HomeNewsDanish officials propose gender-neutral dictionary in push for equality

Danish officials propose gender-neutral dictionary in push for equality

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The organization that governs the Danish language is preparing to add gender-balanced words to the next edition of its dictionary, in a push for more equality through language that is playing out around the world.

The official Danish spelling dictionary, the Retskrivningsordbogen, will be revamped in 2024 in an effort to make the Danish language more gender-neutral and to tackle gender stereotypes, according to Danish media outlets.

Researchers from the Danish Language Council, a standards body that is part of Denmark’s Culture Ministry, have combed through its more than 1,000 pages to identify masculine words that have no feminine equivalent or work to rewrite outdated definitions.

Danish broadcaster DR reported that the researchers have proposed introducing a Danish term for “career man” to match the existing “career woman.”

“Finansmand,” which translates to “financier,” is one of several words ending in -mand, or “man,” that could get a feminine equivalent — “finanskvinde,” or female financier. According to the proposal, definitions of words that lean into stereotypes — such as using male pronouns to describe someone accused of manslaughter — would be rewritten in more gender-neutral ways.

The project has attracted more attention in Denmark than the council’s routine rule changes in that govern things like commas, Margrethe Heidemann Andersen, a senior researcher at the council and editor of the dictionary, told DR.

“It arouses stronger emotions when it has something to do with identity and gender,” she told the outlet.

A guide to how gender-neutral language is developing around the world

Heidemann Andersen is one of three editors working on the new edition. Describing the process to DR, she said the group reviewed every word in the Retskrivningsordbogen ending in the Danish words for “woman,” “person” and “man.” They assessed how the words are used in everyday language and how common they are. In certain cases, they proposed feminine versions of the words.

They also proposed adding gender-neutral words and amending some definitions that used feminine or masculine pronouns in ways that could perpetuate stereotypes.

Heidemann Andersen told DR that the rigorous process was done in an effort to account for the natural evolution of language. But “there are some people who have grown up with a language who think we are changing too much, and do not think we need a word like female financier,” she said.

In Europe, creating a post-gender world one small rule at a time

Many communities who speak languages with grammatical genders have grappled in recent years with whether and how their language can be adapted to social changes. In 2015, Sweden added a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen,” to its dictionary. Some German cities and government institutions have in recent years mandated the use of gender-neutral language in official documents.

In other places, there has been pushback to equality proposals, however. In France, the body in charge of linguistic standards, the Académie Française, said in 2021 that a gender-neutral form of French known as “inclusive writing” was “harmful to the practice and intelligibility of the French language.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, some Hispanic people have pushed back against efforts to use “x” at the end of nouns, instead of the masculine “o” or the feminine “a.” In 2019, the Pew Research Center polled over 3,000 U.S. adults who self-identified as Hispanic or Latino. It found that few had heard of the term “Latinx” and almost none used it to describe themselves. Among the 23 percent who had heard the term, 65 percent said it should not be used to describe the Hispanic or Latino population.

Gender-neutral language is an umbrella term that broadly refers to efforts to reduce the masculine and feminine connotations of words. According to the European Parliament, it aims “to avoid word choices which may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm.” Proponents argue that it is more inclusive of nonbinary people and can help tackle some of the sexist underlying assumptions of everyday language.

Opponents say gender-neutral language can be clunky or difficult to adopt. In English, critics have argued that the gender-neutral pronoun “they” as both singular and plural can be confusing and muddy a sentence’s syntax, for instance.

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The 1,056-page Retskrivningsordbogen is the official dictionary of Danish spelling, published by the council and Copenhagen-based publishing house Lindhardt og Ringhof. It is updated yearly with new words and context for existing words, but it gets an overhaul roughly once a decade. It’s during these re-editions that the spelling of existing words can be changed or new rules for spelling added, for example. The last major update was in 2012, and the next one will be the 2024 edition.

According to DR, the researchers have presented their proposal for the 2024 dictionary to an expert council of linguists and to the director of the Danish Language Council. Once the group agrees, words can be added to the forthcoming edition.

Miriam Berger contributed to this report.

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