January 18th, 2017


Words, words, words

I read a couple of articles lately on "inclusive language," that great bugaboo. It reminded me of my first sermon as a young associate pastor in the big collegiate church (in 1980). A lady came up to me after the service and thanked me for using inclusive language. I was nonplussed. "Thank you," I said, "but I wasn't trying to."

I had already tumbled to the problem of overusing male figures in illustrations. For that matter, overusing adult figures. If you want people to identify with what you're saying -- to see themselves in the people you're describing -- then you don't want to present a steady stream of illustrations and descriptive terms that paint a picture of only one kind of person. Sometimes you can do this by multiplying referents. Sometimes you can be a bit vague as to the exact age or sex of the person being described (though if you're too vague, people can't put themselves in the situation you're describing).

At the same time that I was trying to widen the applicability of my referents, I was using some grammatical tricks to do the same. I use "one" as a pronoun a lot. "One can see" how useful this would be. This allows me to use a singular subject to agree with a singular verb and avoid using "they" as a pronoun for a singular antecedent. Except when I'm being very colloquial, I have this odd prejudice that I ought to be grammatical, too, and therefore things need to agree in number.

I'm not just a grammar Nazi, though. Back in the 1980s, "inclusive language" was being used an excuse to avoid or change certain terms which results in some very bad results. Meanings were changed -- sometimes with heretical results, as when some ignorant but zealous persons started praying to the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier rather than to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And particularly when hymns were being updated, there were times when rhyme and meter were butchered in order to gouge out some expression that offended the inclusivists and stick some ugly substitute in its place.

With all that in mind, let's think about some of these things.

Gendered language

English started out as a gendered language. As in German or Latin, words were either masculine, feminine, or neuter. This had little connection with whether a particular thing was male or female. In German, "maiden" (Mädchen) is neuter because the ending -chen makes whatever it is attached to neuter. It is a diminutive of the feminine Magd, "maid." For that matter, the German word for "wife" (Weib) is neuter, while certain intimate parts of female anatomy are masculine. Meanwhile, over in Latin, the word for "farmer" (agricola) is feminine, even if the farmer we're talking about is not.

But grammatical gender doesn't just refer to person-words. In a gendered language, the words for rock, sky, dirt, tree all have an assigned gender, and they change form to become plural or possessive or whatever in accordance with other words of the same gender. English has largely lost this. Only our pronouns retain gendered forms that inflect for grammatical case. I have often wondered if our obsession with "inclusive language" is merely a product of certain persons' grammatical ignorance, and if they would find it harder to see certain words as instruments of oppression if every noun in modern English were still inflected for case according to gender.

Besides grammatical gender, of course, we also use what one might call "notional gender." Even though we don't change the forms of our nouns by their gender any more, certain things are traditionally referred to as if they had a gender. Ships, for instance, are always "she": The U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, she's a good ship. In theological parlance, the Church (meaning, the Church as a whole, the Bride of Christ, not just a congregation or Conference as an organization) is also "she." Many people call all cats "she," unless the sex of a particular cat is of importance. And babies are traditionally referred to as "it": Ooh, has it lost its little blankie?

Then, of course, there is "descriptive gender," and here the inclusivists have a point. We have lots of pairs of words for people of different sexes engaged in the same occupation: actor/actress, waiter/waitress, tailor/seamstress, aviator/aviatrix, alumnus/alumna. Some of these derive from Latin, but many are native English words. We don't need so many of them, I suppose. But still, some of them are useful; for instance, "bag man," "bag boy," and "bag lady" do not describe persons of various age and sex engaged in the same activities. I'm all for simplifying language, but I'm not a fanatic about it. I like specificity, and sometimes there is a helpful shade of meaning attached to some sex distinction.

Inclusivists also object to using masculine forms as generic, as in "lion" for all members of the species Leo panthera, with "lioness" as the form specifically referring to a female member of the species. At least, they pitch a fit when we use "Man" as the name of our species, as in The Rights of Man. They want to demote "Man" to only refer to a male human and use ungendered names for our species, as in "humanity." I don't mind this, but it gets old sometimes. If it forces you to use ungainly expressions, it's not helpful.

Inclusivists really get their knickers in a twist, of course, over references to God. They don't want to call God he/He, Father, Lord, King, Master, and so on, despite these being the Biblical terms. This can lead to heretical alternatives, but it can also lead to a monotonous use of "God" in order to avoid using masculine pronouns. It can even lead to grammatical abominations like "Godself." Ick.

Color words

At the same time that feminists were attacking gender in English, other inclusivists were attacking color words. They wanted to eliminate the pejorative use of words like "dark" or "black," as in "black as a murderer's soul." Likewise, they wanted to eliminate the affirmative use of words like "white" to denote purity or cleanliness or high status. "Whiter than snow" -- a hymn's allusion to a passage in Isaiah -- became "brighter than snow." This got to ridiculous levels quickly. I know of one congregation in our Conference that changed its name from "White Harvest UMC" to "Abundant Harvest UMC" in order to avoid the idea (to whom this would occur beats me) that they were only interested in evangelizing white people. When Jesus said "the fields are white unto harvest," he was, of course, referring to the ripeness, the readiness of the harvest, for cereal grains turn from green to a pale tan as they ripen. I mean, yeah, the harvest is also abundant, but that's not the point.

Ethnic slurs

Removing ethnic slurs from the language is something many people have said we ought to do. And you don't have to be an inclusivist to think that there's something ugly about the term "Indian giver." What has always boggled me is that the same people who would immediately recognize that "Indian giver" is a pejorative term based upon white people's view of Native Americans will then turn around and accuse somebody of "welshing" on a deal -- which is a pejorative term based upon English people's view of Welsh people.

Yes, to talk of "jewing somebody down" (hard bargaining) is obviously slanderous. Is "Dutch courage" equally slanderous? A member of my congregation makes these tasty little appetizers of sausage and melted cheese on rye bread. She calls them "Polish mistakes." Is that okay, since she's from a Polish family?

I remember lots of lectures on color words and ethnic slurs back in the days when we had a black bishop. At the time, I also had a black superintendent. And I have heard both of them refer to "grandfathering" some provision in an Annual Conference policy for the benefit of those who were engaged in something or other before we had defined how it was to be done. I was appalled. Did these African-American men not know that a "grandfather clause" -- the origin of "grandfathering" -- was a bit of legal chicanery thought up after Reconstruction in order to deny black men the vote? Various southern States passed laws that said a person was unqualified to vote if his grandfather had been unqualified to vote. All the grandfathers in question had been slaves, of course, so they couldn't have voted.

We've come a long way, though. You almost never hear the hate words of the past, like Polack, kike, wop, dago, chink. This is a good thing. The casual racism of the past is largely gone, and we are a better society for leaving it behind. Still, these words sometimes come back, and new ones are invented as one group describes another it disdains.

Our society is still convulsed at times over the term we all carefully refer to as "the n-word." It's the one word you absolutely cannot use, in any context. Unless you're black. Even then, the unspoken rules for its use are complicated, I suppose. I have no need to ever use such a term, and wouldn't -- but if I were teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I'd have to face up to the fact that we would be using this toxic word every day. And I don't agree with bowdlerization of texts, so there you are. One of the greatest American novels ever written uses the dialect of the day in proper context, and there is this word.

Meanwhile, "cracker" continues in use with all its pejorative overtones, and those who use it -- almost all of them black -- are rarely called on it. One sign of progress: "redneck" is now a term of pride used mostly by those who so describe themselves.