Saturday, 13 January 2007

Gender neutral language

Gender neutral language is a big deal in Catholicism. There are some who feel that the Church needs to make amends for millenia of patriarchy and that gender neutral language is a first step. Others feel that this would undermine tradition and male authority in the Church and is the thin end of the wedge. Still others feel that it would ruin the translation of the mass, the Bible, etc. There are many factions, and since language is the tool we use to communicate our beliefs, ideas and who we are, it tends to get very heated.

Me? Hmm. Well, I love a beautiful translation - the King James Version (KJV) is top of my list for its Shakespearian language and poetic feel. I love the language of the Book of Common Prayer, and should I ever get married, I'd push as hard as I could for the inclusion of these words, "With this ring, I thee wed; with my body, I thee worship; with all my worldly goods, I thee endow." The language is powerful, and it expresses a deeper bond than the insipid, "Take this ring as a token..." of what? A token marriage? A token love? The language we choose, the language we hear, is paramount in shaping our perceptions, our beliefs, our culture. So I am keenly aware that hearing "he", "sons", "brothers", "fathers", "men" week after week, year after year, can be alienating for women.

But I'm also aware that, in English, gender neutral language is as awkward as a seal on land. We don't have neuter pronouns, and I'm guessing
(I expect Ari may have more to say on this) that because society developed as a patriarchy, male pronouns rushed to fill the gap. As a native English speaker, I think of "man", "mankind", "brethren" in a neutral way, at least consciously. I'm more worried about women not having a voice than I am about the words, "Pray, brethren..." Let's make ourselves heard, and in using our language to express our experience, the pronouns will follow.

Another part of me feels - and this is going to get me in trouble from several directions - that religions are really male institutions, with their cabals, hierarchies, inter- and intra-group politics, jockeying for power and rulebooks. That part of me wants to pat the boys on the head and say, "Run along to Rome, dears, and fiddle with the fine print. Meanwhile, women will give birth to Jesus; speak to Him honestly and directly at the well and when our brother is dying or our sister sitting on her arse whilst we cook; anoint Him with oil; go out to meet Him publicly on the road to Calvary after you deny Him three times and go into hiding; stand at the foot of the cross; see Him first after He has risen. We will pass it on; we will teach people what it is to *live* it. He entered into relationship with us. Your language can hide that, but it can never take it away."

So I guess I fall in the "not thrilled, but if we treat the disease, the symptoms will disappear" camp.

However, there are times when I feel that using gender neutral language might be the only way forward, such as in the following exchange my friend had at school [you'd think he'd have learned from the "Daily Telegraph" story (see earlier post)
that any of his good anecdotes would make it into my blog...]:

Teacher: I made a massive faux pas today
Irim: go on
Teacher: we were talking about miracles
Teacher: I mentioned the case of the man given the severed hand of a Catholic martyr
Teacher: they were horrified
Teacher: so i said something about execution
Irim: ...
Teacher: what is the difference between being hanged and hung?
Teacher: they thought both meant execution
Teacher: so then I said
Teacher: ............erm.........
Teacher: "What does it mean for a man to be hung?"

Gender neutral language. When nothing else will do.


Anonymous said...

Ah, poor Teacher!

It's been awhile since I've read up on this, so I'm hesitant to say much. My understanding is that in English, the so-called masculine pronouns are in some sense the "unmarked", default pronouns, whereas feminine pronouns are marked and therefore cannot be used unless the referent is specifically feminine.

Not all languages have grammatical gender - I think Persian doesn't, for instance, though I'd have to check that - but for those that do, one of the genders usually becomes a sort of default. It isn't always the masculine gender that is chosen; in some languages it's the feminine.

Why a language chooses one rather than the other is a complicated issue, to my understanding, and may or may not have anything to do with the structure of the society; I'm not clear on that point. Linguistically, it tends to be the gender which involves the least morphological marking - in other words, since English has special feminine-marking suffixes, but no corresponding masculine suffixes, it makes linguistic sense for the masculine to be the default. Though I suppose one could argue that the existence of the suffixes in the first place is evidence for linguistic chauvinism. I'm not sure I'd want to make any claims one way or the other, though.

On a somewhat tangential note: one thing of which I *am* certain is that the apparently annoying derivation of words like 'female' and 'woman' from 'male' and 'man' are to some extent illusory and not actually as sexist as they look to a modern speaker. The word 'man' originally meant 'human being' rather than specifically 'male human being'; over the centuries, its meaning evolved to become more specialised. The word 'woman' was originally a compound of two words meaning basically 'female human being'. If memory serves, 'male' and 'female' have different etymologies altogether (although at the moment I'm being cruelly denied access to the OED and am unable to verify this).

Grammatical gender is really quite fascinating, and rather more complicated than it might seem at first; for a good introduction to some of its complications, and good descriptions of some of the more "exotic" (from our perspective) systems of grammatical gender in other languages, I would recommend Corbett's book Gender.



Anonymous said...

Thanks to Ari for expressing eloquently the background of the language side of the blog. It did explain things so clearly.

My issue is with the comment on religions and male institutions. While it is true that many religions do seem to be male bastions, at least some of them are opening up more to women nowadays. But it is not enough - I am not saying that women do all the admin or fine print, and men learn AND do the dirty work (as if!), just that any religion should be open to both possibilities for either side. And judging by the common state of play we all have a long to go still... The trouble is that there are too many powerful men ensconced in seemingly unassailable positions. And who gets to call the alert on this one? And who then gets accused of heresy etc etc for blowing the whistle?

So it's back to the endless task of prayer, to let the Spirit in and goodness knows what else out... Oh and action, of course. Any ideas?