Feminism & Language

A well reasoned mini-rant on the log attacking a common and tiresome position on feminism and how it destroys language.

[David Gelernter’s] claims are apocalyptic. Although English “used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers” it has now been taken over by “arrogant ideologues” determined “to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.” A major “victory of propaganda over common sense” looms: “We have allowed ideologues to pocket a priceless property and walk away with it.” The language is on the brink of being lost, because although the “prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise”, today “virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite”. This is the mild part. Soon he gets more seriously worked up, calling his opponents “style-smashers” and (I’m not kidding) “language rapists”, and claiming that “they were lying and knew it” when they did what they did.

What, then, is the terrible thing that the style-smashers have done? The following is (and I stress this) a complete list of all the facts about English usage he cites:

* Some writers now use either he or she, or singular they, or purportedly sex-neutral she, instead of purportedly sex-neutral he, to refer back to generic or quantified human antecedents that are not specifically marked as masculine.
* Some people recommend the words chairperson, humankind, and firefighter over chairman, mankind, and fireman.
* Some try to avoid using the phrases great man when speaking of a great person, or using brotherhood when making reference to fellow-feeling between human beings.

[…]

Gelernter insists on the beauty and clarity of “Shakespeare’s most perfect phrases”, calling them “miraculously simple and terse”; […]

Gelernter huffs and puffs a lot about the use of he or she, but this is only a prelude to something more serious: a furious condemnation of singular antecedents for they (“a student who lost their textbook”). In his telling of the story, the feminist language terrorists weren’t content with imposing he or she on us, a phrase that is merely clumsy; worse was to come when grammar itself “collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional”, i.e., they was permitted to have singular antecedents.

But his ignorance of the history of English literature on this point is breathtaking. It is quite clear that he has no idea Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents […]

Gelernter also specifically singles out Austen for praise: “The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written “pure simple English.” He obviously is not aware that Jane Austen is famous for her high frequency of use of of singular-anteceded they […].

Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist “ideologues”, rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years. One might think it remarkable that someone this ignorant of the history and structure of English would nonetheless presume to pontificate, without having checked anything. But not if you read Language Log. We have noted many times the tendency to move straight to high dudgeon, skipping right over the stage where you check the reference books to make sure you have something to be in high dudgeon about. To take a random example, when Cullen Murphy accused three word-sense usages of being modern illiteratisms, Mark Liberman showed that in fact all three were the original meanings from long ago. And then a couple of months later Mark found John Powers had made an exactly analogous mistake with three other words. People just don’t look in reference books when it comes to language; they seem to think their status as writers combined with their emotion of anger gives them all the standing they need.

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