What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language means using words carefully to acknowledge diversity and ensure that no one is alienated from your communications. It’s a respectful way of engaging with every member of your audience, particularly marginalised individuals and groups. It means avoiding bias and not making assumptions about gender, race, ethnicity, ability or sexuality.
Inclusive language isn’t just a “nice to have”; it’s critical to connecting with your target market. Failing to be inclusive with your communications means that you are likely to lose many potential customers from the get-go – not only under-recognised* groups, but also younger people and anyone else attuned to issues of equality and inclusion.
More broadly, inclusive language is a way to effect real change in the world. Language is power, and it shapes our cognition. The more we hear stereotypes reinforced through language, the more we’re likely to believe them. Conversely, inclusive language chips away at implicit bias and contributes to making our world more accepting, equitable and tolerant. If that sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, read on!
Inclusive language, translation and added value
Attitudes and approaches to issues of inclusion vary between cultures and languages. What’s acceptable in one country might come across as outdated, insensitive or downright offensive in another, so it’s crucial to get it right when you’re targeting an international audience.
At ecls translations, we don’t just convert words from one language to another. Instead, we spend time carefully analysing the source text and crafting a message in the target language that will truly resonate with the intended audience. This means that if we come across something in a source text that won’t sit well with a target market in terms of its inclusivity, we’ll flag this up to you and suggest some possible adaptations rather than simply translating word for word.
It’s important to remember that language is constantly evolving, and what might be the inclusive term today could cause offence in the future. That’s why we ensure that we are always up to date with cultural and linguistic changes to remain as inclusive as possible.
Inclusive language around the world
Just as attitudes to inclusivity vary around the world, so do linguistic strategies of inclusion. This is a vast and complex area, but let’s take a brief look at some of the hot topics in the three main languages in which ecls translations specialises: English, French and German.
In the UK, identity politics is currently a hotly debated issue. Regardless, gender inclusivity is becoming more and more important, with many individuals and institutions recognising that gender is not binary, for example by implementing a policy of stating preferred personal pronouns (such as she/her, he/him, they/them, ze, sie and xim). The UK’s National Health Service has also begun to adopt gender-neutral language, so that, for example, you might see information for an expectant parent referring to “birthing person” instead of “mother” and “chestfeeding” instead of “breastfeeding”.
In terms of race and ethnicity, there’s a movement towards using the term “global majority” rather than “ethnic minority” to describe people who are Black, Asian, Brown, dual-heritage, indigenous to the global south, in recognition of the fact that these groups represent some 80% of the world's population. If you’d like to explore these issues in greater depth, inclusive language guides are a great starting point – for example, a guide to writing about ethnicity published by the UK Government can be found here, while a guide to writing about disability is available here.
In France, language is a famously political issue. The Académie Française was established in 1634 to protect the “purity” of the French language, and even today it plays an important role in deciding what’s “correct” in terms of grammar, spelling and vocabulary. However, it’s often seen as old-fashioned and out of step with the times: recently, it has criticised the use of trendy anglicisms such as “big data” and “drive-through” in public life. More controversially, the Académie has also opposed attempts to make French more gender-neutral. One topic to come under fire is the inclusive neologism “iel”– a gender-neutral pronoun that combines the masculine “il” and the feminine “elle”. However, the debate also extends to the structure of the language itself. As French is a grammatically gendered language, speakers generally need to specify either the masculine or feminine version of occupations and pronouns – for example, “le traducteur”/”la traductrice”. Many people see this as problematic because when gender is unknown or unclear, or when a group of people are referred to, the default is the masculine, which arguably reinforces patriarchal ideology and erases women and people of other genders.
Various strategies have been developed to get round this and make the language more gender-neutral and inclusive. One of these is the use of an interpoint (∙) or other symbol to combine the masculine form of a noun phrase with feminine suffixes, known as a truncated doublet – for example, “Les traducteur∙rices sont actif∙ves”. The Académie Française has decried such constructions as a sign that French is in mortal danger, while the French Sénat has voted for an extensive ban on gender-inclusive writing. Admittedly, such constructions are perhaps a little difficult to read, and don’t work well when spoken out loud, but there are also alternative solutions such as full doublets (“les traducteurs et les traductrices”) and the use of epicene terms, which are gender-neutral – for example, “la direction” rather than “le directeur/la directrice”.
The picture with the German language is similar – as another grammatically gendered language, German also has the same challenge that gender usually has to be specified when you’re talking about someone’s occupation or other characteristics. Faced with the gender-non-specific term “the teacher”, for example, a translator from English to German would have to decide whether to translate this as “der Lehrer” (male teacher) or “die Lehrerin” (female teacher). Just as with French, the generic masculine has historically been the automatic choice in German in cases where gender is unknown or mixed. This means that when talking about a group of people – even a group of 99 women and one man – the masculine plural would conventionally be used (“die Ärzte” (male doctors) rather than “die Ärztinnen” (female doctors).
To get round this, a range of strategies have been deployed since the 1980s, from the “gender gap” – “die Student_innen” – to the use of a capital “I” – “die StudentInnen”. However, these attempts to make the language inclusive were largely limited to academics and subcultural groups until the last decade, when the “Gendersternchen” (gender star or asterisk) – “die Student*innen” – began to go mainstream, becoming the standard style for many schools, universities and institutions, including some governmental bodies. Nevertheless, there has been pushback from conversative groups in Germany: the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland has campaigned against gender-inclusive language, while the Christian Democrat government in Saxony has banned the use of gender-inclusive language such as gender stars in schools. Other, less polarising options include doubling up (“die Lehrer und die Lehrerinnen”) and non-gendered synonyms (such as “die Lehrkraft” (teaching staff) instead of “die Lehrer/Lehrerinnen).
In 2021, eight German news agencies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland announced a range of measures to avoid linguistic gender bias, including putting women first in constructions such as “Leserinnen und Leser” (female readers and male readers), but stopped short of recommending the use of the gender asterisk or other novel orthographic strategies.
Inclusive language: the way forward
Whatever language you’re communicating in, it’s vital to pay attention to inclusivity to avoid alienating people and to reflect the diversity of your audience. The wide range of strategies might seem bewildering, which is why working with a professional translation agency like ecls translations can be invaluable in helping you find the right approach. As experts in the language and culture of your target audience, we can help you navigate the benefits and drawbacks of different approaches to find the perfect solution based on your target audience, the purpose of your communications and the tone of voice you want to achieve.
*We have deliberately used the term “under-recognised” rather than “under-represented”. For the rationale behind this, see https://hbr.org/2023/04/why-we-should-stop-saying-underrepresented.