Re: Changing our Language

Subject: Re: Changing our Language
From: Guy McDonald <guym -at- DAKA -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 19 Dec 1995 18:53:20 -0800


Thank you for your input

Guy McDonald
guym -at- daka -dot- com

From: Susan W. Gallagher[SMTP:sgallagher -at- EXPERSOFT -dot- COM]
Sent: Tuesday, December 19, 1995 3:43 PM
To: Multiple recipients of list TECHWR-L
Subject: Re: Changing our Language

At 12:43 PM 12/17/95, Tim Altom wrote:

>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, Tim...
I'm not trying to force changes onto the language, I am responding to
changes that my audience (computer professionals, for the most part)
deems necessary. The professional women in my audience have indicated
that using the generic "he" adds noise to the communication process.
Since that noise is entirely unnecessary and I can easily avoid it,
I do. I'm not using a made-up gender-neutral pronoun, I'm writing
around the issue with skill enough that the avoidance isn't noticed
by my audience except for the fact that they are no longer annoyed.

>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.

I, too, feel that a sexless indeterminant pronoun won't catch on anytime
in the near future. That doesn't mean that I feel it *never* will, just
that it'll take some time. Using one now would introduce more noise into
the communication process, so I don't. Remember, my whole point is to
communicate effectively without adding the distraction of "noise".

>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

Even the lowliest Bonsai wannabe knows that you can't force-shape a
tree. It'll break, it'll die... You *can*, however, use subtle
influences and gentle persuasion to nudge a tree into a shape that
is more desireable to you than it would have assumed on its own. So
it is with trees, so it is with children, so it is with language.
If I can persuade a tree to change its shape, gradually, over time,
if I can influence a child's development and help it to grow,
I can have the same effect on language -- not overnight -- but
gradually. If the gender-specific pronoun disappears from *most*
technical writing, it becomes more jarring and less acceptable where
it *does* appear, it appears less, then it's gone. If that process
takes a hundred thousand lifetimes, let it begin in mine.

>Most women ignore the indeterminate "he" unless it's ground into
>their faces.

Women have had to *endure* the use of "he" as a gender-neutral
pronoun, just as they have had to *endure* second-class citizenship
and corporate glass ceilings. When you are hurt, you can learn to
endure the pain. That doesn't make the pain go away. Walk a mile in
my shoes before you make such sweeping generalizations, Tim.

-Sue Gallagher
sgallagher -at- expersoft -dot- com
-Shaping the language, one word at a time!

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