March 10, 2004

Werlic cynn and wiflic cynn

It occurs to me that I haven’t blogged about a linguistic topic in a while, so I thought I’d write about the issue of gender in language as it became an issue in both my English Writing class and my Old English class this week.

The grammar topic I covered with my English Writing class this week was agreement (subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent), and this brought up the problem of the lack of a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in English. Of course it has become pretty much standard usage in spoken language to use they for this purpose as in: ‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in their waiting room.’ I had to convince my students that it wasn’t correct to use their that way in written language.

My students weren’t terribly happy with the rather clunky solution of using he or she or s/he (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his or her waiting room’), but there really isn’t any way around that is there (suggestions welcome).

Historically, most languages (or at least the Indo-European ones I know) use the masculine gender to cover both (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his waiting room’), but this no longer as acceptable, not only for the sake of political correctness, but also for logical correctness; with respect to my sample sentence, a hundred years ago one might be more or less safe in assuming that all doctors are male but that’s certainly not true now.

While it isn’t correct to use they as a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in written English now, I’m sure that in a hundred years or so it will be (unless some other pronoun is developed to fill that void). I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might be able to enlighten me as to how other languages not familiar to me handle this problem.

On a related topic, I find it stunning how often scholars have tried to interfere with the gender expressed in the Old English poem The Wife’s Lament. The poem is a first person monologue, with no name given for the speaker. It is clear from the first sentence of the poem that the speaker must be female because of two adjectives referring to the speaker which have unambiguous feminine endings (geomorre and minre sylfre). A surprising number of Old English scholars have suggested emending those inflectional endings so as to take the speaker as male. It is a testament to the systematic misogyny of 19th century scholars, I suppose. What is perhaps even more surprising is that even as late as the 1960s such arguments were still being floated. And it is remarkable the lengths that these scholars went to explain away the gender expressed in the text and how inventive some of their arguments were. It’s a shame, because it is such a compelling poem and such a powerful female voice.

As a final note, if you enjoy reading about language, click over to On English (also linked to on the sidebar), a very entertaining and interesting blog written by Rethabile Masilo, who enjoys punning neologisms as much as I do.

Posted by Mark at March 10, 2004 10:31 PM

I had to convince my students that it wasn’t correct to use ‘their’ that way in written language.

Quite right there, Mark. I agree with you that it’s corny to stick it into a piece of text. I have never been able to find anything satisfactory. I had a period of “(s)he”, then another one of “he or she”, which I thought was dreadful, and a sexist one of “he” sometimes and “she” sometimes. I don’t like any of them, and I think the English language should by right invent a sexless pronoun. Why not “seh”?

Will everyone open seh book, please?

Posted by: Rethabile Masilo at March 12, 2004 09:27 AM