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The Language We Use Matters

This is my fourth year of writing to Dev's campaign around International Women's Day, previously known as "Nevertheless, She/They coded" and now "We coded". You can find my older posts above.

This year, I wanted to take a bit of a different approach. I want to talk about language and why it matters. In this blog post, I will first share some of my own experiences around the theme and then discuss why this all matters.

I've been following different conversations for a long time now, and if I got a cent every time someone defaults to "he" or uses some gendered words like "guys" or "ukot" (a colloquial Finnish word for (older) men) when talking about developers, I would be so rich.

You might argue that all this doesn't matter; it's just words. But what I'd love to remind everyone about is that words hurt. Words might even drive people out of companies and the field altogether. If you continuously hear that the right kind of developer is something you're not, you might start to believe that false narrative.

For me, one of the many stories I could tell, ending "Nevertheless, Eevis coded," is about language. It's about hearing so many times about an ideal developer and how that developer is always he. And you know, I am not. And that's why I'm speaking up and trying to change the way we speak - little by little.

In this blog post, I will first discuss language and its usage more and then look into what we can do to be part of the change.

Language We Use Builds Reality

I firmly believe language is one of the most essential parts of building our reality. If we always speak about, e.g., potential users using the pronoun "he," we often unconsciously build products for "him." In these cases, it is easy to forget that the needs might differ for, e.g., women and non-binary people.

Also, if we always talk about developers using the pronoun "he," it contributes to a culture where other genders don't feel welcome. This behavior is often unconscious; people don't do it because they're evil. But that's how the human brain works - and that's the precise reason why we need to pay attention to the words we use.

The Default Man

When we use the language, man is often the default. Let's start with sports. There is a tournament called UEFA European Championship, and then there's UEFA Women's Championship. In this comparison, women are something that needs to be pointed out, and men are implicit. Or, someone in some sport would say "open" (I don't know how it is for football), but let's face it: "open" usually means men's league.

Man-default can also be found in expressions such as "manning the station," "man-hours," or "chairman." It is visible in other languages as well. For example, in Finnish, despite having only one personal pronoun for all genders, we have words such as "lakimies" (=lawyer, a literal translation would be "law man"), "palomies" (fireman), or "miehittää" (same as in "manning the station").

Furthermore, our language affects the data we use to train algorithms. For example, Google Translate has translated pronouns in interesting ways for a long time. Here's a Twitter thread from two years ago showing how it used to be:

However, Google has made some improvements after that. But only if you write one sentence:

Example from Google Translate, where on the left side there's Finnish sentence

I'd love to see a gender-neutral variant - after all, "they code" would include a broader amount of people and not enforce the binary norm. But if you feel like what I'm saying is wrong and language doesn't matter, and we still need to keep the stereotypes, worry not! It's still the same for multiple sentences. Or, almost the same - apparently, men can do laundry now:

An example from Google Translate. On the left are Finnish variants with Finnish's gender-neutral pronoun, and on the right are English versions: He invests. He does the laundry. He plays sports. She takes care of the children. He works. She dances. He drives a car. He codes.

And according to Google, the default pronoun for coding is still "he."

I would just love to blame the technology and say it is how it is, and tech is neutral (as some keep saying), but it's not true. Technology is what we build it to be, resulting from the data we have. And in the case of language-related applications, the data is, well, the language we use. We enforce these stereotypes if we keep using phrases like "he codes" or defaulting to "he" as a developer.

So What Should We Do?

If you have read this far, you might ask, "what can I do?" and wonder how we can change the situation. I have some suggestions, and I'd love to hear more ideas in the comments!

Pay attention to the words you and the people around you are using

First of all, start paying attention to the words you're using. Do you enforce the man-default by using such expressions? Do you always default to "he"? Try "they"!

Changing the words we use doesn't always feel natural. In fact, it might feel really awkward at first. But keep doing it - it will get easier. From my own experience, switching from using "he" or "he or she" felt really awkward at first, but today it feels weird not to use "they" as the default when speaking about someone hypothetical.

So, start first with yourself. And then start paying attention to people around you and their language. And if you hear them using words like "he" as default or using gendered words from different professions or other examples I gave above, mention it to them.

However - language is very personal for us. So when saying anything about how another person uses language, approach it with empathy. They might feel that you're attacking them and that you're saying that they're doing those things because they're evil. It's good to remind them that it's not about them as a person but the words they use - and you don't assume they're doing it on purpose.

Of course, if they have done something intentionally (like, misgendered you), that's a different situation.

Listen to the people who feel excluded

Another point I want to bring up is to listen to those who feel excluded. Don't try to suppress their experiences. A good example is the discussion about using the word "guys" in phrases like "hey guys." I feel excluded whenever someone addresses a group I'm in with the words "hey guys." And when I try to speak about it (like in this blog post), usually there is someone (or several) people telling me that it's gender neutral, and I'm just delusional. Or something like that.

Another example of the same behavior is when talking about racism and some racist phrases. At least in Finland, some (white) people feel like they can use the N-word because it has been used as "neutral" in the past, and the newspapers have used it. And when they do (even in YLE (Finnish national broadcasting company) in a prime-time show), and someone says that's racist, they get defensive and want to defend their right to use that word.

These all center around the one with the privilege and them keeping their power. But what if... What if we actually listened to people, and if someone from the non-dominant position says that a word is excluding, we'd just listen and use another word? For guys, there are so many other non-gendered variants. And for the N-word... That's something that should be dropped altogether.

Wrapping Up

In this blog post, I've been discussing language and why building an equal world with our words is important. I gave two suggestions as action points. What do you think? Do you have more suggestions?

Top comments (47)

__masashi__ profile image

I'm really happy to see this article. Tiny steps that I take everyday usually aren't enough. Being the son of my mom(a feminist) I try to diminish these inequalities against women and I think that this post was a very effective way.
I just hope that this post "blows up" and gets a lot of views.

nicolus profile image
Nicolas Bailly • Edited


I agree with the idea of using they, but just to nitpick about the grammar, it still takes a plural form even when it refers to a single person. For example "I have a client on the line, they tell me production is crashing", we use they because nobody cares if the client is a man or a woman, but we still say tell and not tells.

Unfortunately it means that taken completely out of context, "they code" will be understood as several people. If it's important to make it clear it's a singular, we're left with "He or she codes", or "One codes", which are also fine IMO in the rare cases where "they" is too ambiguous.

eevajonnapanula profile image

That was actually a typo, missed in when proofreading :)

nicolus profile image
Nicolas Bailly

Ahah, makes sense then. I have seen stuff like "they is" around and assumed people didn't know how to use it, but come to think of it it's probably often a matter of "I went and replaced the pronouns but forgot to change the verb".

eekee profile image
Ethan Azariah • Edited

As a kid, it became clear to me that language was being used in a way which hurt women and I tried to always use "they" when gender was unknown. I got into trouble for it. Furious adults, including women, including female teachers, would shout at me that when gender is unknown, you use "he". The other kids I knew had no trouble understanding "they", and they used it themselves. The singular was almost always clear from context. It was a world where many men felt threatened if their wives wanted to drive, and many women felt threatened if their husband tried to do anything in the kitchen. So many people were so insecure! Yet theirs was the generation who had fought in and survived the Second World War. Maybe it was PTSD. The generation between theirs and mine seemed more secure, but the English teachers would still shout at you in front of the whole class.

I fairly recently learned that the singular they used to be normal in English. My memory isn't very good, but there were some prominent names... Chaucer I think? I'm more sure that Bede, writing at the very dawn of modern English, used something like it. I can't remember if Shakespeare used the singular they too, but it would be worth a check.

dmitryame profile image
Dmitry Amelchenko

I agree with the article.
Personally, I've been very curious about the wide acceptance of the curse words in our day to day lives. I even asked questions in public forums -- to my surprise I found that it seemed to be a social norm to use the "f" word casually. Honestly, I felt like I'm the only one who cares to even notice, so, I just accepted the reality and stopped questioning, now I'm just filtering out the "noise".

michaelthegamer profile image

Brilliant! Thank you so much—not only for your speaking-from-the-heart approach, but also for a subject long overdue! I appreciate that you cared enough to stand up and say, "No! No more!" while coming at it in a sensitive, "you probably don't realize it, but that hurts when you do that."
I know you touched on this extending beyond gender, which I also appreciate. And though I have several disabilities, I must admit that, though thankfully not so much anymore, I will occasionally find myself saying e.g., "That was a lame-a*ed excuse," and while you will find in the Oxford English Dictionary that even just the 'lame' part will be defined as 'weak, or without merit,' which is, Oxford Dictionary or not, rather insensitive. Why is someone automatically considered or defined as being weak simply because of their inability to walk? But even in today's society, though far more sensitive to gender and sexual preferences or affiliations, you will still hear someone use, "That's so gay!" Putting aside the fact that not even 60 years ago, that would have been a compliment, for, e.g., a happy and uplifting painting, how did it come to basically mean the same thing as the lame or lame-a*ed examples above at best, and at worst, stupid, or undesirable in some way? Nobody pays attention to their language anymore, just like you were saying.

I am sorry that I cannot remember what it was called, but there is an entire science revolving around not using any pronouns, none! It actually leaves out several words or types of words (how frustrating, I can't even find it on Wikipedia, which is where I originally found it) but several paragraphs of examples were given, and the odd thing is, it does not look very difficult at all! In fact, most people don't even notice that these words are missing because it (at least in the examples) doesn't detract from the overall flow of the sentences and paragraphs. But I tried to do the same thing and, while I won't call myself particularly intelligent, I am able to hold my own, if you like, and I could not do it! Anyway, my point is that while the personal opinions, the pronouns, as I mentioned above and a few other words or word types that I can't remember, maybe it is time for just such a new way of writing at the very least, and it would be great if it carried over into everyday speech. I hate to say it, but while I don't know about other languages aside for the Finnish examples you gave, thank you, I must admit that the English language is perhaps the biggest culprit for lack of a better phrase. In the mean time, you are off to a great start and you have my vote. Being a heterosexual male with skin light enough to burn in an hour of direct sunlight, it is rather difficult to find a middle ground when it comes to not automatically being painted a bigot before I open my mouth, I will say that I was shocked and saddened to read that the N word is still used freely and frequently in Finnish Television. I can think of no equivalent insult to correspond to a white person. But as I said, you are off to a wonderful start. Thank you again! ?
Michael C.

davidedwards profile image

Important article, thanks for this!

rachelfazio profile image
Rachel Fazio

I loved this article, that is all! Thank you for sharing Eevis.

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