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).