Canadian leader coins new word: ‘peoplekind’
Should English be made gender-neutral? When Canada’s prime minister said “peoplekind” instead of “mankind”, many laughed. But efforts to banish gender bias from the language are common…
Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, likes to call himself a feminist. But his latest gesture of political correctness has backfired.
During a school visit last week, Trudeau took a question about women in the economy from a pupil. When she used the word “mankind”, he interrupted her: “We like to say peoplekind… It’s more inclusive.” The pupil agreed; the audience applauded.
On Twitter, people were less impressed. Left-wing commentators criticised Trudeau for interrupting a woman to make a feminist point. Right-wingers accused him of cheap “virtue signalling”. Everyone wondered why the prime minister had used a made-up word.
To be fair to him, words are regularly coined in the name of gender equality. In the last few decades, “policemen” became “police officers”, “firemen” turned into “firefighters”, and “male nurses” lost the “male”. The title “Ms” was created for women who refuse to express their marital status.
More recently, the British armed forces have told their members to avoid gendered language like “sportsmanship” and “chaps”. (It suggests “fairness” and “friends” instead.) Back in Canada, the national anthem dropped the lyrics “In all thy sons command” in favour of “In all of us command”.
One issue that remains unresolved is the gendered pronoun. In an age when many refuse to identify as male or female, the simple choice between “he” and “she” causes issues. Moreover, the still-common use of “he” to refer to an unspecified person – as in “each to his own” – is now seen as sexist.
Hundreds of singular gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, from “ey” to “zie”. None has stuck. “He or she” is considered clunky. Some suggest using “they” in the singular – “A person can’t help their birth” – pointing out that the likes of Shakespeare and Jane Austen did so. But purists insist that this world should only refer to plurals.
Clearly, de-gendering English is a complex business. Every such initiative triggers a backlash from those who would rather leave the language alone. Are they right?
One small step for person...
Yes, say some. Languages change slowly and organically to suit society’s needs. Those who interfere with it, trying to force their rules on others, come across as fussy and patronising. If they care so much about feminism, they should concentrate on things like equal pay. Inventing new words is just a distraction.
Nonsense, reply others. Languages do not just reflect society: they shape it too. If a person can only refer to people as “he” or “she”, it is only natural that they will see gender in binary terms. The sooner we ditch such anachronisms, the faster we will come to accept that everyone is equal, regardless of their gender.
- Was Trudeau right to interrupt the pupil?
- Should the government set rules on how language is used?
- In the story above, one sentence uses a singular gender-neutral pronoun (apart from our example sentences). See if you can spot it. Would you have written that sentence differently?
- You have been asked to coin a new singular gender-neutral pronoun. (Not “they”, or “he or she”.) Invent a word, then explain to the class why it fits its purpose.
Some People Say...
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”Ludwig Wittgenstein
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- All Britons legally have a gender: male or female. This is specified on their birth certificate. Adults can apply to change it, but they have to live for two years in their preferred gender first. The government says it wants to simplify the procedure. Meanwhile, trans people can change the gender on their passport more easily.
- What do we not know?
- Not everyone who outwardly appears to be male identifies as such; the same goes for female. Moreover, some see themselves as neither male nor female: they may use labels like “non-binary” or “genderqueer”. When you are unsure which pronoun to use for a person, LGBTQ campaign groups recommend that you ask them what they prefer. Others believe it would be better for society to settle on a small, consistent terminology.
- Virtue signalling
- When people express moral values in order to appear virtuous. The term is used pejoratively: it often suggests that the virtue signallers do not back up their words with actions.
- A made-up word
- Some suggested that he could have said “humankind”, which is in the dictionary. Ironically, in Old English, “man” was actually a gender-neutral word for “person”. It only came to mean “male person” around a millennium ago.
- A part of speech which stands in for a noun that has already been mentioned, or is implicitly understood. Examples include “we”, “it” and “which”.
- Indeed, people have been trying to coin one since the 19th century. Words have been drawn from sci-fi novels, plant terminology and the German language, among other sources.
- None has stuck
- In contrast, the official Swedish dictionary successfully introduced a new gender-neutral pronoun, “hen”, in 2015.
- “A person can’t help their birth”
- This is a quote from William Makepeace Thackeray’s famous novel Vanity Fair (1847-48).
- Things that are old-fashioned or no longer relevant.