Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword, or How Much Do Words Really Matter?

While some may still consider inclusive language to be the latest “politically correct” fad, this movement is long overdue and not going to be stopped.

The saying that words can be more powerful than weapons reportedly dates back to the 7th century BC and has since found its way into literature in many forms. And indeed, one could argue that many a written word has led to some incredible changes in the real world—take Martin Luther’s 95 theses1, or perhaps a more recent example when business magnate Elon Musk posted a tweet2 suggesting he had fallen out of “love” with the world’s top cryptocurrency, which caused the price of Bitcoin to fall sharply. But how much of an impact can words really have? Do they really matter that much?

Even in our modern world, we still see many inequalities between genders, people, ages, or abilities. In recent years, people have become more aware of how language, and specifically inappropriate terms (e.g., the frequently used IT terms “blacklist”/“whitelist,” or “master”/”slave”), further sustain these inequalities, deciding it’s time to retire them for better terms that reflect a more inclusive world.

But while replacing outdated terminology with new, more appropriate, and inclusive words seems straightforward enough and can solve concerns around racist, ageist, or ableist terms, using inclusive language to remove inequalities doesn’t stop there. One of the biggest considerations—and current challenges—of inclusive language is the topic of gender visibility or gender inclusion.

You may have come across the riddle about a father and son being in an accident. The father is killed and the son gravely injured. He is taken to the hospital, where the surgeon on duty says, “I cannot operate on this child, he is my son.” This makes us wonder for at least a moment, because all too often we still think of a surgeon as being male (despite the many seasons of Grey’s Anatomy). While this story in some respect may give the English language an advantage in terms of gender inclusivity—as it’s already including all genders in the generic term “surgeon”—things are not as straightforward in many other languages. For example, in German, an “engineer” is either explicitly male (der Ingenieur) or female (die Ingenieurin).

Classroom experiments with Dutch and German primary school students3 have shown that girls are more likely to pick a career option in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math if the job titles are presented in pair form (e.g., “Ingenieurinnen und Ingenieure”/female and male engineers) instead of just the generic masculine form. This strongly supports the idea of “what you can’t see, you can’t be” and highlights why representation, even “just” in words, is so important.

At HubSpot, where I work as a senior localization specialist with the German team, inclusive writing is one of the key considerations for all our content. To achieve this, we follow an inclusive writing guide that highlights the things to consider when writing, such as age, gender, ability, or ethnicity. In the guide we explain: “Words matter and the language we use should be inclusive and welcoming to our community of readers and end-users who have layered identities.”

This guide was initially created in English, but with HubSpot operating in many countries across the world, it soon became apparent that similar guidelines would be required for the supported languages such as French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. As a result, a working group within the in-house localization team set out to establish the language-specific counterparts, and Operation Inclusive Language was born.

As we got to work creating these language-specific guides, we realized that each language comes with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest was frequently having to rephrase gender-specific language.

As mentioned earlier, the English language often uses gender-neutral terms (e.g., “the customer”), whereas in German, for example, the generic masculine is used. Here, the subject of gender poses the biggest challenge. There are male and female versions of most terms to describe a person. For example, we have “Kunde” (a male customer) and “Kundin” (a female customer). The plural would be “Kunden”—the so-called generic masculine—which used to be defined as describing all genders, but as the language has been evolving to reflect the current culture, this is no longer considered inclusive. For German, using the pair form (male and female)—so, in our example, “Kundinnen und Kunden”—is an improvement over the generic masculine form, but it still leaves out non-binary genders.

There are other options to write in a manner that’s gender-inclusive. For example, using an asterisk to write “Kund*innen” or a colon for “Kund:innen” (both options are understood to include all genders). But these forms may pose a challenge for screen readers and potentially exclude visually impaired readers.

Although inclusive writing is gaining momentum, there are no established rules (yet) from the German authority on grammar and spelling, the Duden4. So, there’s currently a mix of the forms I described earlier. Some are more popular than others, but all are also heavily disputed by purists who consider them an unnecessary interference with the language.

Many other languages face similar challenges. (For example, there’s a wonderful article from Reuters5 that highlights the particular challenges around gender in various languages around the world). There isn’t a perfect solution out there (yet) to address this challenge in all languages, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be more inclusive in all of them.

Add to that the complexity of pronouns, which are currently very binary in most languages. For example, “he” and “she” in English and “er” and “sie” in German leave no room for other genders and require the invention of new terms such as “ze” or “hir.”

While some may still consider inclusive language to be the latest “politically correct” fad, this movement is long overdue and not going to be stopped. Inclusive language is already an obvious choice for many organizations, media outlets, and even government institutions, although many practical questions still remain for the translation and localization trade. For example, how far can translators assume their author supports inclusive language? Do we have the freedom to potentially change the tone of voice by adapting an inclusive style? Should we proactively ask our clients to make this choice upfront, if only to put it on their radar?

An additional challenge is the fact that the translation industry increasingly relies on machine translation engines that are not (yet) trained to understand the complexities involved in avoiding potentially problematic terms. These engines are not capable (yet) of picking up on the more subtle tones of specific words in context to be able to filter them out, let alone replace them with more appropriate terms in the specific context (e.g., using “Kundinnen und Kunden” for “customer”). Certain types of text (think user interfaces, where space is at a premium, or legal documents that must be very close to the source) also warrant careful consideration. Keeping all these things in mind, it becomes clear we still have quite a way to go toward a fully inclusive language.

However, I believe we at HubSpot can play a part in making a positive change, at least within the scope of the content we create. So, not only is writing inclusively doing the right thing, but it’s also very important in shaping the world we want to see—and that our grandchildren can be proud of. Especially considering that in this day and age, when many more people have access to a pen (thanks to social media) than a sword, it’s even more important to choose our words wisely.

Notes
  1. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses (History Channel).
  2. Browne, Ryan. “Bitcoin Falls after Elon Musk Tweets Breakup Meme,” CNBC (June 4, 2021).
  3. Vervecken, Dries and Bettina Hannover. “Yes, I Can! Effects of Gender Fair Job Descriptions on Children’s Perceptions of Job Status, Job Difficulty, and Vocational Self-Efficacy,” Social Psychology (January 1, 2015).
  4. Duden dictionary website.
  5. Funakoshi, Minami. “Gender and Language,” Reuters (January 25, 2022).

Isabell Otterbein is a senior localization specialist with the German team at HubSpot. She works with the team to develop and shape HubSpot’s voice and style for the German market to ensure clarity, accessibility, and cultural relevance. She established the Operation Inclusive Language group at HubSpot to facilitate the creation of inclusive writing guides in French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. iotterbein@hubspot.com

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