Many linguists have speculated about the co-relation between language and the ideas, beliefs, prejudices and stereotypes in any given society. The co-relation between language and gender has been a fertile area of linguistic inquiry since the 1970s. A number of studies within the paradigms of discourse analysis, pragmatics and sociolinguistics have provided valuable information about the linguistic behaviour of men and women. In some cases this behaviour has been somewhat stereotyped and in others it has been explained in relation to social inequalities in the modern world. According to traditional feminist thinking, these inequalities have led society to equate men with power and women with weakness. The feminist stance has been highly critical of contemporary society. Feminists, in particular, state that society is organized in terms of a patriarchal order which is based on the belief that the male is the superior sex and therefore women’s interests are subordinated to those of men. Much of the meaning conveyed about what is to be female or male is conveyed through language and mainly through the words used to talk about women and men. Sexist language, feminists claim, has the effect of underrating the role of women in society in general, hence leading to their discrimination and exclusion. Demystifying the ways in which language is used to support the patriarchal order has become the major concern of feminist work (Cameron 1992, Martyna 1983). As a consequence, feminist activity over the past decades has made language users aware of the nonneutral nature of language.
One of the linguistic features in the English language that has perhaps been most vulnerable to this kind of scrutiny is the third person gender - neutral pronoun.
The controversial issue of the third person gender-neutral pronoun by means of forms such as they and he or she alongside he dates back to the Middle Ages. The pronoun they, although considered improper by early grammarians (e.g. Murray 1795) as it was regarded as purely plural and therefore cannot agree with its antecedent in number and gender, was widely used by well-known writers such as Jane Austen. The form he or she was dismissed as pedantic and cumbersome and so it was agreed that he would be chosen because it was alleged to include both men and women. Bodine (1975) claims that this choice was based on the androcentric world-view of the 18th century grammarians.
However, in the early 1970s the issue of the equality of the sexes and sexism began to play a major role in the controversy of the English epicene pronoun. Since then, the use of the pronoun he has been considered ambiguous and has been accused of excluding women and equating maleness with humaneness.
In an attempt to shed more light on the topic, this paper will try to explore how this awareness has led to significant variation in the use of the epicene pronoun in written English.
We argue that this variation is sensitive to the linguistic context and to the type of genre.
The term epicene, taken from Baron (1986), is borrowed from Greek and means common gender, although, in the study, it is used to describe pronouns for which the gender is inclusive of both men and women or uncertain.