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Inclusive language

Friday 17 September 2021

In a working party gathered to explore and discuss ideas for inclusion in the next Group 2 Subject Guides (due for introduction around 2026), the issue of ‘inclusive' and/or ‘non-binary’ language was recently raised. This issue is complex and tangled, and prompts important questions about how language may embody deep-rooted prejudices relating to gender. I suggested that, for the purposes of discussion in that forum, we needed to keep a clear distinction between (i) the issue itself, and arguments for and against specific alterations in specific languages; and (ii) what the IB should actually do about the issue.

 As to aspect (i), the issue itself… well I could go on at length about this. I entirely support the idea that the forms of language should be inclusive and respectful of everybody, but, to start with, any changes to grammar should be efficient and not cause confusion. The use of ‘they/them’ in English, respecting people who feel ‘non-binary’, may have a certain justification, but it does involve using a plural form when referring to a singular subject. Surely one can find a cleverer, non-ambiguous solution?

For instance, in Spanish, I note that the party originally called ‘Unidos Podemos’ (i.e. ‘United we (male only) can’) was changed to be ‘Unidas Podemos’ (i.e. ‘United we (women only) can’) – replacing one form of exclusion with another. Well, fair enough, perhaps… but I also note a suggestion which comes, I hear, from Argentina: invent another ending, with an ‘e’ – ‘Unides Podemos’, which would mean ‘United we (all of us, non-gender-specific plural) can’. That feels like a clever solution to me, both clear and practical – but will it catch on?

English is a gender-light language, as far as grammar is concerned at least. The issues are principally concerned with adapting gender-neutral nouns (replacing ‘chairman’ with ‘chairperson’ or ‘chair’, for instance), or with using personal pronouns in inclusive ways (replacing ‘his opinions’ with ‘his or her opinions’). However, I recently discovered that English is not quite as gender-light as I thought. I was reading Steven Pinker’s fascinating book about the use of English The Sense of Style, and I found myself feeling excluded by pronouns. I realised that Pinker was systematically using the female pronoun in general statements – for instance, writing ‘Any author chooses her words with care…’ instead of the masculine default use of ‘Any author chooses his words with care…’ – and yes, I felt I was being excluded! The usage was entirely consistent, so Pinker was clearly making a polemic point.

Finally, does grammar really affect social attitudes? An article in El Pais recently mentioned that neither Farsi (Iran) nor Dari nor Pashto (Afghanistan) have genders in their grammar, but neither Iran nor Afghanistan are currently noted for their inclusive attitudes or tolerance of ‘non-binary’. Social attitudes run much deeper than grammar, perhaps? So would changes in grammar have much effect? The response to that question must be that, while any such changes might not have much impact in themselves, the debate about the changes will draw attention, and so raise awareness of the deep underlying social issues of gender.

In relation to aspect (ii), what the IB should actually do about the issue, the question of exam policy was considered. In marking language, should ‘inclusive / non-binary’ forms be required? Or rewarded? Or, to take the opposing view, penalised as ‘incorrect’? More broadly, should paper-setters be instructed to be very careful about gender bias in language, and/or deliberately include ‘inclusive’ usages? Is the overall issue more, or less, significant in different languages? (Based on comments about the wide range of languages represented in the working party, it would seem that these issues of gender in language are indeed being discussed, but perhaps more widely in European languages than elsewhere.)

Myself, I feel quite strongly that IB should maintain a neutral position – although based on insisting on tolerance and open-mindedness, and opposing prejudice and rejection. To draw a parallel, students are expected to consider the nature of religious knowledge in TOK, but the IB rigorously avoids taking a position on which religion is ‘best’.  Teachers should certainly inform students about inclusive language, consider possible changes, and debate the advantages and disadvantages – but the examination system should neither penalise nor require specific forms of inclusive language.

When in campaigning mode, even in good causes, it is tempting to go for radical changes to The System – in this case, language rules. However, it may in the end be more productive to instill in our students the general-purpose qualities of respect, sensitivity and tact, and show how language can be used to express these.

Kazuo Ishiguro
24 Jul 2021


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