Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Much Ventured, Little Gained: Inclusive Language Guidelines and Policies in Canadian Universities

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Much Ventured, Little Gained: Inclusive Language Guidelines and Policies in Canadian Universities

Article excerpt

In spite of much work having been done in developing inclusive language policies and guidelines, and in pressing for their adoption by university administrations, results are disappointing and much still needs to be done. This paper looks at the arguments for inclusive language policies, and the reasons for resistance against them. Introduction The academy has long been an enclave whose members have maintained a high level of autonomy over their work(f.1); since much of this work consists of discourse, either spoken or written, any restriction on expression is likely to be perceived as highly threatening. Small wonder, then, that the small and relatively powerless groups of academics who fought for language reforms which would require the universities to use sexually and racially egalitarian language,(f.2) and to eschew bigoted stereotypic language, ventured much in their efforts to pierce the academic armour of "freedom of expression." In spite of the labour ventured in writing and persuading reluctant administrators to accept the guidelines and policies defining fair language practices for including visible minorities, women, and people living with disabilities the research indicates that gains in terms of linguistic inclusivity are at best disappointing.(f.3) I argue that the gains are minimalized for two reasons, the first within the control of the guidelines' and policies' authors, and the second not. The first reason for the relative failure of the guidelines and policies in promoting inclusion is the preference for a gender-free (or gender-neutral) over a gender-specific approach. In gender-free or gender-neutral language, inclusion is achieved by avoiding any specific reference to gender; thus terms such as "they" and "doctor" are recommended. In gender-specific language, inclusion is achieved be explicitly referring to the hitherto short-changed gender; thus female terms are explicitly included in such phrases as "she and he" or "female as well as male doctor." The second reason for the relative failure of the guidelines and policies in achieving their egalitarian objectives is that terms often lose their intended meanings; sexist and racist proclivities in a culture twist "reform" terms into new meanings which not only differ from, but often thwart, the original objectives of the reformers. The discussion of these two factors -- the gender-free as opposed to the gender-specific choice and the skewing of reform terminology in a largely unreformed society -- constitute the focus of this paper. Before launching into this discussion, however, I need to say something about the method employed in compiling the data for this paper as well as the scope and stance of the guidelines and policies themselves. From the policies and guidelines received (see note 2) as well as any other materials and correspondence supplied by the universities, I compiled an exhaustive list of all commentary on and recommendations for either gender-neutral or gender-specific usage. There is also some discussion in the documents of the neutral versus the specific policy in terms of race and state of able-bodiedness. The overwhelming preference found in the documents for the neutral as opposed to the specific policy is analyzed in terms of current linguistics research; this analysis constitutes the major focus of the paper. I also compiled a list of references within the guidelines and policies illustrating what I believe is confusion surrounding the term "generic".(f.4) In addition, I pulled together commentary relating to the universities' projected scope of application for the documents. Most of the policies and guidelines specifically limit their scope to official university publications.(f.5) There is some variation on what is included under the rubric of official university publications, ranging from the more legally oriented language of policy statements, statutes, and collective agreements, through any publications or documents bearing the university's name, to course materials distributed to the students. …

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