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August 7, 2012


Reuel S. Amdur

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There are two main objections to degenderization of language, one based on history and the nature of language and the other on esthetics. We begin with a brief statement of the justification for degenderization.

It is argued that language (English in particular) discriminates against women.  He, as an indefinite pronoun (not distinguishing on the basis of sex), is the same as he, masculine.  And man as a suffix is guilty of the same offense.  To avoid this discrimination, it has been held, we should for indefinite pronouns replace he and him with newly singularized they and them.  For himself, we create the pronoun themself.  And of course we use Ms rather than Mrs. And Miss.  The discrimination which such changes are meant to address has real psychological impact on females growing up, promoting feelings of inferiority.  We will end our discussion by addressing that concern, but we begin with a consideration of history and meaning.

English is a Germanic language at base, though it contains elements from many languages, especially Romance languages.  In German there is a word, mensch, which can refer to either a man or a woman.  This current example reflects the past history of English.  In Old English, wereman is the word for man and wyfman for woman.  Wyfman became woman and wereman became simply man.  Were survives in our time in the word werewolf.  Thus, in an earlier time, man simply meant person, and it still does in large measure, contrary to the wishes of the degenderizers. 

Feminists who seek to degenderize have paradoxically also gone in the opposite direction, rejecting female forms for male/indefinite ones, for example, actor rather than actress. Now actor is a Romance word, and in Latin it, along with other nouns ending in or, is masculine.  So the degenderizers favor a masculine form over a feminine one.

Languages change over time.  Thus Chaucer’s brid is now  our bird and his a napple is our an apple.  Turning to the current picture and the future, the distinction between shall and will is virtually gone.  Whom is going fast. Data is becoming a singular noun (rather than datum).  Nuclear will surely become nucular.  But we are not talking about artificially forced changes.

How do things work in Romance languages?  There we get some very clear distinctions between sex and gender.  In these languages all nouns have gender, not like the gender-identifying adjectives of English.  Thus, in French grenouille, a frog, is feminine.  If we want to specify a male frog, we need to say grenouille mâle.  A person in French is une personne, in Portuguese uma pessoa.  In a phrase or sentence following personne or pessoa, the adjective referring back is elle in French, ela in Portuguese, even if the person is clearly a man.  In short, masculine and feminine in grammar are not the same as masculine and feminine in life.

All this leads to the next issue: esthetics.  A couple examples come to mind to illustrate the issue.  A hymn in the current Unitarian hymnal makes use of a poem by James Russell Lowell, an American abolitionist.  Where Lowell says “work a brother’s chains”, the hymnal substitutes “another’s chains”.  The only thing that could be weaker than that would be “a stranger’s chains”.  In another example, Michele Landsberg proposed replacing “manhole cover” with “access cover”.  Which term sounds the most powerful?

The issue comes down to the distinction between connotation and denotation.  In George Orwell’s Newspeak, all words have just one meaning.  There are no connotations.  In effect there is no poetry and probably no literature at all.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s spokesman in his novel The Possessed contends that beauty is more important than truth and justice.  While that is not my stance, it is also not a choice I would want to see put.

Speaking personally, I am a social worker by profession, and most social workers are women.  I am not in the slightest bothered by seeing a reference to “the social worker. . . she.”  I am annoyed by “the social worker. . . they”. 

Let us finally address the real issue, that the language seems to make women feel inferior.  Should we change the language, even if the change diminishes the esthetics of English?  There are alternatives.  Educators can go over the ground covered in this article with their students, to help women and girls feel comfortable with being men as well as women, as being referents in the sentence “All men are created equal.”

Finally, there are exercises that can be used to promote feelings of equality.  For example, here is a riddle:

A man and his son go for a drive. They are in an accident.  The father is killed and the boy is taken to the hospital in an ambulance.  The surgeon enters the operating theater, takes one look at the boy, and declares, “I cannot operate on him.  He is my son.”  How is that possible?  The father is dead. Answer: The surgeon is his mother.

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