yet the uber rigid gender binary loving brigade of soppy traditionalists were outraged at the suggestion of a gender-neutral greeting becoming commonplace on Britain's streets. If you look at some of the comments sections that are provided under articles in the main newspaper articles announcing the changes, you realise not everyone was pleased. On the Daily Telegraph comments page, John  moans that those who advocate for gender-neutral language would be campaigning for "language control legislation" (shock horror klaxon) and Graham snaps that it is "insulting to the rest of us" (interesting that most comments seem to be from men: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/13/london-tube-scraps-ladies-gentlemen-make-announcements-gender/).

I hate to break it to John and Graham et al but gender-neutral language has been commonplace for a while and not just in "politically correct" spaces. Whenever I give a speech, I always start with a "Hello Everyone, I hope you are all well today" in a cheerful, positive tone of voice. I never think that when I am specifically choosing to do this I am being particularly subversive; nearly all of my university professors and school teachers used this gender-neutral greeting and shock-horror, didn't get stoned for it. It seems that gender-neutral language in general is receiving a bit of a pounding at the moment and I'm rather bemused by it.

Never forget that gender-neutral language has been championed by the feminist movement for decades. Let's not forget that in 1980, Casey Miller and Kate Swift created a manual dedicated to gender neutral writing, entitled The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing:For writers, editors and speaks in an attempt to try and reform the English Language so that sexist language that dehumanizes women became less common over time and eventually defunct. Swift and Miller offer numerous substitutes for common words (e.g. sales person instead of salesman) and suggested that "they" be used instead of a gendered pronoun (or at the very least use he or she and his or hers), something I have adopted in my own academic essays in the past. Now if those on the anti gender-neutral language disapprove of removing the jingle "Ladies and Gentleman" but are still abhorred by the use of "man" or "mankind" to refer to everyone, I'd be just a tiny bit flabbergasted. Same if they approved of using "businessperson instead of businessman and businesswoman but expressed dismay at the "erosion of traditional greetings." Facepalm for all those folks.

When looking at modern pronoun use, especially for people who define themselves as non-binary, gender-fluid or genderqueer  the debate seems to become ever so slightly more intense. I'm proud that my grandmother's country, Sweden brought in a specific gender-neutral pronoun "hen" (alt-right conservatives hate Swedish progressiveness; I think it's brilliant there are pre-schools in Sweden that have banished any reference to gender, referring children to their first names or as "buddies"; why should they be taught to adhere to outdated gender stereotype roles?). "Hen" first appeared in linguistic circles in the early 1960's and by 1994, Hans Karlgren had added "hen" as a new personal pronoun; arguing that the Swedish language would be vastly improved by the addition of a new pronoun. "Hen" was used in Sweden's first ever gender-neutral children's book, Kivi och Monsterdog (Kivi and Monsterdog) where Kivi is referred to in a gender-neutral way. When I read the book (in the original Swedish) I was happy to find out that it had been written by a male author, Jesper Lundqvist. They'd written a book that worked well, that introduced children (and parents) to gender-neutral language in a clear, concise and age-appropriate way. However, even in Sweden there were conservative critics who bemoaned the extension of the Swedish language (e.g Jan Guillou blaming feminists again). I just think that encouraging children from an early age to take a more gender-neutral and inclusive approach is a good idea and yet they can still celebrate calling themselves a boy or girl if they want to.

There are now a great variety of pronouns that are used by non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer people in the English Language; a few are listed below:

Thanks to Greta Bjornson of US College Today for the table! 

Conservatives always seem to be out in force with their ridiculous objections to linguistic changes designed to make the English Language more inclusive: "Oh you don't like what's been in existence so you have to stir the linguistic pot just to be politically correct". For goodness sake, just because I identify as neither male nor female doesn't mean I want to force everyone to adopt a non-binary pronoun or a title. That's my personal choice, my decision and the fact that others are doing the same indicates there is a legitimate demand for separate representation. It's only polite to try and learn the pronoun/title/gender marker that the non-binary, gender-fluid or genderqueer person you are going to meet (or correspond with) prefers and even if you get it wrong the first time, they can correct you without prejudice and you can learn quickly from that mistake. Besides, even if conservatives don't like it, non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer people are going to push for gender-neutral pronouns to be accepted on legal documentation and Stonewall are currently trying to get gender markers removed from official documentation such as passports anyways.

Language changes over time and adapts to social change. The historical denotation of the adjective "Gay" and how its meaning semantically has shifted should indicate that fact. In the 1970's it was seen as unacceptable for a woman to have "Ms" as her title; conservatives would say that it was pandering to feminists but today "Ms" is very commonly used by those who believe that their marital status does not define who they are as a person.  "Mx" (used by some non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and intersex people) is now at least accepted as a viable title in its own right; MPs who are elected to Parliament have been able to use it since May 2015 and it is recognised by government departments including the Department for Work and Pensions. So if you still object to the use of Mx, you're a bit behind the times and if your only issue is that you don't know how to pronounce it, then you can be taught how to pronounce it by those in-the-know (see Spacious Perspicacious' wonderful Tumblr post on pronunciation here: http://cassolotl.tumblr.com/post/103744029100).

Of course some critics still want to get themselves into a tizz over gender neutral language and use every public opportunity they can to denounce it. A recent debate has been over whether university professors should mandate their students to use "gender sensitive" language in their essays. In April 2017, there was a report in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/02/use-gender-sensitive-language-lose-marks-hull-university-students-told) that Hull University undergraduates would lose marks if they didn't employ "gender sensitive" language in their essays. Now it must be noted that the guidance only referred to a religious activism course and it's not clear whether it was a policy being used across the university but I wouldn't have a problem with adhering to those guidelines. Cardiff Metropolitan University gave students a "gender neutral checklist" to help them come up with alternatives to commonly used gender-binary language. For example, is it really necessary to use the word "workmanlike" when "efficient" sounds more professional (let alone gender-neutral)? I was told when I was in Year 7 that the word "workmanlike" was bad standard English anyways and would never be used in a business document and I didn't use it in any of my work afterwards. You might say that was "political correctness gone mad" but I don't particularly care! As Professor Judith Baxter, emeritus professor at Aston University points out in the article: "The principle of gender-neutral language has been around for 30 years. Businesses, schools, publishing, academic and educational texts use gender-neutral language now. So there is a total expectation"; i.e. gender-neutral language is here to stay, get over it. I may think that deduction of marks is harsh but you get marks deducted for spelling and grammar mistakes and for incorrect essay length. If you know what is expected of you, you must ensure you do not submit substandard work. Simples.

However, as I have studied English Language at A-Level and at the University of York, I am aware that research has been carried out looking into how men and women use language currently and I wonder how such research would be conducted amongst speakers who define as non-binary, gender-fluid or genderqueer.  For example, research conducted by Jenny Cheshire in Reading in 1983 in an adolescent playground found that standard speech patterns used by teenagers were similar to those of adults and suggested that differences in male and female use exist during childhood. An amusing finding that I've often found to be true in my own experience is that men tend to use "ain't" and women tend to use "isn't" in spoken speech; my Mum often corrected my Dad when he was on the phone to clients because he'd drop in "ain't" unconsciously and she thought it sounded inappropriate. American linguist Robin Lakoff  in 1975 argued that women's speech patterns are created by their subordinate role in society, indicated by their increased use of hedgers and fillers ("sort of", "you know"-I use them pretty often too) and indirect request questions. Now it'll be interesting to see whether speech forms may have shifted since these two pieces of research were conducted and I'd certainly challenge A-Level students interested in gender-neutral speech-forms to question the findings. I loved carrying out my A2 English Language investigation project (I looked at dialect use amongst Lincolnshire farmers) and thoroughly recommend A2 English Language to any student who has an interest in examining social language use.

I don't think there will ever be complete consensus on the acceptability of gender-neutral language. But I feel that if most of us are using it in our everyday lives without judgement, then life for non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer will feel more equal as they will feel more represented within society. All non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer (and agender) folks are asking for is respect and tolerance. In a public service respect and tolerance should be given in accordance with the Public Sector Duty under the Equality Act 2010 anyways!

Moving beyond the micro-debate over gender-neutral language, I am glad to see further breaking down of gender stereotypes generally in British society; the fact that the Advertising Standards Authority is going to crack down on ads that peddle outdated stereotypes with new standards brought out in 2018 so that there aren't more adverts like the Aptamil baby milk formula advert that suggested only boys could be engineers and girls could be ballerinas or the Yorkie "it's NOT for girls advert" is welcome. Yet it'll be amazing to see more adverts with openly non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender actors and characters in them. I am heartened to see more schools adopting a gender-neutral uniform option (isn't it great there are already 120 schools that have a specific policy in place?) and I was cheering on the boys at Isca Academy in Exeter who decided to take a stand and protest for their right to wear shorts (and skirts) by wearing skirts (because the academy mandated them to wear trousers all year round even in a heatwave). There's an increasing presence of gender-neutral toilets at arts venues and other public sector spaces (I don't mind whether they have the gender-neutral toilet as a fourth option after male, female and disabled or whether there is a gender-neutral toilet alongside a disabled one). The funny thing is, nobody that I know has told me directly that they feel threatened by these changes or gender-neutral language announcements. Not my Mum, Dad, Brother, Uncle or close friends. In fact, when my Dad turned on the BBC News and heard about the Tube announcement change, he said "Well, what's all this fuss about?" My thoughts exactly. Maybe some people, especially self-styled "defenders of tradition" need to take a step back and think whether the changes being proposed are really that controversial. And if they still want to be called "lady" or "gentleman", they have plenty of opportunities, to hear those words, just not so much in public anymore. And if that still really bothers them, more fool them I say!