Embroiled in the grammar of language - GulfToday

Embroiled in the grammar of language

Birjees Hussain

She has more than 10 years of experience in writing articles on a range of topics including health, beauty, lifestyle, finance, management and Quality Management.

She has more than 10 years of experience in writing articles on a range of topics including health, beauty, lifestyle, finance, management and Quality Management.


A poster is seen on the side of a marina saying “I want you to speak English” in South Caolina.

By Birjees Hussain

To be honest languages have been under attack for at least three to four decades. Towards the late eighties a lot of women started to think that most languages were biased in favour of the male gender, and they are right. In some languages it’s the spelling whereas in others the end of the word has been modified to indicate if it refers to a man or a woman. In other cases still when the feminine version of the word does not exist, a suffix has been added to indicate the female gender.

In fact, suffix add-ons have been going on for a few decades now. At one time, for example, we only had ‘chairman’ regardless of which gender occupied the seat. At feminists’ insistence ‘chairwoman’ became popular. Other words followed suit. For example, ‘manager’ became ‘manageress’. Then for some inexplicable reason, ‘chairman’ and ‘chairwoman’ became just ‘chair’ and ‘manageress’ reverted to the original ‘manager’. Whose idea it was to add ‘ess’ is unclear but in the late 80s everyone used it, including me.

Languages get played about with in order to appease certain groups or communities. I don’t mean this in an offensive way to any of those communities. It’s just that I find adding bizarre suffixes to traditional words makes them sound ludicrous, odd and weird. Another word which has been played with is ‘partner’. Traditionally, the word was used to refer to someone with whom one had a business relationship, like a partner in a law firm or a business partner. But to appease those couples who are not married but living as though they are, ‘partner’ is now also used to refer to either one of the couple living together. Granted that the word hasn’t been changed but its meaning has been broadened to include these living situations. Otherwise the traditional ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ terms imply that they are married and not of the same sex.

In some languages the feminine equivalent will likely never be changed. For example, in the Urdu/Hindi languages there is the word ‘funkar’ to refer to a male artist or entertainer whereas the female equivalent is ‘funkara’. Another one that I find a little amusing is the word ‘doctor’. In both languages the word used is ‘doctor’ for a male but it’s been slightly altered to ‘doctornee’ to refer to a female doctor. I don’t believe the use of other female equivalents will ever be dropped from the language. I do have an idea as to why the distinction is there. It’s not to offend the female doctor but for the benefit of the patient who may want to know if the doctor he or she is seeing is male or female; a female patient may want to see a female doctor.

In other languages, even though the male and female equivalent of some words sound the same when spoken, they look slightly different when written down. They might have an extra ‘L’  or ‘le’ or ‘elle’ added as a suffix. This is actually the case in the French language.

Again, as in last week’s column about the different way in which a French woman can be addressed, there is another debate going on about the need to spell words slightly differently when distinguishing between males and females even though they sound exactly the same when spoken. I do understand their frustration to some extent. For example, ‘il’ is for ‘he’ and ‘elle’ is for ‘she’ and is clearly acceptable as is ‘l’homme’ for ‘man’ and ‘femme’ for ‘woman.  But why must a letter be added to some words to distinguish between genders, especially when it’s not necessary? A good example is ‘étudiant’ for a male student and étudiante’ for a female student. A student is a student regardless of his or her gender and an ‘e’ should not make a difference but it does.

To be honest, most languages have a long history, of hundreds and hundreds of years in fact, where men and women had distinct and separate roles in society, including in the workplace. It has only recently been realised that, since both sexes are capable of doing almost anything that their counterpart can, that the conversation about the different forms of address and the way words are spelt needs to be had.