Re: Changing our Language

Subject: Re: Changing our Language
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Sun, 17 Dec 1995 12:43:00 EST

Sue Gallagher singed lightly thus:

>I have to admit, I'm one of those women who accepted the use of "he"
>in the generic sence and did not let it get in the way of my reading
>enjoyment or my self-esteem. However, that does not give my the
>license to use it in my writing in this day and age.

>Moral responsibility aside, it's my job to *communicate*. The
>communication process cannot be effective unless we consider all its
>aspects -- including the *noise* of preconceptions, bias, and all the
>other socio-political dandruff that lands on the written page. If I use
>"he" in its generic sense, I deliberately add unnecessary noise to the
>communication process, defeating all my efforts to communicate clearly
>and effectively. Why would I want to clutter my work that way?

>Academicians cannot "change" a living language, they can only document
>the changes. It is the people who use the language in its written and
>oral forms who change it. If I do not follow those changes, I do not
>communicate clearly to the audience that drives the changes.

>As a professional commuicator, I will continue to be a master of
>the language, not a slave to it -- tradition be damned.

Sue, while I admit your concerns and admire your committment, I have to say
that you and everyone else who's championing a sexless pronoun are fighting
a battle from the wrong starting point.

You're correct that populations change language, while academics record the
changes. But changes never take place because of imposition from without, as
you're trying to do. You imagine that if only you and every other writer
simply switch to a sexless form of indeterminate, the language itself will
creakingly follow suit, having no choice.

But language doesn't bow to the preferences of writers, be they few or
numerous. It changes only when the majority of its users agree with the
writers. Writers have tried many times to change usage, only to have the
vast milling multitudes pointedly ignore the improvements. The herd DOES
endorse change that makes life and spelling easier: "gauge" is now spelled
"gage" and "dialogue" is now "dialog," for example. But things simply deemed
to be "good ideas" by a cadre of writers and/or editors are usually
summarily dismissed and subsequently ignored. I'm afraid that a sexless
indeterminant comes under that heading.

In the case of a sexless indeterminate, the herd sees (with justification, I
might add) no benefit to changing things. The feelings of fellow speakers
have no impact on that group decision. If adopting a sexless indeterminate
were to make it possible to use fewer words, to spell words more simply, or
to make punctuation easier to do, then it would be adopted within a span of
months, as other changes have been.

A language is organic in a very real sense, that it reshapes itself only
when the organism at large perceives a reason to do so. Trees never
naturally take the stature and shape of bonsai trees. That's the charm of
bonsai. Real trees have no benefit to becoming like bonsai trees, so they
never do. Bonsai is produced by the will of the shaper, not by the will of
the trees. And while you may be able to force-shape a bonsai tree, even the
greatest bonsai master knows that you can't do the same thing to the entire
Northwest Territory. If you would have the herd adopt a new indeterminate
pronoun, your "bonsai shape", then first figure out how to make its adoption
of benefit to all writers and readers, not merely to a minority of readers.
And please don't respond that "fifty percent of all readers is hardly a
minority." Most women ignore the indeterminate "he" unless it's ground into
their faces.

Tim Altom
Vice President
Simply Written, Inc.
Technical Documentation and Training
Voice 317.899.5882
Fax 317.899.5987

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