Gender-neutral language: hypercorrect or overdue?

gender neutraal

Since the emergence of the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’, the rise of gender-neutral language has been unstoppable. Long overdue for some; gender insanity for others. What are the latest developments? And are we really ‘out of control’? Or are we taking steps towards much-needed emancipation?

Gender-neutral in the train

‘Ladies and gentleman’? Not anymore! As of 2017, rail passengers in the Netherlands have been addressed by the more gender-neutral term ‘travellers’. A conscious choice by NS, the Dutch national railway,  to make sure everyone feels welcome on the train: ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and everyone in between that doesn’t tick any of those traditional boxes.

This marked the start of a slow but steady stream of changes. In fact, a year later, the Netherlands issued its first gender-neutral passport with an ‘X’ sex descriptor added to the traditional ‘M’ and ‘F’. And so the debate about gender-neutral terms and pronouns erupted. But more on this later.

Sexist job titles

Gender-neutral language is also a hot topic in other western countries. Nowadays, official agencies try their best to use language that’s as inclusive and as neutral as possible. This means avoiding references to male and female identities. And without job titles that are ever so slightly sexist and always seem to default to the male.

Take America, for example, where the House of Representatives has thoroughly revised their vocabulary. Members of Congress are still allowed to use words such as ‘father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, niece, nephew, man or wife’, but they’re no longer permitted to use them in any written communication. Instead they have to opt for words such as ‘parent, child, sibling, sibling’s child and spouse’. And job titles such as ‘chairman’, which can also apply to women, have been changed to ‘chairperson’.

That’s not to say that this was a process without a struggle. Yes, the discussions were heated, with opponents like conservative US evangelist Franklin Graham (predictably) describing the removal of gendered language as a ‘fist shaking’ at the face of God.

Gender-neutral delivery rooms

In the meantime, things have developed at a rapid pace. Even in the delivery rooms. Terms such as ‘mother, breast milk and breastfeeding’ are so ingrained in our culture that we hardly stop to think about them. But a certain British hospital has deemed this ingrained terminology seriously outdated. That’s why they’ve adopted a gender-neutral language policy in their delivery ward. From now on, delivery rooms can use words such as ‘human milk, chestfeeding, and birthing parents’. And fathers can be addressed as (co-)parents.

The crux of the matter lies in the word ‘can’. Delivery wards aren’t being forced to scrap the words ‘mother, father, breast milk and breastfeeding’ from their vocabulary. This gender-neutral terminology is simply being made available for those who need or want to use it. As part of their birth plan, so to speak. This way, the hospital can ensure that trans and nonbinary parents feel seen and heard. And that they, too, will have a positive birthing experience.

Raising hackles

Despite this noble and inclusive aspiration, many people still get raise their hackles. From weary sighs to blatant aggression: they’re not afraid to let their aversion be known. They might feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells, like they have to be hypervigilant against hurting someone’s feelings or as if the world as they know it is being pulled out from under them, bit by bit. And the fact that an innocent and loving word like ‘breast milk’ could now be seen as the cause of any offence can be the last straw for them. They just don’t get it.

And that’s understandable, especially given the frenzied sensationalism of some of the press reporting on these stories. Similarly, the inciting nature of social media tends to do more harm than good in these matters. And sure, it may seem a little excessive to develop a new language policy for those rare occasions that a nonbinary person gives birth. Because couldn’t those individuals simply point out that they’d rather use the term ‘human milk’ than ‘breast milk’? Is it really necessary to come up with a completely separate policy just for this? Well, yes actually.

gender neutraal

Why use gender-neutral language?

The gender spectrum encompasses more than just male and female. We know that, and yet our understanding of this seems to trickle into society at snail’s pace. There are role models, television programmes and media platforms galore, but we still have some way to go before new words and forms of address become commonplace.

The issue addressed in the delivery room is that of gender identity. Of people born in a body that is not typically male or female. Of people who don’t identify with the sex they were born with. Or of people who don’t wholly identity as man or woman and who prefer to call themselves nonbinary.

Traditional gender categories

These people are often misunderstood. There are, for example, trans men who would like to have children and therefore delay their transition. Their bodies are still female, but they identity as a man. For people like this, it can be especially refreshing to be addressed the way they identify. In much the same way that those who do tick the traditional gender boxes like to be addresses correctly.

A small adjustment in language policy can mean a world of difference to these people. And it helps when midwives are aware of such sensitive issues so they don’t react in a shocked, ignorant or critical manner when someone points out that they’d like to be addressed a certain way. After all, you probably have bigger things to worry about during labour than constantly having to explain which gender you identify with.

Gender-neutral language emancipates

Besides delivery rooms, there are countless other places in which people are confronted with the limitations of traditional language. Most western countries have seen proposals for the introduction of a third personal pronoun. The English language seems to have opted for the term ‘they’, which was dubbed the 2019 Word of the Year by leading dictionary Merriam-Webster.

Similarly, in the Netherlands, there were appeals to adopt the traditional third person plural ‘hen’ as the pronoun used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary. Although some linguists have pointed to the potential confusion this may create, those to whom the term applies are happy with the choice. As Sky admits on BNNVara: ‘To me, ‘hen’ paves a path to a fairer and more gender-neutral world. ‘Hen’ means that I longer feel any underlying pressure to conform to one or both of the binary gender models.’

The fact that language can have a positive influence on emancipation has become evident from Swedish efforts to enforce gender-neutral language. In Sweden, the inclusive pronoun ‘hen’, combining the vowels of the male ‘han’ and the female ‘hon’, was officially added to the dictionary in 2015. Research now shows that, since then, people have adopted a more positive attitude towards sexual minorities and have become less likely to stick to traditional gender patterns.

gender neutraal

The world is made up of more than just men and women

The results are encouraging, and will hopefully lead to a growing understanding of gender identity. Because fact is that the world is made up of more that just men and women, and its diversity should be reflected in language.

If you’re cis-gendered and feel brushed off because there’s now such a word as ‘they’, then you clearly don’t understand how the traditional binary dichotomy excludes a whole range of other groups. The point is that we should all be able to recognise ourselves in language. So that everyone feels seen and heard.


Will it lead to a lot of commotion and debate? Absolutely. And not just between the cis-gendered and nonbinary or gender fluid. There’s often a lot of wrangling within the LGBTQ+ community itself. All the commotion involving the rainbow flag, in which each subgroup wants to be represented, is just one example.

The fact is that we live in a time in which individuals are becoming increasingly vocal.

The fact is that we live in a time in which individuals are becoming increasingly vocal. In days past, people felt compelled to adapt to their surroundings. These days, it’s increasingly the other way around. As a result, society appears more and more fragmented. But of course, this fragmentation has always been present. It’s just been hiding under an allegedly neat homogenous, white, cis-gendered and heterosexual ‘ideal picture’.

There’s nothing wrong with such a society if you happen to meet this ideal. Not so much for those who don’t.

The freedom to be who you want to be

Now, you can call this focus on individuals or subgroups hypercorrect, out-of-control, and excessive. But it can also benefit us greatly as a society. It can help  people have a healthy and positive self-image, for example. For those who feel comfortable enough to be who they want to be. Without hiding. Without fear of rejection.

It’s actually pretty simple. Are there people who don’t recognise themselves in a society divided into men and women? Then let’s make some room. So that they, too, can feel validated in a world in which they breathe, walk, sleep, work, laugh, cry, fight, have sex, and live. Like everyone else.

Relevant stories

Respond or ask a question

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Are you going to follow us?