Gender-Inclusive Language

A post I recently wrote and then deleted (‘My own powerlessness’) touched on a few subjects, and although it was unwise and indelicate of me to discuss the initial issue in it, not least because I had misunderstood what was going on, some of the other issues that surround that post are worth talking about again, and at least letting my own views be heard properly.

First, I am in many ways a deep traditionalist. My love for the Book of Common Prayer, for example, is fuelled not only because I think its orders for worship helpful and its theology true but because they are beautiful and stand firmly within a wider western — and, to a degree, eastern — liturgical tradition. When I pray or sing those words, I am joining a centuries-old body of people who have also done so, and an even older and broader body who have done so in various other languages.

This love of the old (I am a Classicist, after all) and of the old-fashioned or even archaic, if you will, tends sometimes towards phraseologies that, because of how language is used today, can have the appearance of exclusion and, indeed, can make women feel excluded. And making half (or more) of the human race feel excluded is, in fact, a problem.

As a writer, I try to avoid ‘sexist’ language. This is not always successful, because English lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun. As a grammar fiend, I would shudder to use ‘they’ in the singular. This is what Anne Fadiman discusses in her brilliant essay, ‘The His’er Problem’ in the fantastic book Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Some of you may have noticed me use the verbal mash-up ‘his’er’.

As well, sometimes I get caught up in words and phraseologies that strike me and move me. Since I read a lot of old books, the older, etymological use of man(n) (and thus mankind) to mean ‘any human being’ vs. its contemporary use ‘a male human being’ (formerly wer in Old English) sometimes slips into my writing — specifically my blogging, and at times my speech, but not what little academic writing I do.

I am also a bit of a translator and a reader of texts that are often translated. And here I think trying to find gender-inclusive terms for foreign gender-inclusive terms is a worthy endeavour, not only because of the normal issues attendant to gender-inclusive language but also because it can be a more precise way of speaking. Does the writer say ‘men’ or ‘human beings/people’uiri or homines? Sometimes there is certainly a chance that an ancient writer was only thinking of male men when writing homo or anthropos, but my job as translator is to present an English rendering of the words at hand, not necessarily their intention. Hopefully the reader can decide for his’erself.

One of my translation problems with the NRSV is not that it translates anthropoi as ‘people’ or adelphoi as ‘brothers and sisters’ but that when Peter is explicitly masculine in Acts with Andres Israelitai, the translators render it as ‘You that are Israelites.’

However, I am not fond of changing the words of hymns for any reason (see here and here). And this is the contingent point of my last post, not the question of gender-inclusive language. A hymn is a poem is a piece of art from its own time and place, often a time and place more sexist than ours, but also often one where the older meanings of ‘man(n)’ are more clear. I am wary of changing things because they do not match zeitgeist — the desire to change for this reason is often followed by other changes, some aesthetic (getting rid of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’), some theological (getting rid of lines such as ‘Thou our Father, Christ our brother’). I also think a jarring encounter with the past can be helpful in curing us of modern chauvinism. Finally, many times the metre and rhyme-scheme depend on a less-inclusive turn of phrase. The attempts to change are often awkward.

I also think we should not condemn older generations for their use of ostensibly sexist language. Oftentimes, they were being sexist. But maybe they weren’t. We cannot always tell. So it is not worth getting worked up over, especially if in most other ways, what a particular author writes is commendable rather than condemnable.

Contemporary writers, even if they don’t fully grasp the significance of the issues, should use gender-inclusive language for generic human beings. This is just good sense. It removes a barrier from the reader’s mind, and helps women and men who are more sensitive than I am to be able to engage more fully with the text in front of them.

My final note on where I stand with gender-inclusivity is that I am still a traditionalist when it comes to the Godhead and specific human beings. Using the word manhood in reference to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is no problem — he was a man. Thus, in telling a story, say ‘salesman’ or ‘saleswoman’, not ‘salesperson’ (the term used if you are advertising a job vacancy). Using terms endorsed by Scripture of the Trinity is no problem — Father and Son. I am not in favour of removing these terms for vaguer terms that refer to the economy of the Trinity, because that could slide into modalism and ignores the relationships of the Persons involved.

And I am not in favour of using mother-language of the Father, although mothering images as used by Scripture and writers such as John of the Cross (who refers to us suckling at God’s breast) I get. They are probably best used when they can be explained, because if simply slipped into a hymn or the liturgy, they will cause more frustration and anxiety, whereas at least in a book or sermon there is a chance to helpfully challenge our paradigms of how we envision the Divine Person(s).

6 thoughts on “Gender-Inclusive Language

  1. So, I’m curious: what do you do with contemporary hymn & song writers – e.g. Stuart Townend, who I am quite in awe of in every other respect – who continue to use gender exclusive language when referring to humanity? Would you change the lyrics of their songs?

    • I don’t think I would. Maybe I’d write him a respectful letter about it. And, I think, officially (legally?) wouldn’t one have to get permission from a living author to change his or her lyrics? I think it’s too bad that he uses gender exclusive language today!

  2. Call me politically incorrect, but I believe calling homo sapiens “mankind” and saying “for us men” in the Nicene Creed reflects the inherent hierarchy of creation, via Genesis and I Timothy 2, and of course the consensus of the church through the ages (even though this has been challenged lately, it really wasn’t for centuries. This is an area I believe Oden is very inconsistent on, since virtually all of confessional/conservative Christendom is complimentarian, and not modernist egalitarian.

    Now maybe one may try to avoid this in academic writings and in popular discourse since people seem to be obsessed with anything with a whiff of traditional language is inherently “patriarchal,” but I don’t think the church needs to compromise its language just because the world has gone mad and is obsessed with “gender issues.” But, I do get the fact that if you are in academia, especially in a places like Europe or America, you have to swim or sink.

    • But the problem is that the word anthropos as found in the Nicene Creed refers to the etymological use of man as any human person, rather than the common use as a male human person. The question is not theology or even gender issues but shifts in language issues. If you were to ask a room full of Greeks for the antrhopoi to raise their hands, both males and females will raise their hands. But if you ask a room full of Anglophones for the men to raise their hands, unless some women there know what you’re driving at, only the males will raise their hands.

      The problem is, we have no better word to take the place of man in our liturgies, and most attempts obfuscate the creational hierarchy of which you speak. ‘For us men and for our salvation’ is a much more specific statement than ‘for us and for our salvation’. I think it is an insoluble problem — remaining true to the original texts, be they scriptural or liturgical, whilst ensuring that their content is conveyed in a comprehensible vernacular idiom.

      • So the solution is simply education, both in the church and in reading ancient texts? Back in my younger, less historically-inclined days, I went to a VERY patriarchal, KVJ-only, etc…church, and every woman there I met had no issue with the term “men” used as a generic for all of humanity, and all seemed to get that they were included. Now of course the vast majority were raised in this culture and language, so this wasn’t exactly a normal sample size of the average person, but to me anyway, it demonstrates it is possible.

        That being said, I agree that if you took 100 native English-speakers, put them in a room, and had them raise their hands without any previous education or context, that only the male-gender would raise their hands. I think the question we have here has more to do with what direction we go to fix the problem. From a pragmatic standpoint, I do get what you are saying, hence my comment about academic writing and the like. But from an overall worldview/cultural standpoint, I’m not sure such as shift is healthy, such as writing new hymns with “inclusive language.” I’d rather educate those within the church to the traditional ecclesial language of the church (including traditional English), than react to certain post-Marxian feminist views of language and history to keep people happy (nice generic, ‘people’, haha). Now perhaps I am being a bit reactionary myself (my feelers are always ready to sense even a hint of this sort of thing), and I’m willing to discuss it of course.

      • I think education is a big part of it. Our churches are full of, by and large, well-churched, uncatechised people, who do not know the essentials of the Faith very often, let alone the issues of etymology, usage, and historical linguistics. And if we want to make our churches comfortable for the post-modern unchurched folks, even if we keep the old language in our liturgies and hymns, the sermons and evangelistic outreach events should stress the meaning of these texts as presented so as to release the tension produced in a lot of people when perceptibly ‘sexist’ language arises.

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