Thursday, May 08, 2014

Sex, Gender, and Language

One of the politically-correct targets of our English language is the inclusive "he."  In other words, if we refer to a person of unknown sex, or when we speak of someone in general, we use the pronoun "he" (or "him" as an object) to describe the person.

This practice is becoming as quaint and dated as the use of "thou" and "thee" as second-person pronouns.

The reason is that this inclusive "he" is seen as exclusive - which is about as Orwellian as one can get.  We are told that using the masculine gender to describe people of either sex is "sexist."  It's evidence of "male privilege," a holdover from the bad old days of "patriarchal hegemony."  Thus it has now become common to change between "he" and "she" even in the same paragraph so as not to offend the language-monitors and thought-police.  Sometimes we are treated to the awkward attempts at gender-neutral pronouns such as "he or she" and "him and her" construction, or even in a yet uglier form: "he/she or him/her" - or even "s/he" and "hir."  Some try to bend over backwards by reversing the order as "she/he" or "she or he."  Sometimes the plural "they" is used as a substitute for the singular "he" or "she."  A tongue-in-cheek contraction for "he or she or it" is "h'or'sh'it."  This is all really much ado about nothing.  The traditional "he" is not only more economical and elegant, it is actually inclusive - as it does not exclude either men or women. Of course, in academic and business writing, one must sometimes be politically-correct for the sake of self-preservation, no matter the inelegance or ugliness.  No doubt entire "doctoral" dissertations in "women's studies departments" have been written on this burning topic.  Perhaps even entire careers as feminist "scholars" have been forged in the fires of such "oppression" by pronoun.  And there are probably consultants whose entire reason for existence is to oversee and advise regarding the use of gender and pronouns.

The problem is: it's all nonsense.

Sex and gender are not interchangeable.

Sex is biological and ontological.  With very few exceptions, the entire animal kingdom - human beings included - are physically differentiated by sex within species.  There are two sexes: male and female.  It is a matter of reproduction.  It is so sophisticated as to be encoded into our chromosomes and our DNA, and yet typically easy enough for a toddler to identify.  Until very recently, there was no controversy over sex-segregated restrooms and locker rooms.  There was no issue in distinguishing wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, just as people don't get too worked up over mares and stallions, hens and roosters, lions and lionesses.

Even in cases of physical deformity, biological sex is simply a physical attribute of higher-level creatures - even in cases where it isn't so easy to tell just by looking at the reproductive organs.  Again, sex is coded into the genetic material itself.

By contrast, gender is a grammatical term that describes nouns, not actual living things.  Linguistically, there are three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.  The word "gender" is etymologically related to the word "genus" - as in a class or category.  Words fall into one of the three categories - what we call "genders."

In English, the neuter gender ("it") is used for inanimate objects.  Overwhelmingly, the masculine gender ("he") is used for people and animals of the male sex, and the feminine gender ("she") for those of the female sex.  Some exceptions include inanimate ships or cars being referred to by the feminine gender, and until recently, it was conventional to refer to inanimate tropical cyclones in the feminine gender, while also naming them with female human names.  The latter became a sore spot for feminists, who agitated successfully to alternate between genders as tropical storms, hurricanes, and typhoons emerge.  This important "cause" of storm gender-equality among dangerous weather phenomena that kill people by the thousands and destroy property in the billions of dollars is about one of the stupidest, most irrelevant things ever pursued by these alleged scholars.

Perhaps some of this sex/gender confusion lies in the fact that in English there is a high correlation between the sexes and genders.  In other languages, this is not the case.  In French, for example, there are only two genders: masculine and feminine.  Men and boys are masculine; girls and women are feminine.  But then there is the gender issue for sexless objects, such as houses (feminine), pens (masculine), shirts (feminine), and bicycles (which, depending on which word is used, is either masculine or feminine).  And so maybe it is easier for speakers of romance languages to separate the concept of sex from gender, and to see the value of having and using two distinct words, one to describe biology ("sex"), and another to describe linguistics ("gender").

German has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.  Like English (which is a Germanic language), the sexes and the genders line up with a high (though not universal) degree of correspondence.  One exception is the German word for "girl" - which is grammatically neuter.  I suppose there are some feminists who might be tempted to argue that this is an attempt to degrade the feminine sex.  In fact, the reason for this word's gender has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the diminutive ending of the word which is governed by the neuter.  This is completely natural to a native German speaker.  It really isn't the stuff of patriarchal hegemony, male privilege, and the need for empowerment within Teutonic maidenhood.

Interestingly, another Germanic language seems to have eluded the "scholars" of the sacred sisterhood: Swedish.  Unlike English's inclusive "he," Swedish makes use of the words "she" and "her" ("hon" and "henne") in cases in matters of human generality.  This is because the Swedish word for "person" (in general or of unknown sex) is "människa" which is a word of the feminine gender.  Therefore, when speaking of a person in general, traditionally, the grammatically right pronouns are "she" and "her", not "he" and "him" (though in recent decades there has been a movement to compel gender-neutrality in modern Swedish, including the 3rd person pronoun).

But where are all of the "gender studies" experts and feminist historians and literary critics to lambaste traditional, historic Swedish?  Where are the cries of "sexism" and "female privilege" and the bad old days of "matriarchal hegemony" among the descendants of the Vikings?  You don't hear it because it's not there.  "Sex" and "gender" are two different things.  They have made up the entire controversy.  It's absolute balderdash.

Unless you're being compelled, you have the choice to use the words "sex" and "gender" with proper distinction.  There is very good reason that "gender" and "sex" are two distinct vocables in our languages.  And in spite of the fact that someone will inevitably cite dictionary definitions and wax eloquently about how languages evolve, the plain truth is that the notions of biological, ontological "sex" and linguistic "gender" are two distinct concepts that are not interchangeable.  And all the attempts in the world to put square pegs into round holes and to claim that words do not mean what they say notwithstanding, you are free to use words rightly and with precision - even over and against the politically-correct scolds and pseudo-intellectuals who seek to change reality and control thought by changing the way words are used.  In fact, I argue that we have a duty to do so, to resist the nanny-state of human thought and linguistic expression.

If a feminist scholar of ether sex demands that we give up the inclusive "he" or that the words "sex" and "gender" are interchangeable social constructs, he is simply wrong.  He is the one who ought to change his writing style for the sake of intellectual honesty and integrity.  Nothing says we are compelled to obey him or his linguistic agendas.  He would be well-advised to leave the world of feminist fantasy and immerse himself in actual critical thought for his own good, for the sake of the truth, and for the dignity of all of mankind.


John Flanagan said...

Feminism, like liberalism, is a mental illness.

James Kellerman said...

I am puzzled by your remarks about Swedish, since it contradicts everything I know about Swedish grammar. First of all, Swedish does not have a feminine gender, but only a common gender and a neuter gender. Of the Scandinavian languages, only Icelandic and some forms of Norwegian have the full three genders. In Danish, Swedish, and Bokmål Norwegian, the Old Norse masculine and feminine genders had amalgamated into a common gender long before the modern era. Nynorsk Norwegian preserves the feminine gender, and such a use has crept into the more literary Bokmål, but it is still considered somewhat vulgar. Highbrow words referring to females such as droning (queen) are common gender, while more mundane words such as ku (cow) and dør (door) may be feminine. (That just goes to prove your point that grammatical gender and sex do not line up.) Thus, there is no feminine gender that the Swedish word "människa" could belong to. It is common gender.

Lest you think that you were right about the pronoun but confused about the language, I should point out that in Norwegian "menneske" is neuter. (In German the cognate [Mensch] is usually masculine, although when used in the neuter it has the pejorative meaning of "hussy.") Thus, I'm not really sure what you could be thinking of.

Usually Norwegian is my Scandinavian language of choice, but I have some familiarity with all of them, since they are mutually intelligible. I checked my Swedish grammar and they know nothing about using "hon" and "henne" for a generic 3rd person pronoun. Then again, the grammar is about 40 years old, and I suspect that if Swedes nowadays are using "hon" as the default pronoun, it has more to do with modern Swedish feminism than faithfulness to older rules of grammar.

James Kellerman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Kellerman said...

Your remarks about Swedish were off the mark. Swedish, like Danish, does not have a feminine gender. Icelandic does and Norwegian sort of does. (The more formal Bokmål Norwegian traditionally did not have a feminine gender, but the more informal Nynorsk Norwegian did. As more and more informal elements of Nynorsk have ended up in Bokmål, the use of the feminine has grown, although for lowbrow words such as dør [door] and ku [cow], but not for high class words such as droning [queen].) Thus, there is no way that a Swedish "hon" or "henne" could be feminine because "människa" is feminine; it is common gender (a combination of masculine and feminine that has been in use since the Middle Ages in most Scandinavian dialects).

Norwegian is my Scandinavian language of choice, but I am familiar with Swedish and Danish, too. But just to be sure that I was not off the mark, I consulted a Swedish grammar to see if "hon"/"henne" is used as a genderless personal pronoun. However, nothing in my grammar indicates that it is. Granted, my grammar book is forty years old, but I venture to say that if modern Swedish uses "hon"/"henne" as a genderless 3rd person singular pronoun, it has more to do with the strictures of modern Swedish feminism than with archaic rules of Swedish grammar.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Dr. Kellerman:

I'm not an expert in the Swedish language, which is why I'm relying on those who are. I understand what you're saying about the "common" gender, but like English, there is masculine and feminine when referring to human beings.

This issue was raised on a private list that I'm on that includes Scandinavians. Bo Giertz (not exactly known as a gender feminist) uses hon/henne for the generic pronoun.

Two native Swedes, one of whom is a Ph. D., explained it the way I repeated it in this blog post, i.e. the pronoun hon/henne reflects the antecedent "människa."

By way of example, the Swedish rendering of Prov 19:3 and 11 uses the generic feminine pronoun, whereas our English translations use the generic masculine.

I hope this clarifies things.

James Kellerman said...

I've checked out some more Swedish grammar, and you are correct about "hon"/"henne" being used as a pronoun for "människa." I should clarify, though, that it isn't because it refers to a human being that the feminine is used, since "klocka" (bell, clock, time) is also referred to by the pronoun "hon"/"henne" in modern Swedish. It is a holdover from when Swedish did have a feminine gender, just as there are a handful of words (such as "nattverden," "Lord's Supper") where the masculine pronoun used to be used until not that long ago. You might say that the usage parallels that of English where all inanimate objects are assigned to the neuter gender, but we still often use "she" with "ship" or "boat" as a vestige of a time when our language had a more complicated gender system.

There are other traces of older roots in Swedish, such as the retention of the dative in stock expressions ("till sjöss" and "till salu," which mean, respectively, "at sea" and "for sale"), and yet it would be wrong to speak of the dative in modern Swedish. In the same way it might be all right to say that the oddity of using "hon"/"henne" with "människa" comes from its function as a feminine in the older form of the language, but one really shouldn't speak of a feminine gender in modern Swedish per se. That said, I have no quarrel with your argument that gender and sex are two different things.

James Kellerman said...

It dawns on me that you missed one of the most "matriarchal" languages of all, where the feminine tends to be used for the generic person: Biblical Hebrew. That's right. The language of the "oppressive patriarchy" was written in a "matriarchal" or "gynocentric" language.

I am serious. Some of this even comes out in English translation, where inhabitants of a town are addressed as "daughter(s) of such and such." But it is even more striking if you read Hebrew, where the Hebrew uses feminine forms of the 2nd person. (English doesn't distinguish between masculine and feminine in the 2nd person. For that matter, most of us don't distinguish between singular and plural.) When the people of a nation or city is addressed, it is usually in the feminine.

Then there is Qoheleth, a feminine form, though clearly referring to a man who was king in Jerusalem. Furthermore, the pre-incarnate Christ calls Himself Wisdom (Khokmah), which is feminine in gender. So too is the Spirit (Ruakh). The early translations of the Bible into Syriac use the feminine pronoun throughout when referring to the Syriac cognate, although later translations tended to use the masculine pronoun so that there wouldn't be any doctrinal confusion. I could multiply examples, but I think you get the point.