Fixing Language: No Problem

August 7, 2020

Many years ago I studied with a fellow who was the world’s expert on the morpheme _burger. Yep, hamburger, cheeseburger, dumbburger, nothingburger, and so on. Dr. Lev Sudek (I think that was his last name but after 50 years former teachers blur in my mind like a smidgen of mustard on a stupidburger.) I do recall his lecture on Indo-European languages, the importance of Sanskrit, and the complexity of Lithuanian nouns. (Why Lithuanian? Many, many inflections.) Those languages evolving or de-volving from Sanskrit or ur-Sanskrit differentiated among male, female, singular, neuter, plural, and others. I am thinking 16 for nouns but again I am blurring the Sriacha on the Incredible burger.

This morning, as I wandered past the Memoryburger Restaurant, I spotted “These Are the Most Gender-Biased Languages in the World (Hint: English Has a Problem).” The write up points out that Carnegie Mellon analyzed languages and created a list of biased languages. What are the languages with an implicit problem regarding bias? Here a list of the top 10 gender abusing, sexist pig languages:

  1. Danish
  2. German
  3. Norwegian
  4. Dutch
  5. Romanian
  6. English
  7. Hebrew
  8. Swedish
  9. Mandarin
  10. Persian

English is number 6, and if I understand Fast Company’s headline, English has a problem. Apparently Chinese and Persian do too, but the write up tiptoes around these linguistic land mines. Go with the Covid ridden, socially unstable, and financially stressed English speakers. Yes, ignore the Danes, the Germans, Norwegians, Dutch, and Romanians.

So what’s the fix for the offensive English speakers? The write up dodges this question, narrowing to algorithmic bias. I learned:

The implications are profound: This may partially explain where some early stereotypes about gender and work come from. Children as young as 2 exercise these biases, which cannot be explained by kids’ lived experiences (such as their own parents’ jobs, or seeing, say, many female nurses). The results could also be useful in combating algorithmic bias.

Profound indeed. But the French have a simple, logical, and  “c’est top” solution. The Académie Française. This outfit is the reason why an American draws a sneer when asking where the computer store is in Nimes. The Académie Française does not want anyone trying to speak French to use a disgraced term like computer.

How’s that working out? Hashtag and Franglish are chugging right along. That means that legislating language is not getting much traction. You can read a 290 page dissertation about the dust up. Check out “The Non Sexist Language Debate in French and English.” A real thriller.

The likelihood of enforcing specific language and usage changes on the 10 worst offenders strikes me as slim. Language changes, and I am not sure the morpheme –burger expert understood decades ago how politicallycorrectburgers could fit into an intellectual menu.

Stephen E Arnold, August 7, 2020

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