Christopher Mulvey

Delivered to the English-Speaking Union of Paris

27 November 2018

Mairie du 7e arrondissement de Paris



One hundred years ago women in Britain were given the right to vote. Not all women: only women who were householders and over the age of 30. By the same Act all men over 21 were given the vote. Women were still discriminated against. It was not until 1928 that all British women over 21 got the vote. They were given a voice. Today, it is opportune to ask: What kind of voice were women given? Was their voice the same as that of men? Was the language in which they had to speak gender neutral or gender biased?

I will start my enquiry by looking at English nouns, in particular, by looking at English agent nouns.


An agent noun, says the Oxford English Dictionary,  is a noun that denotes ‘someone or something that performs the action of a verb, as workeraccelerator, etc.’

When we hear or read the words printer and speaker and runner, do we think of a woman or a man? The word allows us to think of either, but, in practice, we may find ourselves thinking of a man.

On 17 March this year, a headline on the front page of The New York Times read: ‘Draw a Leader. What’s She Like? Trick Question?’ Heather Murphy, the author of the piece, calls it a trick question because she says: ‘Asked to draw an effective leader, most people will draw a man.’ Murphy cites a mass of supporting material that suggests that we think ‘man’ because ‘People have these prototypes in their head about what a leader looks like.’  The leader-man type casting makes it difficult for women to be seen as leaders.

It may be that we draw in our heads a man not just for leader but for speaker, beggar and runner, too. And so perhaps also for director, employer, teacher, debtor, performer, commuter? Some of the prototypes are stronger than others. Teacher might draw a woman, and commuter might draw equally a man or a woman.

English encodes a hierarchy that puts men before women. The English language is not unusual in that regard. All Indo-European languages do the same. Maybe all languages do. The fact that the ‘natural’ order of the phrase ‘men and women’ puts men first points to the way in which our language leads us to think. Agent nouns reflect a gender pattern that says man comes before woman: waiter/waitress; actor/actress; steward/stewardess; and so on.

With each pairing, the agent first thought as performing the action is a man. The woman comes as a second thought. She is an add-on, an add-on created by the suffix -ess. Modern usage is struggling to reduce that bias. Poet and author are now as likely to mean a woman as a man - actor, too, but Oscars are still given to people called ‘Best Actress’ even though the Academy is trying to equalize its treatment of women and men.

In addition to -ess, the English language has a number of feminine suffixes: -ette; -euse; -ine; -trix; -woman. All of them give woman a second place, make her an afterthought. Some like -ette actually demean. As well as being used to create usherette from usher, bachelorette from bachelor, and starlette from star, -ette is commonly used as a diminutive suggesting something inferior: maisonette, kitchenette, novelette.

-ette -euse and -trix are on their way out of the English language. The suffix -woman by contrast is making inroads. It is old enough in words like countrywoman and washerwoman, but, since the 1970s, it has been increasingly used to correct or replace words like anchorman, businessman, policeman chairman. Policeman and chairman are especially liable to jump to the lips.

Whether we say chairman or madam chairman, mayor or madam mayor, the English language presumes that the agent is, in the first case, a man. There are two exceptions: bride/bridegroom; widow/widower. However, these pairs presume that women are wives not leaders. Our language predisposes us to prototypes boldly drawn for generations.

Perhaps change is coming. In March, The New York Times reported responses to the word ‘leader’. Four days later, The Washington Post reported responses to the word ‘scientist’. In the 1960s and 70s, of 5,000 children asked to draw a scientist, only twenty-eight drew a woman.  The twenty-eight were all girls. Not one boy drew a woman scientist. Recently asked to draw a picture of a scientist, 21,000 children produced very many pictures of women. Among younger children, most girls drew women and most boys drew men. However, the older they got, the more likely girls were to draw men.


Both given names and family names are gendered though they are gendered in different ways. Given names tell us what people expect of a baby. Family names tell us about an ancestor. Andrew calls for the baby to grow up strong. Bella calls for the baby to grow up beautiful. Baker tells us what an ancestor did for a living: he was a baker. Long tells us what an ancestor looked like: he was tall. Last names tell us little about female ancestors.

Given names commonly express hopes. Family names commonly tell stories. It is often the case that we do not know the story nor the hope. Do we know the hope wished by the name Jessica?  Do we know the story told by the name Estcourt? But whether or not we know the meaning of the names, the stories told and the hopes wished create a linguistic force field that dictates attitudes

There are 45,000 English family names. They fall into seven categories: occupational, characteristical, habitational, proprietorial, geographical, ancestral and possessional. Possessional names, such as Edwards and Williams, indicate that a holder of those names was once owned by a man named Edward or William. Edwards and Williams are names of men. In fact, almost all the names in Ancestry’s seven categories are those of men. They are patronyms, names based on the father.

Although women play their part in family making, there are few matronyms--that is names based on the mother. Custer may derive from the name Custance, modern Constance, a woman’s name reflecting her faithfulness or the wish for her faithfulness. Emmott, a pet-name for Emma, provided the family name for the son of an Emma. Marriott, Marrit, Marryat and Molson were sons of women called Mary. Why do these names break the convention that family names are based on the father? One answer is that not every baby knew who its father was.

Different cultures have different practices, but family names have regularly been patronymic. The bias in so many cultures led the United Nations to address the issue in 1979. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women grants women the same naming rights as men. The United States has yet to ratify this convention although American women are leaders in self-naming in the English-speaking world.

The gender bias of family names is towards the male, towards the father. The gender bias of given names is different. Reflected in the traditional names for boys and girls are two sets of values. Girls are meant to be good and boys are meant to be bold. Faith, Hope and Charity are girls. So are Constance, Grace and Mercy. Harold, Henry and Hubert are boys. So are Conrad, Geoffrey, and Mark. Harold means Army Commander.  Henry means Household Ruler. Hubert means Shining Intellect. Conrad, Geoffrey, and Mark mean Bold Counseller, Traveller, and Warlike.

Gender-neutral names are mostly boys’ names that have been adopted for girls. Boys named Sue are rare, but there have been 519 American boys so named since 1880. A reluctance to give girls’ names to boys may arise in part from what Time says is a greater tendency to name boys after male relatives than to name girls after female relatives. Do parents get cautious and conservative when naming sons? Is naming a boy a more serious business than naming a girl?

Henry means Household Ruler. Meghan means Pearl. A Windsor is someone whose ancestors owned a castle. A Markle is someone whose ancestors came from the edge of a woodland clearing. When a Harry Windsor marries a Meghan Markle, we can only wish them the very best in life and in their naming of the baby that is on the way.


The most potent way in which languages develop a gender bias is through the linguistic practice called ‘grammatical gender’.

The English singular, third-person pronouns, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, provide for three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Those are the three genders once found in all Indo-European languages. The original Indo-European language, called Proto-Indo-European, was spoken 7000 years ago. Some 450 living languages have evolved from Proto-Indo-European, languages from Albanian to Zemiaki with German, French and English among them. German has kept the three grammatical genders. French has lost one of them. English has lost all of them.

Once upon a time, English had the three grammatical genders. They were there in the language brought to Britannia in the fifth century by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Friesians. In their English, Old English, nouns were divided into three kinds. Each kind had its own word endings, its own inflections. When you used a noun along with adjectives, the adjectives had to agree, as grammarians say, with the noun in three ways. You had to match the number, singulars with singulars and plurals with plurals. You had to match the case, deciding whether your noun was the subject or the object of the verb or had some other role. You had to match the gender of the noun. Was it masculine, feminine, or neuter?

There is no agreed  explanation of the original function of grammatical gender, but, if it is not a language universal, it is nonetheless found in human languages of all kinds right across the world. Its origin is ancient and might be original with language itself, that would be some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Gender may be a way of seeing the world, a way of sorting the thousands of things that surround us. If so, the Indo-Europeans had a primary sort into masculine, feminine and neuter. Another common way of sorting is found in those languages that sort with the genders animate and inanimate.

Whatever the origin of grammatical gender, its function is easy to see. Grammatical gender does part of the work in a Latin sentence that word order does in an English sentence. The words in a Latin sentence could come in almost any order; gender told the listener how to associate, i.e., link, the words heard. The ties of number, case and gender told which adjective went with which noun and which noun with which particle. The word endings, the inflections, told you what you needed to know.

Once gender had become a part of the syntax and was no longer part of the worldview, gender was freed from logic. In Old English, the moon (mona) was masculine. Gift (giefu) was feminine. Woman (wif) was neuter. ‘Grammatical gender is only very loosely associated with natural distinctions of sex’, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Grammatical gender was not logical, and, if gift is to be treated as feminine, it is not very much less logical to treat woman as neuter. Grammatical gender does not help to make sense of the world. It helps to make sense of the sentence.

It is generally agreed that all of the modern languages that have descended from Proto-Indo-European have, as a part of their linguistic heritage, three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. However some modern Indo-European languages have conserved those genders better than others. Modern German has kept all three. Modern French has kept only two, masculine and feminine. Modern English has lost all three, and, in their place, we have not grammatical genders but four so-called logical genders: masculine, feminine, neuter, and common. With four genders, we should have four pronouns, but it is not yet agreed that we do. We will need to return to the question of a common singular-third-person pronoun, but we need first to ask what happened to the grammatical genders of the English language? When and why were they lost?

The primary cause of language change is a result of the passing of a language from one generation to the next. In that process, a language evolves. Language evolution is slow. However, by contrast with a language like Icelandic, English has evolved rapidly. Why has English changed so much since, let’s take a date at random, since 1066?

Language invasion is a phenomenon that does not often happen, but, when it does happen, it greatly speeds up the rate of language change. Remarkably, English has been invaded certainly twice and arguably three times. First, it was invaded by Norse in the ninth century, second, by French in the eleventh century, and, third, by Latin in the sixteenth century.

Norse was the language of Danes who began raiding Britannia in the late eighth century. Raiders cause trouble, but they do not change languages. It was when the Danes, the Norsemen, stopped being Vikings (‘sea pirates’ in Anglian English) and began settling, farming and intermarrying that language invasion began. By 900, Norse was being spoken in homes on the east coast north of the Thames and inland too. Norse greatly affected our third person pronouns – we owe ‘she’, ‘they’ and ‘them’ to the Danes. That was a profound change, but Norse may not have affected our genders. Old English and Norse had both a Germanic gender pattern. What was masculine feminine and neuter in one language was masculine feminine and neuter in the other. Nonetheless, what linguists call ‘gender instability’ may have begun to invade Old English. 

Old English genders received a renewed shock when French began its invasion. Since 1066, English has  imported 20,000 French words. French is an Italic language, and it has an Italic gender pattern inherited from the Latin from which it had evolved.  For a French speaker the moon, ‘lune’, was a feminine word. For an English speaker, moon, ‘mona’, was a masculine word. There were hundreds of gender conflicts as French words were absorbed into English. At the same time, English became a peasant language. It continued to be written but by English-speaking monks whose business languages (for church and state) were Latin and French. In the fourteenth century, when English returned to become once again an administrative and legal language, its nouns and adjectives had lost their Old English endings. When those endings disappeared, grammatical gender disappeared.

English still had masculine, feminine and neuter genders, but those were now tied to what medieval English people saw as the biologically evident genders. Male creatures were masculine and required the pronoun ‘he’. Female creatures were feminine and required the pronoun ‘she’. Everything else was neuter and required the pronoun ‘it’ . That seemed to be logical and the pattern came to be called logical gender. There were areas of ambiguity that remain. A singular baby can prompt the pronoun ‘it’ unless the mother has dressed it in pink. A ship may lead a sailor to say: ‘She’s a beauty,’ but that is more likely to be an expression of mariner sexism than grammatical genderism. Old  English ‘scip’ (pronounced ‘ship’) was a neuter word so the sailor has no excuse there. Modern French ‘bateau’ is masculine so the sailor has no excuse in that direction.

By the time that Geoffrey Chaucer came to write The Canterbury Tales in the late-fourteenth century, logical gender was established and no one seems to have noticed any change. Before the development of modern linguistics, it was not the kind of thing that people did notice. Nor did the question of gender instability bother anyone, not until the late-twentieth century at least. Then it was that people began to question the notion that gender was a matter of biology. ‘Sex, yes, that’s biology, but gender, no, that is culture’, they said. If that is the case, there arises a need for a new pronoun. Twenty-first-century English is addressing that lack. 

‘English’ is a tricky word that needs some refining and defining. Language historians talk in terms of three periods: Old, Middle and Modern English. Old English was an English of grammatical gender.  Middle English was an English of unstable gender. Modern English has been an English of logical gender.  Old English had become Middle English by 1150 and Middle English had become Modern English by 1500. Every five hundred years or so, one English gives place to another. We see now darkly, but in time those who follow will see clearly.  They are likely to look back to the year 2000 as the date at which Modern English was beginning to become Post-Modern English.

All languages change, but the English language has changed more rapidly than most. It has been spoken not on an isolated island but on an invaded island that absorbed first Danish- and second French-speaking peoples, an island that then took to trading and invading. Modern English spread as a commercial language, an imperial language, a scientific language and a world language. It has now become the global language. Judging by the entries in the dictionaries, Old English had some 10,000 headwords. Judging by the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, Post-Modern English has certainly 300,000 headwords, even 600,000 by another kind of count.   

Word counts do not necessarily count anything of great significance. All the many European languages that had a word count of 10,000 in the tenth century will have hugely increased their word count if they have not become extinct. The word count of English is nonetheless considered remarkably large. Some say that English has the world’s largest vocabulary: an easy claim to make and an impossible one to prove. Moreover, 10,000 words are adequate for everyday interactions, purposes and trades. At the same time, 50,000 words are as many as most educated people know. The huge word counts that go beyond the everyday and the educated are made up mainly of technical, scientific, dialect and slang terms. There are masses of words out there, and there is no limit to the number that can be coined or concocted. However, English is having a hard time coming up with certain kinds of new words.

In the 1970s, people in a permanent sexual relationship outside marriage were having difficulty describing each other. Husband and wife were what they were not. People ummed and ahhed so much at introduction times that for a while ‘ummer’ became a word, as in ‘I would like you to meet Roger, my umm-a, my ahh-a, my ummer. My friend.’ But Roger was more than a friend. A phrase could always be employed, and one such was ‘my significant other’. Euphemisms and evasions show that embarrassment or caution was overloading the linguistic moment. Speakers did not want to be explicit. They were reaching for a neutral term.

A neutral term was found in the word ‘partner’. In the 1970s, partners were commonly business partners or partners-in-crime. They were not partners-in-love. ‘Lover’ was available in the 1970s, but to say ‘I would like you to meet Roger, my lover’ would have been too much. Probably that is still true, and ‘partner’ does nicely. Post-Modern English demands the explicit where Modern English demanded the complicit. What you practised then, you did not preach. Now preaching and practice are to be aligned. That is causing linguistic stress.

A particular problem comes with anaphora: ‘the use of a word referring back to a word used earlier in a text or conversation, to avoid repetition.’ The problem raised by anaphora is identified by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell Ginet in Language and Gender. If we wish to use a third-person singular pronoun to refer to someone, English ‘forces the speaker to index the referent’s sex.’ The English language by failing to provide a gender-neutral, third-person-singular pronoun is behaving like Mr Justice Jeremy Baker. In the United Kingdom’s High Court in June of this year, he refused Christie Elan-Cane, a gender-neutral person, a gender-neutral passport. Christie Elan-Cane demanded an X tick box along with the present M and F tick boxes on British passports. Mr Justice Jeremy Baker rejected the demand.

In reporting the case, BBC News supplied a photograph with the caption: ‘Campaigner Christie Elan-Cane lost their High Court challenge’. A person demanding a gender-neutral passport could not be said to lose ‘his case’ nor ‘her case’. Saying ‘their case’ was a solution. The English third-person-plural pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ are already gender neutral. Is the pronoun problem solved if ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ are treated as third-person-singulars?

UCLA’s Graduate School of Education tells student teachers to use ‘they, them, and their when providing examples during lessons instead of he and she’. Schoolchildren are becoming used to these forms, and the future of a language is in the mouths of its children, but these linguistic developments can raise adult hackles for two reasons. First, most adults reject most language change. Children need to learn any language their parents might be speaking, but adults need to preserve that language and give it stability. Second, the changes that are the most difficult to accept are changes to the core of a language, changes to the closed class of words that includes prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns. By contrast, the open class of words - nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs – welcomes additions.

Since sentences and meaning might unravel, no language likes to change its pronouns. However, English has already done that twice. In some dialects of late-period Old English, ‘he’, and ‘heo’ came to sound alike. People living in the Danelaw adopted a Norse pronoun to give us ‘he’ and ‘she’. In late-period Middle English, the pronoun ‘one’ appeared. It was probably an adoption from French. ‘One’ might have served as today’s third-person-singular, ungendered pronoun if it had not been adapted in the eighteenth century by the upper classes. As substitute for ‘I’, they took to saying things like ‘one does one’s best.’ It is ‘frequently regarded as affected’, says the Oxford English Dictionary. Along with ‘we’ as a first-person singular, ‘one’ is best left to the monarch.

So, is the answer ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’? Emmy J. Favilla offers a more radical solution. She says that English should adopt ‘ze’, ‘zir’, ‘hir’, ‘xe’, ‘xem’ and ‘xyrs’ as gender-neutral pronouns. In A World Without ‘Whom’, Favilla argues for a radical rethink not just of pronouns but of the language as a whole. It might be presumed that Christie Elan-Cane would agree. Favilla and Elan-Cane presented their cases in recent years, but assaults on the sexism of the English language are not new. In 1980 in Man Made Language, Dale Spender denounced the androcentric nature of a language in which the word ‘man’ is used to include ‘woman’ and  God calls for the pronoun ‘He’.

A schoolteacher in Tallahassee has undertaken to improve the situation by asking her class to use gender-neutral English. To begin with, the children must call teachers ‘Mx’ (pronounced 'Mix') rather than Mr. or Ms. Parents have expressed alarm. The X-factor looms large in genderlect. Elan-Cane wants an X tick box. In Los Angeles, there are calls for the term ‘Latinx’ (pronounced ‘Latinex’) to replace ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’. Meanwhile, ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’ remind us that patriarchal discrimination is not peculiar to the English language. Spencer and Favilla are not saying that.

Seven thousand years ago, Proto-Indo-European divided the universe into masculine, feminine and neuter - in that order. The more than four hundred modern languages that have descended from Proto-Indo-European have inherited a worldview that puts men first. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman addressed the rights of woman as a political issue. That was in 1792.  It was not until 1980 that Dale Spender addressed the rights of woman as a linguistic issue.

Seven hundred years ago, Middle English moved toward neutrality when it abandoned the grammatical genders of Old English. Modern English remains open to the Spencer and Favilla attack, but Post-Modern English is in the vanguard of change. And, thanks to Middle English, English feminists are not facing the first-stage difficulties that confront linguistic feminists in France and Spain.

The English language is sexist. It is not gender neutral. However, it is on its way to correcting its masculine imbalance. Twenty-first century users are consciously engaging in the business of gender correction that the invasion of the English language by the French language in 1066 so very helpfully got started. Thank you, France.