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How the World Approaches Gender-Neutral Language

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Gender has emerged as an issue that brands need to dedicate more attention to in recent years; with people’s understanding of the gender spectrum and its fluidity changing, brands need to ensure their communications are as inclusive and sensitive as possible.

This may require some extra thought and planning from an editorial and strategy point of view, but when content is being prepared for different locales, some additional considerations will be required. Few languages have a gender-neutral tense, creating challenges, particularly when it comes to managing translations.

What is Gender-Neutral Language?

Gender-neutral language is the term given to words that avoid bias towards any particular gender; for instance, examples of gendered pronouns in English include ‘his’, ‘her’, ‘she’ and ‘him’.

In some languages, much more of the lexicon is gendered; take French, where nouns are either masculine or feminine, and spelt and pronounced differently to denote this. For example, ‘un jumeau’ is the word for a male twin while the similar but feminine ‘une jumelle’ is used for a female twin, rather than there being one catch-all term like the English ‘twin’. There are countless more such cases, across both Romance and Germanic-based languages.

Even languages that aren’t gendered to this extent face challenges when it comes to finding appropriate gender-neutral alternatives. In English, ‘they’ is often used as a gender-neutral pronoun, with ‘their’ used instead of ‘his’ or ‘her’s’ to denote possession. Some feel as though this can read slightly clumsily, but there are few alternatives. One is the use of ‘Mx’ as a gender-neutral title, replacing the gendered ‘Mr’ or ‘Miss’.

How Different Cultures Approach Gender-Neutral Terms

Different languages and cultures approach gender-neutral language in vastly different ways.

Some Germanic languages, such as Swedish, traditionally had three tenses – masculine, feminine and neuter – but these have largely been erased over time, leading to a more gendered language. More recently, the pronoun ‘hen’ has begun to be used as a gender-neutral alternative to the masculine ‘han’ and feminine ‘hon’.

Hebrew is another language that uses masculine and feminine nouns, with this often leading to confusion and misinterpretation. As a result, the work of employment equality campaigners led to laws being changed to ensure that all job adverts in Israel now explicitly state that both male and female applicants are welcome. What’s more, there is a steadily growing trend in Hebrew to add both masculine and feminine suffixes to words to signify gender neutrality.

In many cases, it is the younger generation leading the change; for instance, in Argentina, some have begun to use ‘e’ as a gender-neutral alternative for ending words to the masculine ‘o’ or feminine ‘a’. With this still an emerging trend, it is likely to be some time before this passes into the general lexicon.

Can AI Provide a Solution to Gender-Neutral Translations?

AI translation solutions, such as Google Translate, have traditionally struggled with eliminating gender bias. One example outlined by Google is that its machine learning has been unable to distinguish between the masculine and feminine forms of ‘he/she is a doctor/nurse’ in some languages, gendering these translations as a result.

Since 2018, Google has been working to remove unfair bias as part of its AI Principles, introducing gender-specific translations instead. However, this technology is still only able to provide masculine and feminine options, rather than any gender-neutral alternative.

If you want to ensure full accuracy and sensitivity across your global communications, a human, personal touch will always pay off. At Language Connect, our translation experts understand the nuances of the different languages that they work with, from slang to gender-neutral language.

Get in touch to learn more about our translation services.

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