Re: Gender Bias (was Evolving language or laziness)

Subject: Re: Gender Bias (was Evolving language or laziness)
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Sat, 16 Mar 1996 08:12:00 EST

At 01:10 PM 3/15/96 PST, you wrote:
>Enough already!!

>The debate about s/he, he/they will continue. Its is
>full of emotions, and for now, there is no clear winner.
>It continues to pop up every few months. This fact
>clearly indicates a perceived problem within our profession
>and within the general English-speaking population.

>Make a choice. Either you write as an innovator and pioneer
>(but with restraint), or you write by the existing rules
>(right or wrong).

>You can choose to be an early adapter, to join or lead those
>who want a change. Grammar rules will continue to lag behind
>common usage. Newspapers, journals, and advertisers will
>continue to slaughter the English language, no matter what
>the defined or common rules are.

For myself and our company, I make the distinction between materials written
for magazines, newspapers and the like, and materials written for our
clients. Client materials are, first and foremost, precise and accurate.
That means adhering to existent standards of usage, unless we can
inordinately benefit from straying from them.

>How long has it taken for new terms to become commonly
>accepted? Twenty years ago, almost no one knew what a
>mouse was (as applies to computers, not rodents). Mainframe,
>PC, laptop, I/O card, serial port, astronaut, web page, email,
>network, software, flame, spam, the Net, and hundreds of other
>words and word usages did not exist in the time of Aristophanes,
>Chaucer,Shakespeare, King George III, Edgar Allen Poe, or
>H.G. Wells. The very word "computer" meant a *person* who
>performed calculations in WWI. By the end of the Korean War,
>a computer was a machine, not a human occupation.

But these are words that describe THINGS that didn't exist formerly. This is
quite different from basic words and structure, which endure underneath the
roiling surface. The word for "brother," for example, has been almost the
same word for thousands of years, dating back to Sanskrit. And notice that
in each case of a "new" word, an already-existing word or words was adapted
for a new use. A PC board needn't be a "card," but that's what it looked
like and that's what we called it. "Laptop" is obvious. And "mouse"...well,
there's a prime example.

>You can choose to follow the existing rules and hold them
>sacrosanct. I believe that if you want to argue from the
>"this is the rule" camp, you should at least apply ALL the
>rules equally, with the same gusto for each one. If you choose
>to use "he" to mean "he or she," then you must also defend to
>the death the rules on ending sentences with prepositions. You
>cannot arbitrarily decree that some rules are bendable and others
>are adaptable and still maintain that "this is the rule."

Paranthetically, there is no rule banning ending sentences with
prepositions. That's a holdover in common mythology from the early
insistence on making English grammar parallel that of the Latin. The "rules"
I'm constantly referring to (often with other terms) are actually
conventions. We break conventions at our peril, because we run the risk of
not being understood. And that's a maximal sin in our business.

>I am tired of the circular logic, as in: English has been fine
>for the past 1000 years or so. Your premise is that there never
>was a problem and that no one ever had a complaint with the generic
>"he". Recent email shows that this is not true, at least for the past
>150 years. Also consider that the (overwhelming) majority of the
>existing written language before the printing press was *written*
>and *preserved* by men, the same mind set that continues to see
>no problem with the generic "he." Therefore, where is your historical
>evidence that women ever "agreed" to this construct?

But we still use "he," and that's my whole point. Dissatisfaction hasn't led
to a change, although diehard feminists would argue that men are conniving
to prevent it. Such a change must be organic, not dictated.

There is precious little evidence of any overt agreements of any kind. I
consider it a little distracting to argue linguistics from a feminist point
of view, asking whether or not women agreed to any given construction. Since
children usually spend more time with the mother in their formative years
than with the father, it would seem that women never took advantage of their
opportunities to sneak in feminine pronouns. But I rather imagine that
linguistic gender resentment is a peculiarly 20th century invention. In
olden days, the language itself was the bone of contention, and people would
often (and still do at times) go to war over using one language or another.

>Since English did have neutral pronouns in the past, what is
>intrinsically wrong with wanting to restore them? What is wrong
>with trying to write in a manner that considers the impact of
>word choice on the reader?

We still have a neutral (or, more accurately, "neuter") pronoun: it. We'd be
well-advised, then to substitute "it" for "he"? "If anyone wants to smoke,
it can do it outside?" Why not? Why does that sentence make us cringe? It's
a perfectly good way to move the language, if that's what the speakers
prefer. And make no mistake, language don't just make up new words very
often. In most cases, a new usage simply borrows an already existing aspect
and adopts it to the new use. So don't look for "shehe" or some other thing.
If we change our language, look for it to reuse an existing element.

Again, we as communicators DO NOT dictate language usage. We DO NOT preach
to the rest of the English-speaking world. We DO NOT presume to teach the
rest of the stupid, gender-ridden, arrogant male-centric asshole
English-speakers just how idiotic and unfeeling their use of language is. We
are followers, not leaders, because we have to communicate, not convert. Let
movie stars and game show hosts lead the way with slashing new linguistic
innovations. Then we can change our word choice.

Tim Altom
Vice President
Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice)
317.899.5987 (fax)

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