Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Situation Makes Me Kinda Nervous



There might be a war between men and women, between rich and poor, between right and left, between children and adults. (At least I’m told that by Leonard Cohen in a song.)

It does not compare – in injustice, massacre, blood letting and sheer irrational fury – to the war between humans and language. The English language in particular has taken some heavy hits, is bleeding profusely and needs reinforcements, or at least a pat on the back and a swat on the face of its attackers.

It pains me to say it, but the most egregious attackers are my own gender. In my last year of college, my American Lit Teacher was a Fullbright scholar. While teaching us something he started apologizing and we all (a class of women) stared at him blankly. He explained that he’d said he, not he/she and was apologizing for not including us. We explained – thank heavens, disdainfully – that “he” included the female gender. He laughed nervously. It wasn’t till I got here that I found the reason for the nerves.

Having found out there are bands of roving female guerrillas who take potshots at the English language when an opportunity offers, I am still not impressed. He/she – really? Seriously? People are driven so horribly insecure by the fact they have a vagina that they must hysterically demand their gender be made a note of? I thought we wanted equality...

Yes, yes, the male was always a portmanteau word. My dear children, until the pill established real equality – so sorry if you thought it was obtained shoulder to shoulder. It wasn’t. The pill just changed the game fundamentally – women were mothers, daughters or wives, or not worth mentioning. Unless of course they were members of the nobility. “He” made a convenient short hand. To be offended by this is to be offended by history. And to refuse to be integrated in the one term is to exclaim loudly and often that women are in fact different. Also insecure children who must be appeased. Do you imagine that once we get the whole world to do he/she we’ll have earned respect? Do you not see the condescension inherent in the “how to write politically correct prose” instructions. IS this where we should have our laser-like focus? And don’t tell me we have to start somewhere. He/she is not going to stop female circumcision or female stoning which still goes on merrily in lands where they can point to our attacks on language and say “see, that’s what giving women power does. They’re all irrational children.”

And if I could tolerate the he/she, I couldn’t tolerate the other abominations that proceed from that toddler-like tantrum and rolling on the floor. The non concordance of phrases for instance. To avoid saying “If one wants to do that, he” we are now forced – and copy editors correct to – “If one wants to do that, they.” I find myself doing it, and it’s wrong, silly and stupid.

And please, don’t get me started on herstory and womyn, two constructions of such mountainous philological stupidity they remind me of that white supremacist cult who refused to use human because it referred only to people of color (hue-man.)

I’d like to remind all womyn trying to rewrite herstory that English was NOT – contrary to certain books – the primeval language spoken in Eden and that if one’s entire being is devoted to keeping the language from oppressing us, perhaps there isn’t much THERE to oppress anyway.

Not that we are the only offenders. No, the offenses are multitudinous – though few of them, save perhaps that of the white supremacists (and I’m sure black supremacists and, for all I know, purple supremacists) DIRECTED and intentional.

I can hear you right now, telling me I’m fuddy duddy. Grammar is no longer prescriptive, just descriptive. And language has always evolved. Oh, sure. Note I’m not railing about online abbreviations, even as they creep into our speech. That is an innovation brought into existence to suit a new technology and creeping into mainstream. That’s how languages change. It’s the mechanics of progress that gin up the next phase of a tongue, if they’re not sabotaged. ;)

Yeah, some of it changes through ignorance. When doing my first musketeer book, the only reason I was allowed to leave in my subjunctive was because it was an historical. Because the subjunctive was too difficult for people to grasp. Of course, if we’re going to be forced to sing “If I was a rich man” it sounds plain stupid, but this, like one/they doesn’t seem to bother the powers that be.

And right now you’re saying “But Sarah, you said female equality was the result of the pill. So. There. Technological advance. We’re now entitled to our language change.” Uh. No. A female who is equal to the males shouldn’t feel a need to change an abstract he to he/she. A female who believes that equality was won shoulder-to-shoulder and ever vigilant, might. The thing is such changes proceed from the inside, and from the bottom down or not at all. Language, like the economy, is a chaotic system. You can’t change it from the top down. At least not in ways that make it more functional. It will at best shrug you off and at worst perform less well than it was doing before. (Oh, and by the way, you’re not entitled to anything other than respect as a human being.) At best he/she is a temporary distortion of the language. And an excuse for those of us who are perpetually insecure to jump up and down on the males and thus call ourselves feminists while achieving nothing of substance. If that’s what you want to do, go right ahead. But not in my name.

Articles are a very fundamental part of the language. Changing them can make sentences difficult, stupid or agrammatical. It can make things hard to read. It can prickle like a bur in your shoe and make reading less than fun. It costs me money. How many readers are lost to the butchering of language? How much ammunition are we giving those people who say women are infantile?

You want to fight? You’re spoiling mad? Oh, good. Go forth and fight against real injustices done to women. Leave-the-language alone. I warn you, I’m not in a good mood. Leave my tools of the trade alone.

If every interest group keeps pecking at what we use to communicate, soon enough communication will be impossible. Telling stories will be fraught with peril. And much too soon we’ll get to the place where liberty is serfdom, joy is sadness and every man – and woman, note how correct I am – is an island with no boats to reach any other island.


23 comments:

matapam said...

Come on Sarah. Don't hold back. Tell us how you totally feel.

Like, ya know, this is like, ya know, actually super important for writers, mostly, as throwin' thuh reader out of his, her, or, oh, baby, its readin' trance is a sure sign that one has problems.

I'm channeling my inner Valley Girl. Love these on line "Translators."

http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~jbc/home/chef.html

A much more fun way to play with language.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, THANK YOU! I hate the he/she/it and, worse, hate when I see it creeping into my own writing -- which, fortunately, has only happened with blogs so far. Brain bleach and mental floss is expensive and it hurts. [G]

In all truth, when I see the he/she/it/they/them/thum foolishness in print, it throws me out of the narrative -- be it a news article, blog or work of fiction -- so fast I get whiplash. My suggestion -- stop it. Oh, wait, we're talking about gender-guilt. AWWWWWWW! Help me. They're trying to take over my brain. Brain bleach now, before they win!

warpcordova said...

Whenever I see a he/she addition, I kinda wonder how much surgery that would cost...

matapam said...

The tone of voice it's said in certainly makes pigeonholing the speaker easier.

I can't think of any deliberate attempts to alter the language that have stuck. SF and Fantasy have contributed plenty of meaningful phrases to the language. Much though I hate to admit it, more through movies than books. But that's not the same as deliberately trying to change the basic grammar for political purposes.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

At least Valley Girls aren't demandin' we speak in their language or they'll be offended. Okay, oh, like, so they might laugh at us, like, but at least they're not suin' us or callin' us valley chickist.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amanda,

Exactly. And I'm thoroughly disgusted that the one/they construction has penetrated my writing. So copyeditors will change it, but I should still write properly.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jason,

I'm with you! They can have my vagina when they... um... uh.... never mind.

I am still very much a she, not a he/she. When referring to me, personaly, she is what I prefer to be called. When talking in general, I'm fine with "he" or "one" or "the person." I am not now nor have I ever been betwix and between. :)

On anything, now I think about it. I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. There are days I think I'm an olive fork -- but by gum, I'm a very well defined olive fork.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

My first warning of this madness was a Rex Stout book, I think written in the seventies (?) where a feminist character refers to being "vissed" because starting the word with a p is male-centric.

I can't fully explain it right now, but for some reason this struck Dan as so funny when he read it after we were married that we started to use it. "Stop at the next exit, I need to vee" "Oh, boy, now I'm vissed." "this is vissing me off." The boys have picked it up. We get very odd looks. :D

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, you're right. Invented pronouns throw me out of a story,but invented nouns for new concepts don't.

Still, I wish we have a non-gender specific intelligent pronoun to replace he or she. It would be so useful for aliens and AIs.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, you made the point that changes in language usage can't be enforced from above. They have to arise naturally and be adopted by people.

This is where Political Correctness fails. We wince.

What really gets to me is this. Over here in Australia, before a politician can open a gala event, they say 'First I would like to thank the original owners of this land.' And they don't mean it!

I find it insulting and I'm not an Indigenous person.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Oh and the other thing.

Have you noticed the default profile silhouette on Facebook and Blogger is male??????

Anonymous said...

To Quote:
Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, you're right. Invented pronouns throw me out of a story,but invented nouns for new concepts don't.

Still, I wish we have a non-gender specific intelligent pronoun to replace he or she. It would be so useful for aliens and AIs.
END Quote

I agree. I have long wished for a gender neutral singular pronoun that is not it. Something, if I understood my admittedly limited high school French correctly, like the French on. As it is, I generally resort the stilted one, which I could be fine with if it weren't so awkward.

"Lady" Dawn

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

On Facebook isn't it just a smiley face? And you’re right. It should be possible to just have a checkbox for male or female. In THAT it shouldn’t be much effort and not like tinkering with the language. I don’t know how difficult it is. Kate?

The thanking the previous owners of the land is not only hypocritical -- it's bloody stupid. Sorry. I had a moment of imagining people doing this in Portugal. "And we'd like to thank the Anglos, the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swabians..." Let's face it, all lands -- possibly, okay, not OZ since it's uh... sorry... very nice but the *ss end of nowhere, had previous owners, unceremoniously evicted by stronger tribes/peoples and more often than not intermarrying and intermingling with them.

I wish someone would say "Genocide is repellent and we will not commit it given any other solution. HOWEVER there's an immutable law that a human tribe will take land from another when it can. We hope this is less brutal in the future. Your ancestors probably enslaved mine. Mine enslaved yours. All were human. Neither of us was alive at the time. Let's do the best we can with our turn and forget stuff that happened before we were born."

Gender neutral pronouns... most of them are contrived. I usually go with the rule of calling a rabbit a rabbit and not a schmerp when describing aliens. If it's a sperm-maker, even if it also carries the babies, call it a he. If it's an egg-maker, even if it shoots them out into the water to be fertilized, it's a she. If it does both... which would it strike the observer as? Ursula LeGuinn used "he" in the Left Hand of Darkness and it didn't bother me.

Kate said...

What about genderless intelligences? This is offensive to AIs! Forcing AIs to assume gender is as discriminatory as relegating them to the inanimate pronoun 'it'!

Okay. Point taken, I hope? The he/she/it nonsense is an example of the fact that you can't change how people act by changing the language. You have to shift the entire framework for that, and you've got no guarantee that the language won't shift in a different direction while you're at it. Consider: there's a whole range of insults available now that weren't around 10 years ago, mostly from L33T.

Personally, I think the whole clunky he/she/it mess should be combined into one simple word: 'shit' - it has elements of all the pronouns!

Rowena: re Oz pollies 'thanking' the 'original owners' - that is such a line of bullshit. The aboriginals were the original inhabitants, not owners. They didn't have the concept of ownership at the time (historical fact - this is part of why the culture crash was so horrendous). And before anyone starts jumping down my throat about cultural insensitivity, it is perfectly possible to develop a deep connection to a region without ever owning any part of it.

Sarah, re: Facebook - it's very easy to drop in a male/female/weirdness of choice flag and use a default avatar based on that.

As far as I'm concerned, if a person wants shitself to be taken seriously, shit can act like a mature sensible being and not wail about being discriminated against because language defaults set to the gender that was most consistently visible and active in that society.

Chris McMahon said...

My personal favourite is from a joke Robyn Williams told once. If you start with woman, then of course you need to get rid of the 'man' bit and replace with 'person'. This becomes woperson - which of course has 'son' in it - unforgivable maleness. So 'son' is replaced with non-gender-specific 'child', to yield:

woperchild

Beautiful.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lady Dawn,

on is the equivalent of the English "one".

There are no "neutral" pronouns. btw, in latin-derived languages, the "they" for a group of indeterminate gender is "male-they." Eles. Ils. Etc.

BTW no other language THAT I KNOW OF is doing this crazy... uh... thanks Kate "shit" to itself. And I don't know if British are, either. They tend to know more about the history of language.

KylieQ said...

I like woperchild but it may be a little too long a word to catch on.

I discovered last night just how unfeminist (is that a word?) I am. I was talking at dinner about how much difficulty I have getting lids off jars (yes, indeed, it was a riveting conversation, thank you for asking) when I was asked whether I have one of those handy little jar opener sticky-plastic things (the wine has fuddled my brain and I can't remember the word). My response was: "What do I need that for? My husband gets the lids off." Probably should have thought before I spoke :) But to make it even sadder, when hubby isn't home to get the lid off for me, I just trot next door to my very nice neighbour and ask him to do it. So no, I don't mind being included in the generic "he" :)

PS Sarah, hope you got those website details I emailed you - my yahoo emails often go straight into the receiver's junk box.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kyllie,

We're not "unfeminist" they are. True feminists recognize they're different from males and they use their strongest muscles for the needed tasks. Those attached to MEN. How's that for a t-shirt "Real Women Think Men Are Great." :-P

Yeah, guilty here. I have my husband and I've providentially given birth to two boys.


Got the site. Sorry. I should have answered, but I've mostly been trying to sleep off a touch of con-crud. Thank you. Now to find a computer strong enough to run it on...

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, KylieQ. I have a trick for you that often works for jars. I use it myself as some are often sealed to the point of madness (well that's my excuse anyway).

Slip the blade of a butter knife in between the inside top of the lid and the jar. If you lever gently, it breaks the vacuum inside the jar as the seal is broken and a little bit of air sneaks in. You'll find the jar pretty easy to open at that point. I guess its because most jar contents are sealed airtight when they are still hot & the vacuum forms as they cool.

Cheers,

KylieQ said...

Chris - thanks! Next time both my husband and my nice neighbour are out, I'll give it a try. I'm a little bit dubious as to whether I can do it without smashing the jar though :)

KylieQ said...

Oh that's still very unfeminist. What I should have said was next time I need to get a lid off a jar, I'll try before I go and ask a male!

Kate said...

KylieQ,

There are some other jar tricks that help - running hot water over the lid, or tapping (not too gently, but don't bash it either) the lid against the bench can loosen the seal enough.

That said, if I still can't open it I ask my husband.

It's not "unfeminist" to recognize that most males have more strength in their arms and hands than most females.

And you really don't want to get me started on differences in how males and females think. Let's just say you don't need much knowledge of brain chemistry to figure it out.

Anonymous said...

To Quote:
Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lady Dawn,

on is the equivalent of the English "one".

There are no "neutral" pronouns. btw, in latin-derived languages, the "they" for a group of indeterminate gender is "male-they." Eles. Ils. Etc.

BTW no other language THAT I KNOW OF is doing this crazy... uh... thanks Kate "shit" to itself. And I don't know if British are, either. They tend to know more about the history of language.
END Quote

Thanks for the info. My high school French teacher was frankly a waste of time, but I needed the credits. It does not mean I understood much of anything from that class and I have not seriously studied French since.

Dawn

P.S. Good health vibes for Sarah so you can get over the Con-crud.