Against the Theory
of "Sexist Language"

The word "sex" -- clearly evocative of an unequivocal demarcation between men and women -- has been replaced by the pale and neutral "gender," and the words "man" and "he" -- now avoided as if they were worse than obscenities -- have been replaced by the neuter "person" and by grammatically confusing, cumbersome, or offensive variants of "he/she" or "she" alone as the pronoun of general reference.

Since it was never even remotely in doubt that when used as a general referent, the male pronoun included females, this change was never designed to prevent confusion. The change has, on the contrary, often created confusion. Its purpose is solely ideological.

F. Carolyn Graglia, Domestic Tranquility, A Brief Against Feminism, Spence Publishing Company, Dallas, 1998, p.154

I, for one, want to be free to refer to "the brotherhood of man" without being corrected by the language police. I want to decide for myself whether I should be called a chairman, a chairwoman, or a chairperson (I am not a chair). I want to see My Fair Lady and laugh when Professor Higgins sings, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" As a writer, I want to know that I am free to use the words and images of my choosing.

Diane Ravitch, The Language Police, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, p.169

Pages [the Apple word processing program] just hates gender specific expressions and is constantly on guard for them. In a column titled "Assad's Useful Idiots" I had written that Vogue magazine "apparently immune to shame, ran a fawning profile of the dictator's wife." Proofreadress was on it. "Gender specific expression. A gender neutral word such as 'spouse' may be appropriate." Really Proofreadress? Spouse is a legal word, good for real estate transactions and rhyming with house in Les Miserables' "Master of the House." But as a substitute for wife, it's ungainly and odd. Wife is a perfectly good word -- in fact, it's a perfectly good status, one that I'm glad to enjoy.

Mona Charen, "Gender specific writer, my 'proofreadress'," March 9, 2012

It is common today in public discussion, whether the context is academic, political, or even legal, to take it for granted that using the word "man," in isolation or as a suffix, to refer to all of humanity, or using the pronoun "he" where any person, male or female, may be referred to, is to engage in "sexist language," i.e. language that embodies, affirms, or reinforces discrimination against women or the patriarchal subordination of women to men. Thus the American Philosophical Association offers "Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language," which it says is, "A pamphlet outlining ways to modify language in order to eliminate gender-specific references" -- as though that is an unproblematic, rather than an Orwellian, goal. Until exposed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, California State University--Chico featured a web page on sexual harassment that included in its definition, the "continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes." The University wanted the use of "he" as a common gender to be a federal civil rights offense, before being informed that the policy violated the First Amendment.

Not everyone agrees with the politically correct view about "sexist language," and "he" and "man" often seem to creep inappropriately into the speech of even those who consider themselves above such transgressions; but the ideology that there is "sexist language" in ordinary words and in the ordinary use of English gender rarely comes under sustained criticism, even in the intellectual arenas where all things are supposed to be open to free inquiry (an ideal asserted with increasingly laughable dishonesty at American universties). Instead, the inquiry is usually strongly inhibited by quick charges of "sexism," by the other intimidating tactics of political correctness, and even by administrative inquisitions and vendettas from "educators."

Such defensiveness and bad faith accompanies the widely held conviction that the theory of "sexist language" and the program to institute "gender neutral" language are absolutely fundamental to the social and political project of feminism, to the point where mere criticism of the theory or the project can themselves be condemned as "sexual harassment" and subject to attempts at legal sanction. The theory of "sexist language," however, is no credit to feminism, for it is deeply flawed both in its understanding of the nature of language and in its understanding of how languages change over time. Since the ideology that there is "sexist language" seeks, indeed, to change linguistic usage as part of the attempt to change society and forms of thought, the latter is particularly significant. That the public and the intelligentsia have not been alerted and alarmed long ago that the project of "non-sexist language" is a clear example of what George Orwell called "New Speak," and is thus the reflex of a totalitarian ideology, continues to be alarming in its own right. Nor can we be reassured of the innocence of the goal when the feminist motto, "the personal is political," itself embodies a totalitarian rejection of privacy, private life, and the domain of civil society -- a Marxist politicization of all human existence. Nevertheless, the treatment here focuses on the linguistic issues, rather the ideological background, for which other pages at this site can be consulted.

First of all, the theory of "sexist language" seems to say that words cannot have more than one meaning: if "man" and "he" in some usage mean males, then they cannot mean both males and females in other usage (i.e. nouns and pronouns can have both masculine and common gender). Although univocal meanings were once the ideal of philosophical schools like Logical Positivism, this view is absurd enough as a rule for natural languages (where equivocal meanings and ambiguity emerge through usage) that there is usually a more subtle take on it:  that the use of "man" or "he" to refer to males and to both males and females means that maleness is more fundamental than femaleness, "subordinating" femaleness to maleness, just as in the Book of Genesis the first woman, Eve, is created from Adam's rib for the purpose of being his companion. Now, the implication of the Biblical story may well be precisely that Adam is more fundamental than Eve, but the Bible did not create the language, Hebrew, in which it is written. If we are going to talk about the linguistic structure of Hebrew as distinct from the social ideology of the Bible, it is one thing to argue that the system of grammatical gender allowed the interpretation of gender embodied in the story of Adam and Eve and something very much different to argue that such an interpretive meaning necessarily underlies the original grammar of Hebrew -- or Akkadian, Arabic, Greek, French, Spanish, English, Swahili, etc. -- or that such a system of grammatical gender requires such an interpretation.

What a language with its gender system means is what people use it to mean. It is an evil principle to think that we can tell other people what they mean by what they say, because of some theory we have that makes it mean something in particular to us, even when they obviously mean something else. Nevertheless, there is now a common principle, in feminism and elsewhere (especially flourishing in literary criticism), that meaning is only in the response of the interpreter, not in the mind of the speaker, even if the speaker is to be sued or charged with a crime for the interpreter having the response that they do. There is also on top of this the Marxist theory of "false consciousness," which holds that "true" meaning follows from the underlying economic structure, today usually just called the "power" relationships. Most people are unaware of the power relationships which produce the concepts and language that they use, and so what people think they mean by their own statements and language is an illusion.

The implications of these principles are dehumanizing and totalitarian:  what individual people think and want is irrelevant and to be disregarded, even by laws and political authorities forcing them to behave, and speak, in certain ways. But they are principles that make it possible to dismiss the common sense view that few people speaking English who said "man" in statements like "man is a rational animal" were referring exclusively to males, even though this usage was clear to all, from the context, for centuries before feminism decided that people didn't "really" mean that. But even if some speakers really did mean that, it is actually irrelevant to the freedom of individuals to mean whatever they intend to mean through language in the conventionally available forms that they choose. What was meant by the gender system in the languages that ultimately gave rise to Hebrew is lost in whatever it was that the speakers of those languages were saying to each other; but what we can say about the functioning of gender systems and about language in general is very different from the claims that the theory of "sexist language" makes.

Historically, if a language possesses a gender system and distinguishes between "he" and "she," then one or the other will also tend to be the common gender for when both genders are involved. In English, and most other languages with gender, that falls to "he," and the feminist argument is that this reflects patriarchal dominance and so sexism -- a hierarchy in which the masculine is more fundamental. That may even be true in many cultural contexts; but interpretation is separate from the grammatical structure, and the structure allows for interpretation that cuts both ways. Logically, English "he" stands to "she" as "number" stands to "prime." Number, in a sense, is more "fundamental" than primeness, just because it is more general; but prime numbers are certainly no less numbers than any other numbers. Prime numbers are simply marked with a certain property that other numbers do not have. Calling prime numbers "prime" represents the traditional sense that the distinguishing property of prime numbers -- that they cannot be evenly divided by any numbers besides one and themselves -- is particularly striking and salient.

If "she" is logically subsumed under a more general "he," it may then be because the female was regarded as more "marked" than the male. Feminists sometimes notice this, to their irritation, especially in the structures of the words "female" and "woman" as compared to "male" and "man":  each simply adds a syllable. Similarly, Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) languages from Ancient Egyptian and Hebrew to Modern Arabic have added the syllable -at as the mark of feminine nouns (where the t is usually silent and the a often later pronounced as e or i). More subtly, French may represent the same thing through the quality of the vowel in the definite articles:  The feminine singular article, la, contains a full and pure vowel, /la/, while the masculine article, le, actually contains a reduced vowel, the indistinct and indefinite "schwa" sound. The full feminine vowel can easily be interepreted as more "marked" than the reduced masculine schwa [note].

We see a similar phenomenon in Chinese. The Chinese expressions for "Queen," , and "Empress," , simply use the characters for "King," , and "Emperor, , and add the character for "woman/female," . Likewise, one of the expressions for "daughter," , adds "woman" to a character that, in isolation, can mean "son." There are separate characters for "elder brother," , and "elder sister," , "younger brother," , and "younger sister," . However, one sees that both the "sister" characters incorporate "woman" within them. Most strikingly, "older brother" and "younger brother" both become "older sister" and "younger sister" -- -- simply by prefixing the character for "woman." Thus, Chinese, which entirely lacks grammatical gender, reproduces the markedness of the female by semantic or morphemic additions.

English does have a dedicated suffix for the female, which we see in the pairs, "actor, actress," "priest, priestess," "count, countess," "steward, stewardess," "emperor, empress," "waiter, waitress," "Jew, Jewess," "Negro, Negress," "lion, lioness," "tiger, tigress," etc. The feminine forms of these pairs have almost all become politically disfavored, with "Jewess" and "Negress" bearing the additional onus of implying anti-Semitism and racism. However, the "-ess" ending, borrowed from Old French ("-esse") seems to turn up in the borrowed French terms, "masseur, masseuse" and "chanteur, chanteuse" -- where in the latter pair, only the feminine form is the one commonly used in English. The ending goes back to Greek, "-issa," by way of Latin -- e.g. "Atheniotissa," for the Virgin Mary as worshiped in the Parthenon during the Middle Ages. Thus, the female counterpart of a "marquess" in English is a "marchioness," from Latin marchionissa (masculine marchio) -- in French we get "marquis, marquise" (titles that are sometimes substituted or confused with the English forms), where the addition of a final "e" is all that marks the feminine but brings out the silent final consonant of the masculine form, as in the names "François, Françoise."

It is noteworthy that, where the "-er/-or" suffix occurs in the masculine for agents, it usually loses its vowel as "-ess" is added, retaining a single syllable ending. Otherwise, of course, "-ess" adds a syllable, like "-at" in Egyptian, Hebrew, and Arabic. This construction in English means that the "-er/-or" ending itself is not seen as masculine, but is indeed in a common gender (not really "gender neutral," since we do not expect a neuter), which is increasingly how words like "actor" are used, for both men and women -- although "steward, stewardess" have both been junked for "flight attendant."

It is French forms like "masseur, masseuse" that make it look like "-r" and "-se" would be masculine and feminine, respectively. This is unintentionally promoted for English by the feminist introduction of the title "Ms." as the counterpart to "Mr." The traditional "Mrs." itself comes from the pair "master, mistress," with "-ess" added to an "-er" stem. The French "-r/-se," however, may reflect an "r/s" alternation that occurs frequently in languages, so that the "r," already vocalized as a semi-vowel, becomes an "s" under the full vocalization required by the "e" suffix. This means that the French feminine may consist of no more than the silent "-e" suffix, whose presence is revealed, as in an adjective like "petit, petite," "little," only by the change in the pronunciation of the consonants -- in "petit" the final "t" is silent, while in "petite" it is not. In English, the common final silent "e" doesn't do that, but it usually lengthens the preceeding vowel, as in the minimal pair "pin" and "pine." This phenomenon in English has nothing to do with gender, as the meanings of "pin" (Old English pinn) and "pine" (Old English pîn, Latin pinus) are unrelated. The French "-r/-se" gender endings are quite common, as we see in "joueur, joueuse," "player," "fumeur, fumeuse," "smoker," "penseur, penseuse," "thinker," "chercheur, chercheuse," "seeker," "faiseur, faiseuse," "maker," "laveur, laveuse," "washer," "danseur, danseuse," "danser," "montreur, montreuse," "showman," "farceur, farceuse," "joker, fool," "baladeur, baladeuse," "stroller," and, as I've seen in recent French e-mails, "shoppeur, shoppeuse," "shopper." There is something deliciously French about the pronunciation of these pairs of words. Sometimes the gender distinction escapes non-native speakers, for instance when Emily Raboteau tells an Ethiopian that she is not a journalist but, "Je suis un chercheur qui écrit" [Searching for Zion, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013, p.121, boldface added], when she is clearly "une chercheuse" instead. While this feature of French is as remote as possible from the politically correct ideal of "gender neutral language," the French are never upbraided by the language police of American universities, who otherwise are indignant or furious at anyone referring to a ship as "she." But Gaul has its privileges -- perhaps that simply being French is so politically correct, indeed superior, that it overrides the sin of a language that is not "gender neutral" -- the way that The Crying Game, with its "transgendered" character, overrides its misogyny.

The superadded distinctness, properties, morphemes, or syllables for the feminine, of course, could represent something either positive or negative -- femaleness could be either more valuable or less valuable than humanity in general. Or the property could be just salient and distinguishing, without being relatively more or less valuable. Feminists argue in effect that the feminine as the more "marked" gender is the less human gender. This is ridiculous, like arguing that prime numbers are less "numerical" than other numbers. It actually means that the gender system of English is just as amenable to a feminist interpretation that it reflects a primaeval matriarchy as it is to the interpretation of Old Testament patriarchy, with the feminine, like prime numbers, as the more significant, rather than the more common, gender. Since the gender systems of Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages certainly go back to the prehistoric periods where speculation about matriarchies proliferates, it is surprising that such an alternative interpretation has not been advanced by such theorists.

The actual positive markedness of the feminine gender could be argued on the basis of the gender systems of Greek and Latin, which display a general characteristic of complete Indo-European gender systems:  the most common regular nouns display endings that are mostly identical for the masculine and neuter genders (-o- themes in Greek, like ho oîkos, "the house," masculine, and tò biblíon, "the book," neuter) but quite different for the feminine (-e- themes in Greek, like hê epistolé, "the letter"). We might interpret this to mean that things with masculine gender are the most like inanimate objects, while things with feminine gender are unmistakably different from inanimate objects. This could mean that the feminine is more markedly human than the masculine. The similarity between the endings of masculine and neuter nouns still occurs in German. On the other hand, other noun endings in Greek and Latin (consonant stems, etc.) do group masculine and feminine together, contrasting them with the neuter, so there is also obviously a sense that both masculine and feminine actually are animate or human.

A gender system that distinguishes femaleness as having a salient property, whether positive, negative, or neither, might still be regarded as a kind of sexism, whichever way the property goes; but it is a rather different matter from the usual feminist complaint about the patriarchal conception that we find all the way from Genesis to Aristotle to Freud:  that the male is more "marked" and valuable because of the presence of a phallus, while the female is less "marked" and valuable, indeed envious, because of the absence of a phallus (with Camille Paglia observing that the bleeding vagina could even be seen as the wound left by the removal of the male organ -- although one would find the prostate, not the penis, in the corresponding position). It looks to be essential to the feminist theory of "sexist language" that a gender system where the masculine gender doubles as the common gender causes or reinforces "phallocentrism" and a patriarchal society. The title of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch [1970] expresses the thesis that the female is seen by patriarchy as a defective male, lacking the key defining organ of, just what, personhood? Or of sexuality itself? Is the "female eunuch" objectively sexless? The feminine as gammatically the more "marked" gender, however, makes that unlikely. In an ideology that wants to see language as a tool of oppression, embodying an unjust characterization of sexual differences, the actual grammar of gender contradicts the thesis. The feminine gender is marked by a presence, not an absence.

A recent take on this point can be found in Laura Kipnis:

Recall that Freud's slightly contentious phrase for this bedrock female sense of inadequacy was "penis envy" -- which just sounds so retro these days. Who wants some fleshy old appendage swinging between her legs? Not us, we're quite happy with our own equipment, thank you! Funnily enough, it's not actually psychiatrists who peddle this idea anymore; it's women themselves, since isn't the notion that "something's missing" the dynamic driving the entirety of women's culture? Pick up the current issue of any women's magazine, tune into a daytime talk show, peruse one of the millions of how-to-land-a-man or how-to-fix-something-about-yourself books, and contemplate the sheer magnitude of anxiety about the lack of something on display. If something's missing (relax, not a penis, don't be so literal -- just something), luckily that elusive missing "something" can be creatively marketed under an infinite variety of labels, none of which ever precisely fixes anything, which is why women make the world's most dedicated consumers, leaping at the next instant solution to the nonexistent or craftily exacerbated problem, wallets agape. (Purses and pussies: a long-standing symbolic association, by the way.) The female psyche and consumer culture: the world's ultimate codependent couple. [The Female Thing, Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, Pantheon Books, 2006, p.11, boldface added]

Thus, while the old penis envy is gone, if it ever existed, Kipnis detects a continuing uneasy consciousness of "something's missing" in female culture, which permutates into an endless quest for self-help and self-improvement in order to compensate for female lack or inadequacy (and we can work in a dig at capitalist "consumerism" along the way).

Yet most men would be astonished to think that it is women who are missing "something"; or, if they are (there are candidates), it shrinks to insignificance besides what they've got that men don't. And Kipnis herself undercuts her own analysis with a later observation:  "If you're a chick, you're sitting on some pretty valuable real estate" [p.123]. Indeed, if the female genitalia are popularly called the "booty," this is because that word means "treasure," "prize," or "plunder" [note]. There is no way in theory or practice that such a thing could be construed as "something missing" -- it is all too real to the crowd of men who are likely to be drawn to a beautiful woman at a party. The men may know what they are missing, and they go straight for it -- even as, biologically, we see the single egg, in its impassive dignity, beset by hundreds of desperate spermatozoa. How can this possibly be construed to the disadvantage of the feminine? Unless, of course, the source of the envy is elsewhere, and feminism itself has a misogynistic origin.

But all of "sexist language" doctrine as a theory can actually be tested:  We would expect that if linguistic gender were a correlate of social form, an engine for the enforcement of patriarchy or a reflection of the existence of patriarchy, then we would find it present in sexist or patriarchal societies and absent in non-sexist or non-patriarchal societies. In fact, the presence of gender in language bears no relation whatsoever to the nature of the corresponding societies. The best historically conspicuous example is Persian.

Old Persian, like Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, had the original Indo-European genders of masculine, feminine, and neuter. By Middle Persian all gender had disappeared. This was not the result of Persian feminist criticism, nor was it the result of the evolution of an equal opportunity society for women. It just happened -- as most kinds of linguistic change do. Modern Persian is a language completely without gender. There are not even different words for "he" and "she," just the unisex un. (There are not even different titles for married and unmarried women:  Persian khânum can be translated as "Ms.") Nevertheless, after some progress under Western influence, the Revolutionary Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini retreated from the modern world into a vigorous reëstablishment of mediaevalism, putting everyone, especially women, back into their traditional places. So the advice could be:  If someone wants "non-sexist language," move to Iran. But that probably would not be quite what they have in mind.

Why didn't the "gender free" Persian language create a feminist utopia? This goes to show us that gender in language is completely irrelevant to the sexual openness of society. And one of the greatest ironies for us is that a feminist attempt to produce a gender free "non-sexist language" in English could only be contemplated in the first place because grammatical gender has already all but disappeared from English. Feminist complaints must focus on the meaning of words like "man," even though words can mean anything by convention, because the pronouns "he," "she", and "it" are all that remain grammatically of the three Indo-European genders. Getting gender to disappear in German or French or Spanish (etc.), on the other hand, would be a hopeless project without completely altering the structure of the languages [note]. Occasionally feminists say that they are personally offended by people referring to ships or aircraft as "she"; and manuals of "non-sexist" language usually require that inanimate objects be "it" without exception. Good luck in French. Since every noun is either masculine or feminine, not only would this feature have to be abolished, but an entirely new gender, the neuter, presumably with new pronouns, would have to be created. Then there would have to be decisions about words like livre, which is differentiated into two words by gender alone:  le livre is "book," from Latin liber, while la livre is "pound," from Latin libra. French doesn't even have English's happy refuge from inclusive "he" in "they," since you still have to decide in the third person plural between ils and elles. Only on ("one") allows for a gender free (or common gender) pronoun, just as "one" does in English.

It is now hard for people to quote Aristotle's famous dictum, "Man is a rational animal," without gratuitously adding that this is a "sexist" remark because, presumably, Aristotle didn't say "human beings" (e.g. p.109 of the otherwise good Against Relativism, by James E. Harris [Open Court, 1992]). This goes to show the silliness of this whole kind of exercise and the willful know-nothing-ism of many writers when it comes to linguistic history. Even if we think that English "man" is "sexist," Aristotle was, of course, not speaking English. And in contrast with English, Greek and Latin both "mark" the male as well as the female in their vocabulary:  anér in Greek and vir in Latin both mean "man=male"; gyné in Greek and femina in Latin both mean "woman"; and ánthrôpos in Greek and homo in Latin both mean "man=person." Aristotle said "ánthrôpos," not "anér; and Classics scholars are usually happy to point out the inclusiveness of the former term. Curiously, Old English made distinctions like Greek and Latin. "Man=male" was wer (cognate of Latin vir and Irish fear, preserved in "werewolf"), while "woman" was wif (preserved as "wife" and in "fishwife" and "midwife" -- "woman" itself is from wifman). Old English man was "one," "someone," or "man=person" (a usage preserved in German man, "one," "they," "people," "we," "you," "a person," "someone," etc.). However, ánthrôpos, homo, and man are all in the masculine gender. Since Greek and Latin are languages where every noun has gender, like French, Hebrew, etc., there is actually no grammatically "gender neutral" expression possible, as there is in Modern English. So was Aristotle sexist after all? If so, then we are still using a sexist expression in "human beings" because "human" is from homo, which had masculine gender to start with.

I often notice this kind of tangle over languages with much more complete gender systems than English since the politically correct term for people of Hispanic derivation or identity these days is "Latino," which is of the masculine grammatical gender but of course embraces both men and women. The feminine term "Latina" is never used unless only women are referred to. That sounds like it should make for a cause célèbre in the non-sexist language world, but of course no feminist would want to be labeled ethnocentric or culturally imperialist by applying their critique of English to Spanish. And then, unlike French, where gender specific word endings have been lost, Spanish still has a lot of nouns whose gender can be predicted from this o/a alternation of endings. A non-sexist Spanish presumably would have to pick some other vowel, or none, to replace these fossil Latin endings. And while some activists seem to have lately begun using the expression "Latino/Latina" more carefully, they are unlikely to be amenable to "reforming" the morphology of Spanish so that it would be as gender free as, of all things, English.

To reform a natural language like that, we would have to set up some political authority to decide what changes to make and then spend many decades coercing people into following the preferred forms:  all to produce something that often happens spontaneously anyway, has progressed almost completely to the loss of gender in English already, and never in the past with the slightest effect on the structure of society. So why bother with all the grief and recriminations of trying to impose a feminist New Speak? But perhaps that is the point. All the grief gives ideologues something else with which to browbeat people and a completely phony issue through which to claim political authority over how people speak, in all innocence and good will, in natural languages. It can even translate into the introduction of virtual political commissars, often with punitive powers, into schools, workplaces, churches, etc. to monitor incorrect speech. And that is the kind of power that ideologues like.

But the conceptual error underlying this kind of thing didn't originate with feminism; it is the heritage of once popular but now discreditable theories about the nature of language -- that how we talk determines how we think (to paraphrase something the semanticist S.I. Hayakawa actually said -- a kind of linguistic behaviorism) and that the structure of language creates the structure of the world (promoted by the philosopher Wittgenstein and his recent followers). If we talk with grammatical gender, so this goes, then this determines not only that we think in exactly the same way but that the grammatical structure is projected into the world.

In fact, as the counterexamples indicate, such linguistic structures as gender determine little about thought and nothing about the world. Grammar is usually just grammar, nothing else. It is used to express meaning -- it does not determine meaning. But the most significant assumption and the greatest hybris in the theory of "sexist language" is just that language and linguistic change are controllable, and so can be controlled by us, if we wish to. But language is not anything that can be planned or controlled. Languages grow and change spontaneously. The kind of theory that properly can describe the development of language is one that credits events with the capacity for developing spontaneous natural order. Theorists of such order range from the great naturalist Charles Darwin, to the great economist F.A. Hayek, and to the great philosopher Karl Popper.

Those who traditionally have wanted to control linguistic usage for one reason or another, and who believe that it can be controlled, are always ultimately frustrated. Literary or sacred languages can preserve ancient or elevated usages -- as with ancient Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese, etc. -- but real spoken language goes off on its own merry way, exuberantly evolving new meanings, words, usages, and even new languages, always to the chagrin of the priests, scholars, and traditionalists. Nobody ever plans that. As feminism has wanted to control, mainly to abolish, the use of gender, it thus puts itself into the pinched shoes of the traditional grammatical martinet -- leaving us with the image of a fussy schoolmarm swatting knuckles with a ruler rather than of the heroic revolutionary woman leading the way to a better future.

In the end, gender, in any language, is just an expression of the affinity of our understanding for logical divisons and hierarchies; and since logical divisions and hierarchies are essential to thought, the principle of eradicating gender (or "hierarchy") is absurd. Even if the feminine gender is usually more "marked" than the masculine, this can really mean anything, depending, indeed, on what we intend to mean. Instead of gender systems compelling patriarchy or, obviously, matriarchy, the whole idea of sexual equality was conceived in languages (English, French, German) with strong or remnant gender structures, while other languages with gender structures (Sanskrit, Arabic, Swahili) or without (Persian, Chinese, Malay) produced nothing of the sort. Serious intellectual dispute on any issue always must focus on what the speaker means by what is said, not on theories about how it is said compels certain unintended meanings, especially when such theories are clearly mere features of certain political and ideological systems of interpretation.

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Letter in defense of Christina Hoff Sommers sent to the Los Angeles Times

This essay was expanded, from a brief description of gender in languages, at the personal urging of Christina Hoff Sommers, the courageous author of Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women [Simon & Schuster, 1994]. Dr. Sommers was a Professor of Philosophy at Clark University but is now a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She has also been found associating with libertarians at the Cato Institute. Her book reviewed here is The War Against Boys.


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Against the Theory of "Sexist Language," Note 1

An English teacher at my own college told me once in all seriousness that the "-'s" ending that makes a noun possessive, e.g. "Charlotte's Web," was an abbreviation of the pronoun "his," and that "his" was used in this way because women were all possessions of men.

Where does one begin with remarkable assertions like this? How can "-'s" be a contraction of "his" when "-es" or "-s" are genitive endings in Old English, German, Greek, etc, without being contractions of anything, let alone a particular historical pronoun? Or when "s" is the genitive ending in the feminine first declension of Greek but not the masculine second declension, and for both in the third declension (Sôkratous is the genitive of Sôkratês), meaning that it historically has had no fixed gender association? The archaic Latin expression pater familias, "father of the family," must be a contraction of "pater familia-his." So Latin became less sexist when familias changed to familiae?

But, of course, the point is not any actual historical knowledge about languages or grammar, it is the assertion that women are historically possessions of men. If some idiosyncratic account of grammatical structures illustrates such a feminist claim, no one with the proper consciousness or politically correct attitude is going to question the accuracy or the logic of such a thing. We see something similar in the not unusual assertion that women having longer hair than men is no more than a Christian or Roman cultural convention. Feminists rarely seem to be confronted with the absurdity of such things. That would be very bad form in any "gender studies" department, let alone any more general academic forum. One is liable to be accused of sexual harassment as well as sexism.

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Against the Theory of "Sexist Language," Note 2

The actual reference of "booty" is a little indefinite. The external female genitalia (the vulva) are themselves relatively compact in size and generally concealed or inconspicuous, either by their position at the base of the pelvis, by being surrounded by the legs, buttocks, and pubic hair, or by the inner structures being contained within the labia majora. Thus, historically, the female genitals are often associated with the buttocks themselves, which, enlarged, broader, and hairless, stand in conspicuous contrast to the male counterpart. "Booty" can be coextensive with "bottom." This is something also seen in Polynesian languages. For instance, in Tahitian:

The word 'ohure [roughly "buttocks"] is shocking when it is used for the female, but not when it is used for the male. For the female, the word designates an area which includes also the vagina. [Robert I. Levy, Tahitians, Mind and Experience in the Society Islands, University of Chicago Press, 1973, p.106, bracketed expression in original text]

The Hawaiian reflex, 'ôkole, is defined by Pukui and Ebert as "anus, buttocks" [Hawaiian Dictionary, University of Hawaii Press, 1957 1973, p.259]. Their note that 'ôkole maluna is the "Hawaiian translation of English toast 'bottoms up'" is glossed with the remark, "this expression is condemned by older Hawaiians as vulgar and indecent because of the sacredness of the human body in old belief." Their explanation seems unlikely. It is more probable, as in the Tahitian case, that 'ôkole is "vulgar and indecent" because of its recollection of the female pudenda.

The cognate of 'ôkole in Rarotongan looks to be kotoe, which is defined by Stephen Savage (in A Dictionary of the Maori Language of Rarotonga) as "the rear part or stern, as the stern of a canoe or ship" [Department of the Island Territories, Wellington, New Zealand, 1962, Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, & the Ministry of Education, Government of the Cook Islands, 1980, p.118]. However, Mr. Strange, who actually died in 1941, may be suspected of a delicacy similar to Pukui and Ebert. Or something else may be going on. In Sâmoan, I cannot identify a cognate of 'ôkole, but we do have nofoaga for "buttocks" and, more vividly, muli, which is defined by R.W. Allardice (in A Simplified Dictionary of Modern Samoan) as, "come last, rear of s.th., haunch of a pig (impol.) posterior (man) bottom, young, new ('o le teine muli young unmarried girl)" [Polynesian Press, Samoa House, Auckland, New Zealand, & Wesley Bookshop, Apia, W. Samoa, p.46]. In Rarotongan, we also find muli, as "the last, the rear, the hind part; the younger, as the youngest or last child born" [op. cit., p.171]. In holding the ambiguity of "last, rear, bottom," muli is semantically much like "posterior" itself (or, for that matter, "bottom"), which from the context in English can mean the human buttocks or have no biological reference, e.g. Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. When physicists began talking about quarks with "bare bottom," some decided to change the quantum property from "bottom" to "beauty." This only seems to enlarge the possible universe of double entendres.

Thus, while it may be true that the female genitals do not have the protrusion and appearance of separateness or detachability as do the male genitals, what constitutes the female genitals comes to seem far more extensive, with indefinite boundaries. When we then take the breasts to also be part of the genital system, "genitals" treatens to become, not "something missing" from the feminine, but actually the whole female body, from hair, to lips, to hips, to toes. Sexual fetish treatments of different parts of the body, especially feet and toes, bear this out.

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Against the Theory of "Sexist Language," Note 3

I have heard claims recently (Spring 1998) that both Spanish and Hebrew actually do have a neuter gender. My informants, relating what they had heard from others (e.g. teachers, a rabbi), were unable to say how. Such claims may reflect efforts to bend the facts so as to render languages like Spanish and Hebrew politically correct. The response, of course, should be, "What is the pronoun?" Since gender is part of the grammatical system of a language, it is reflected in the pronouns. Until Spanish and Hebrew have a neuter pronoun (and, for Spanish, a neuter article -- other than "el" and "la"), they do not have a neuter gender. The meaning of words is irrelevant. Their grammatical gender is revealed by their inflection, the inflection of modifying words, or by the pronouns or articles used with them.

In 2012 there has been much discussion of the proposal in Swedish to replace the masculine pronoun han and the feminine pronoun hon with a "gender neutral" neologism hen. This is New Speak with a vengeance and seems to go along with agressive governmental and educational efforts to erase distinctions between boys and girls, with toy companies joining in by showing girls playing with guns (!) and boys with dolls in their advertisements. Such efforts are, of course, nothing new, but there does seem to be a sort of second wind with this business, after memories have dimmed about such efforts in the 70's. It is a tribute to the durability of ideology, even as Keynesians and socialists have been raising hell with the United States economy since 2009, despite what one would have thought was all of it being discredited (also) in the 70's. Since it has truly been a generation since those events, both in feminism and in economics, perhaps it is simply the case that a new generation has come into influence, one that was raised on fiction in the educational systems, rather than on experience of what has happened in the world

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