> Essay: Language Out of Gear

- Essays on Lingua Lincoln -

- Language Out of Gear -

by Lincoln Sayger

1201 wds.
First published on Oct. 8, 2015

This article was produced through the support of my Patreon patrons.

Part I - 722 wds.

For many years, there have been efforts to adopt a pronoun in English to fit a single actor of unknown or irrelevant gender. While those who support these efforts see them as a step toward equality, clarity, and grammatical certainty, emphasis on gender neutrality is unnecessary, divisive, and prone to confusion.

The idea of gender neutrality in English may sound good, but it is unneeded. Most languages that use personal pronouns use the masculine personal pronoun when speaking of unknown or irrelevant singular (and mixed plural) persons. As it happens, English is among them. As in other languages that have (or had) gender-neutral pronouns, English does not see wide, consistent use of any of them, including ones that predate the twentieth century: ou and ha. Thus, the inclusive nature of the masculine pronoun and the lack of adoption of any variant of neutral alternative make a singular neutral pronoun in English unnecessary.

Emphasis on a gender-neutral pronoun may sound good, but it causes more division than it would prevent. Demands for use of a special pronoun (or a clunky linguistic prescriptivism such as 'he or she') may imply a bias that was neither the intention of the speaker nor a required parsing of the pronoun 'he' as used in the statement. These demands distract from whatever communication was being attempted by the speaker. They also cause friction between the speaker and whatever gender the person demanding alternate pronoun use is trying to defend, since those people are likely to be associated with interruption of legitimate communication, and with a propensity for making such interruptions, making the very people subject of the supposed bias into a subject of frustration and possibly disgust. However, even if emphasis on neuter pronouns is proposed and defended politely, it still engenders division by encouraging all people to be more alert to perceived insult and bias. Americans frequently complain about how quick many Americans are to engage in litigation, which indicates a problem in this society with people who won't let a slight (real or perceived) pass by without reprisal. While the influence of bias detection on the litigation levels in this society may be small, it is certainly larger than the influence of language bias on the bad behaviors that are expected to be diminished by the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Beyond that, the emphasis on using a pronoun other than 'he' implies that it is unsuitable for the very job in which it has served well for hundreds of years, preventing an understanding of its appropriateness for neutral subjects. Thus, the friction created by this prescriptivism and the increase in sensitivity toward feelings that often don't exist within speakers mean emphasis on gender-neutral pronouns causes more division than it prevents.

The use of gender-neutral pronouns may sound good, but it causes more confusion and miscommunication than it facilitates understanding between humans. Even if it didn't, the decision is hampered by the fact that, in spite of numerous proposals (including one by this author while in college), no consensus has been reached on one that really serves in common use. This probably has more to do with the perception of need most people have for such a unit of vocabulary, but it certainly isn't helped by the confusing nature of most of the proposals. Nearly all alternative pronouns that have been proposed, when viewed by someone who has not been previously exposed to that proposal and its explanation, will be parsed by the mind as a misspelling of another word. Those that do not are so obscure that the meaning of the sentence is likely to be lost. What conclusion can anyone draw from this but that the proponents of gender-neutral pronouns are not communicating with each other and reaching a consensus with any more success than in trying to prescribe for the general populace what words we should be using? With all of this confusion, even within the camp of gender-neutrality's supporters, it seems more sensible to try to eliminate the use of 'she' than it does to attempt to decide on an additional word to serve where 'he or she' (or just 'he') does. Thus, the lack of consensus or adoption of any pronouns English speakers have attempted to use over the years, emphasis on gender-neutral pronouns causes more confusion than would otherwise be present.


Part II - 479 wds.

What should society do to address the actual gender bias present in our society? As with many problems, there is no easy solution. Our words do not cause us to belittle others, any more than baseball bats cause people to beat each other over the head. Words are tools that we can use to hurt others or to build bridges to each other. There are two things we, as responsible members of society, as men (another word that has a generic and gender-neutral use), should do to reduce gender bias and improve understanding of each other.

First, we should champion understanding, both of each other and of the fact that, in most cases, 'he' is a perfectly acceptable word for 'this human' or 'any human' and isn't exclusive to males. We need to all use the generic 'he' sincerely and properly to mean the same as the generic 'you', avoiding awkward replacements, and to defend it honestly as meaning that. The pronoun is only exclusionary if we abandon reason and make a faulty assumption. The fact that this has been done in the past to exclude people should not be taken as an excuse to vilify a word that is well understood by most reasonable adults, at least on a subconscious level and until challenged by the prescriptivists. Many of the negative influences of gender bias disappear when people assume that 'he' means 'person' rather than 'male' without some definitive determiner. For example, a person who recognizes the neutrality of the masculine will not feel excluded by the pronoun in a job description, because he will see it as applying to him as well as it would to any other person. This isn't an excuse or a minimization of an important issue. The problem is important but stems from the belief of the hearer, not from a flaw in the language. The harm is based on an assumption that masculine pronouns are exclusionary. If we spread the understanding that they are not, the harm will disappear.

Second, we should be polite to each other and confront biases without raising specters of bias where it doesn't exist. Give others the benefit of the doubt, and let a possible insult go by unanswered, or else calmly and politely ask for sufficient clarification to determine whether an insult was intended. It's proper to inform someone his wording sounded insulting (because of the context and tone, not simply because of a masculine pronoun in the generic sense), but it's unacceptable to insist that he was being insulting if he isn't giving some other, more reliable indicator that an insult was intended. It is not the language but the user that holds any bias. Words can shape society, but more often, a society shapes the words it uses.

When we do these things, we are truly taking steps toward equality, clarity, and grammatical certainty.

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