Sensitive language, language discrimination, and gender in English


by Emeritus Professor Roland (Roly) Sussex, OAM, Fellow of the Queensland Academy of the Arts and Sciences, Chevalier des Palmes Académiques, Patron of the Institute of Professional Editors.

You can attend either in person or via a Zoom webinar.

For details of future meetings, scroll to the end.

Date: Wednesday 28 September 2022
Time: 5.45 pm (on site), 6.30 pm (webinar)
Further details below.

In order to safeguard the relationship between the writer and their audience, editors need to be keenly aware of using language that is inclusive, unbiased and unlikely to cause offence, as well as being appropriate in register and style. Roly Sussex will trace the recent history of changes in the use of English in relation in sensitive topics, gender in particular, and bring us up to date with the way language is evolving in response to contemporary social changes, and not only in English.

About the presentation

Old English originally had the same three grammatical genders – Masculine, Feminine and Neuter – as Latin or modern German. This inflected system began to disintegrate from the 10th century, starting in the North of England, and was complete by the 14th century. The causes aren’t known. French (two genders, Masculine and Feminine) may have provided some impetus after the Norman Conquest in 1066. But the loss of gender in English was under way before 1066 and was part of the general simplification of English morphology. Nowadays gender is only present in third-person pronouns and some nouns, and in expressions like she’ll be right, mate.

Unlike the loss of gender in OE, recent changes in gender use in English have been driven by changing social values and practices. Beginning with racial issues, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, a major change of awareness and discrimination has occurred, starting in English and spreading into European languages. Gender followed closely on the new racial sensitivity, and was followed by sexual preference, ethnicity, ableness and other categories, culminating in the current ‘woke’ movement. We are arguably now much more conscious of the potential hurt which language can cause, and more sensitive to trying to avoid it. Our language itself has changed to accommodate these new factors.

Some of the changes, like omitting the -ess in waitress, have been accepted with relatively little pushback. Others, like the singular they/their, have been more controversial. Yet others, like ANU’s suggestion of gestational parent to replace mother, have generated significant opposition. Many American universities have produced lists of disfavoured words, which are opposed by proponents of free speech.

We are currently in the middle of a period of considerable linguistic instability. Examining these shifts can tell us a lot about the dynamics and causes of language change, and the interaction between social change and language adaptation.

About Roly

Roly Sussex (M.A. Hons Canterbury, PhD London) is a specialist in language, communication and culture, and health communication. He is currently Research Professor in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, and in the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Queensland, and previously held the positions of Professor of Applied Language Studies (University of Queensland, 1989–2010), Foundation Professor of Russian (University of Melbourne, 1977–1989), and Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and Russian (University of Reading, UK; and Monash University).

Roly has served on a several boards, including that of the English-Speaking Union of Queensland, holding the role of President since 2018. He is co-editor of the international journal Intercultural Communication Studies, and an editorial board member of a number of academic journals.

Roly Sussex still hosts A Word in Your Ear, an ABC radio talkback program on language and linguistics that has been broadcast each week since 1997 to Queensland, and since 2000 to South Australia. Podcasts of these broadcasts can be found at, on the ABC Listen app, and other podcast platforms. The ‘woofties’ (for Word For Today) are also available as podcasts.

From 2006 to 2021, he wrote a weekly column on language for the Brisbane Courier-Mail.

Since ‘retiring’, Roly has become involved in social issues as a public intellectual and, more recently, in researching pain and health.

To attend in person

We’d love to see you in 3D.

Please register through TryBooking if attending in person.
Registering helps us with catering and room set-up. Registrations close: 3 pm Wednesday 28 September.


The Durie Room
St Mark’s National Theological Centre
15 Blackall St (not Blackall Place)
See MAP.


Room opens at 5:45 pm. Presentation begins at 6:30 pm.

Need to cancel?

Return your ticket directly into the TryBooking system to make it available for someone else.

To attend the webinar (via Zoom)

Use this Zoom webinar link
Passcode: 020245

Details for joining in a web browser:

Go to
Webinar ID: 868 6048 9695
Passcode: 020245

Details for dialling by phone:

Dial the number for your area: Australia: +61 3 7018 2005 or +61 7 3185 3730 or +61 8 6119 3900 or +61 2 8015 6011
Follow the prompts to enter:
Webinar ID: 868 6048 9695
Passcode: 020245

The webinar audience can use Zoom’s Q&A functionality to ask questions or offer opinions. (You will not be able to see the presentation or participate in the Q&A if you attend by phone call.)

The webinar will not be recorded.

Other General Meetings this year

26 October


30 November

Trivia quiz night

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