Not a Him or a Her, Not a Madam or Sir

This is a post which elaborates on a comment I left on the Macmillan Dictionary blog. The post (by Stan Carey) discussed the nature of gendered pronouns in English and the ways people have tried to invent a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. It’s worth a read (as are the comments in this post, where Stan was kind enough to indulge my ramblings). I tried to be very concise in my comment, but I feel like the point I tried to make deserves more attention (and page space) than is usually permitted in comments. So I’m making a post out of it.

My comment was this:

I’m going to try my best not to be too vague or overarching, but I wonder if the use of gender-neutral pronouns to point out chauvinism in language is anything like restructuring the history class curriculum to not be just one war after the other. The idea is that making war a priority in the history classroom perpetuates its priority in students minds year after year and so shapes the world they live in. Changing the curriculum would be interesting, but at the same time, war has been a major part of history and humans will always the capacity to be violent on a large scale.
What I’m trying to get at is the ways in which we are able to recognize and assess our own biases and the point at which we start fighting against our nature. Pronouns are learned first and then sexist meanings are attached to them (in varying degrees, I assume). But there’s no doubt that people distinguish between genders. I wonder how long it would take – or if it’s possible at all – to break down all the sexist meanings attached to our gendered pronouns. Just like how many years would it take to strip war of its priority in students minds?
Certainly experiments like the Egalia school’s will lead us to better understand how our brains relate natural necessities (like pronouns) with nurtured meanings (like equality or sexism), right? It should help us see whether finding a gender-neutral pronoun is a step in the process of breaking down inequality or if it’s a necessity, depending on how deep in our minds sexism lies and the ways in which it is learned.

That wasn’t too confusing, was it? Am I grasping at straws here or applying too much meaning to aspects of language?

The idea of using language in a different way in order to eliminate inequality in society is very interesting, especially when it involves pronouns because of their necessity in language. Racist words, for example, could arguably be removed from the language, but pronouns can not. If we removed one, it would need to be replaced. And that’s where things get tricky.

In the comment, I mentioned a post about how teaching history as being one war after another may be perpetuating the importance of war in young students’ minds. So, while war was a major part of life and possibly even a necessity in the past, it doesn’t need to be anymore (and shouldn’t). But if we keep teaching history in the way we have been, we may be creating a future where war is a constant. Changing the curriculum may be able to stop this, but there is no denying that humans have (and probably always will have) the ability to be violent.

In a similar way, racist words have been a part of languages, but no longer need to be (and should have never been). Removing them may sound fine to some, but racism and its motivations run deeper than the language we use. Remove one racial epithet and you’re liable to end up with another one just as quick (assuming you could even remove a word from the language, which you can’t). And yet, teaching people to not use racist words goes a long way in teaching them to not be racist, simply by bringing the effects of such words to the forefront. We can’t remove the violent nature of humans or the importance of war in the past, but we can possibly change how war is viewed today, just like we can change how people of other races are viewed. And we can do it (at least partly) by changing the ways we use language.

But pronouns and their entanglement with sexism is a whole different beast. We can’t do without pronouns – gendered or not. We can, however, do without the sexist meanings attached to them. From experience, I have noticed that children have no trouble learning to use gendered or neutral pronouns. My son is a bilingual speaker of English (gendered third-person pronoun) and Finnish (gender neutral third-person). To the best of my knowledge, he is not a chauvinist. Then again, he’s only two. Later on, as his vocabulary grows, the third-person English pronouns that he uses will acquire more meaning as he differentiates between men and women more and is influenced by other speakers. This is where sexist or chauvinistic meaning may come into play. And this is why people have tried to use gender-neutral pronouns in English – in order to raise people that do not place so much weight on the differences (real or imaginary) between genders. A similar motivation inspires changing the teaching of history. And yet, adults are the ones who recognize the sexist meanings that our pronouns carry. Our vocabulary includes those meanings, the vocabulary of children does not. And using gender-neutral pronouns is not guaranteed to make people less sexist. As I said before, Finnish has a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun and Finns can be just as sexist and chauvinistic as English speakers (no offense, mun Finnish veljet). What I’m saying is that gender bias and sexist meanings are at play in Finnish society. So is it even worth using only gender-neutral pronouns around our children?

I think there are two ways in which it’s worth it. First, English speakers may be at an advantage when compared to Finnish speakers. If we were to use gender-neutral pronouns, we would be bringing the sexist nature of gendered pronouns to the forefront, much like not using racist words brings the ugly nature of them into people’s minds. In English, we can compare pronouns to lessen sexism in society. Presumably, Finnish speakers can not do this. How ridiculous would it be for them to invent gendered pronouns to compare to their non-gendered ones? But this learning by comparison requires speakers to have the knowledge of sexist meanings, which is something that children do not have. So in order to teach them why the words he or she are sexist, we must first teach them sexist notions of gender. And we’re right back to square one.

Or are we? Because the second reason I think such a debate is important is that experiments such as the teaching of gender-neutral pronouns to children may lead to a better understanding of how much of our biases come from nature and how much come from nurture – just like the changing of the history lesson might give insight into how violent humans really are or how much they need war. Of course, it may be that we can never know how ingrained our biases or desires are, but impossibility has never stopped science from trying before.

Sorry for the serious post. I’ll return to the mindless drivel that normally makes up this blog soon. Just had to get these thoughts out on paper and decided to share them. I’m interested in hearing what you, dear readers, have to say on this matter, especially if you can point me to certain studies or books that relate to it. I don’t know of any off the top of my head or have the time to look any up, but I’ll try to update this post as I come across them.

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[Updated] Rise Up! Free-form Grammar to Break Your Language Bonds

Too long have we been held in the chains of grammar. Too long have our oppressors, the so-called language mavens, told us what we can and cannot say! Too long!

This is the dawning of a new era, where we will no longer be slaves to our grammarians and their grammar books. This is the dawning of the Age of Avant Garde Grammar.

Free-form grammar is simple. Take the most hallowed rule of English grammar, the granddaddy of them all – that phrases must impart sensible information – and throw it out! Kill the head and the body will die!

Feel liberated, my fellow grammar slaves, for this is Liberated Grammar. You are slaves no longer!

[UPDATE – August 6, 2020] Hat tip to the Society Formerly Known as the Anti-Queens English Society and to the Proper English Foundation for helping the masses to break free from their grammatical bonds. Apologies and condolences to family and friends of the Queen’s English Society. Their death was inevitable, but it’s always sad to see a cult bite the dust.

[UPDATE – June 18, 2037]
Took while, but pre-New World Order grammar really caught, huh? People slave no government world mozzarella sticks. And hockey babies chair bring fellow scholars.

[UPDATE – June 23, 2068]
Lay dying pre-Alien Overlords grammar land law used start, oui? Time was no one mavens remember world chaos inner tube. Respect.

Translate "Suboptimal Productivity Drivers" and Win a Dictionary

Stan Carey of Sentence First and Macmillan Dictionary Blog fame has set up a challenge at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. He has written a letter in “business-speak” and tasked readers to translate it. One winner will receive a Macmillan Dictionary of their choice. Below is the opening of the letter. Follow this link to read the rest and participate.

Dear employee,

It has come to our attention that productivity drivers are suboptimal, which clearly impacts performance deliverables. We have touched base with HQ and undergone a period of extensive consultation. Actioning this decision-making process requires frontminding streamlined competencies. We anticipate a needs-based harmonisation gap in employee feelings vis-à-vis these necessary outcomes, but we are tasked with maximising the ball-parking of our projected equity outcomes.

My translation of that paragraph is:

Underling,

You have failed yet again, which means the company is failing because of you. The powers that be know of your failings. They have given us the authority to act swiftly and brutally. For the good of the company, you will be granted no mercy.

Go here to see the rest of my translation.

Good luck and happy translating!

Image courtesy of the Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Robert Burchfield. Teacher. Lexicographer. Original Gangster.

Before Tupac and Biggie. Before Dre and Snoop. Shit, before even Schoolly D and Ice-T, there was Robert Burchfield.

Robert Burchfield was straight gangstar. Robert Burchfield was the Suge Knight of lexicography. No, fuck that, Suge Knight is the Robert Burchfield of rapping. Respect.

Peep this: In 1957, the Oxford English Dictionary was mad out of date. The Oxford University Press needed to update that shit and they needed to do it quick. How could they call themselves a bastion of the English language when their dictionary was so old-school? Shit was whack.

The OUP knew they had to get the freshest gangsta around to edit their OED – the OG Robert Burchfield. They knew players would be hatin’ on him and his editing skillz, but they knew it had to be done. Shit would have been even more whack if they didn’t get RWB, yo.

Pictured: R to the Obert, B to the Urchfield.

Shit, you don’t think RWB knew peeps would be hating on his OED Supplement? Robert Burchfield was realer than real deal Holyfield. You think he didn’t know that shit? He knew – homeboy just didn’t care. He published that shit anywayz. It was his job to tell the world about the English language, not their job to tell him about it. Robert Burchfield took the English language and said, “It’s like and like this and like that and uh.” If punk ass bitches didn’t like it, they could come and get theirs.

And they tried to front too, writing him letters saying they would cap his ass for his edits to the OED. But all them letters were anonymous, surprise surprise, because cowards were scared of the OG Burchfield. Bitch ass death threats from fakers didn’t faze RWB, ya heard. Robert Burchfield kept rolling, slinging his dictionary papers and pimping knowledge like nobody’s bizness.

RWB went to that great editing room in the sky in 2004. But now that y’all know who the original gangsta is, you best show respect.

RIP OG RWB.

Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and the Need for a Linguistics PR Team

I could spend this article picking apart or promoting Pinker’s Conceptual Semantics, but what’s the point? There’s not enough room in a blog post to do either. So instead I’d like to devote this post to how much the field of linguistics needs a PR team.

The gap between linguists and the public is no more evident than in the crap people believe about language despite the truth linguistics has to offer them. More often than not, the public’s belief and the linguistic fact are polar opposites. They are so far apart that it inspired me to invent McVeigh’s Law, which states that the probability of an answer or explanation being true is directly proportional to how boring it is. This means that the most boring answer or explanation is usually the correct one (compare the etymology of fuck to what you probably heard about the king and his consent).

Fortunately, other more capable and respected people in the linguistics field have also noticed the need for a Linguistics PR team. Language Log has been fighting the good fight for a while now, as have Language Hat and Stan Carey. But last week saw the introduction of Popular Linguistics Magazine, which aims to do for linguistics what Scientific American has done for physics. Here’s hoping.

There is, of course, danger in getting the public very much involved with an academic field. It’s not that the public is dangerous to academia, it’s just that their general knowledge tends to muddy the scientific waters. For all the zeal and interest people may have in a particular academic field, there’s a point where they go from member of the public to professional in the field. The crossover usually requires a degree, which is all fine and good, but the Internet poses and interesting dilemma. With the ability of anyone to write anything about anything, professionals that attempt to educate the public in their field may find themselves with a new-found appreciation for Dr. Frankenstein (autism, anyone?).

I bring this up because there are competing theories in linguistics, theories that aim to explain the most basic principles of language. Scientific American may have been able to bring physics to the people, but physics come pre-packaged with an organized set of basic equations and principles. There may be debate on topics such as astrophysics, but no one is calling into question the equation that explains gravity. Linguists, on the other hand, can’t even agree on the purpose of language, let alone how or why it developed. <

Before I get too far down the rabbit hole of science I don’t understand, I'll bring it back to Pinker because The Stuff of Thought is his attempt to explain the very nature of language and how it offers us a window into the human mind. It’s a noble goal and it places Pinker in the class of hip authors, who are trying to bring science to the masses. Fortunately, he isn’t a journalist tying a bunch of common sense ideas together and calling it revelatory. No, Pinker at least knows his stuff (even if his writing style is poor).

And if there is one thing that is good about Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, it’s that it pulls linguistics away from philosophy and toward science. Linguistics has only recently undergone the change from armchair philosophic theories to actual, provable, and evidence based theories. The debate among linguists about the basic nature of language may always be a very philosophical debate, but Pinker aims to back up his theory with scientific research, unlike some linguists who develop explanations for language that by their very nature can never be proved and therefore allow the linguists to never be backed in a corner. They can just deny, deny, deny.

I enjoy the shift linguistics is making away from philosophy and abstractions. I imagine that if this trend continues, Pinker’s book will be viewed positively, even if his theories are later proven wrong because it was a step in the right direction. I think the first step for the Linguistics PR team should be to explain the basic debates surrounding the major theoretic fields, as well as to squash the old wives etymology tales (Best way to do that? Make everyone aware of McVeigh’s Law). Keep it simple, people. If the PR team is able to do that, I think they really can bring linguistics to the people in the way that Scientific American brought physics to the masses. Here’s hoping.

Up next: City of Thieves by David Benioff