Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pronoun Blues...or why I hate the "He/She" thing...

This is a recycled post.

Each manager is responsible for his/her department. He/She must ensure that productivity meets the company’s projection. Each manager is also responsible for the welfare of his/her workers. He/She must ensure that they get the best provisions in operational safety both in training and equipment. Each manager must also ensure that his/her boss is always happy, and that he/she always smiles because a person who smiles a lot is a happy person.*

The introduction of this essay is not supposed to make any sense. It is just a series of sentences I made up to show something that has been bothering me for a long time, the he-slash-she thing. I like my reading to be smooth, but whenever I encounter this he-slash-she thing it slows me down. It’s cumbersome, complex, and the slash gave it the appearance of a mathematical formula. (I suffer from a genetically acquired psychosomatic allergy to mathematics. Translation: I hate mathematics.) What made it more difficult is that it destroys the rhythm of a sentence. To illustrate: A student should turn his/her assignment on time. How will one read this sentence? “A student should turn his or her assignment on time” or “A student should turn his, her assignment on time”. Both readings are correct but there is a price to pay—fluidity.

The he-slash-she is the modern solution to one of the difficulties in grammar, the gender pronoun antecedent agreement (as the opening paragraph shows). The he-slash-she is the convention used to avoid sexism. Before, the generic (covers both sexes) pronoun used is “he”. Although still acceptable, it is now considered as sexist, chauvinistic, and politically incorrect. The argument is obvious, “he” is a masculine pronoun and the gender sensitive people feel that it connotes “male priority and superiority”. But this was not always the case. The generic “he” is an innovation introduced by grammarians only in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before, at least from the 1500’s, the correct sex-indefinite pronoun is “they”, which is still used in casual English today but is now considered as ungrammatical.

This hullabaloo about generic pronoun is a linguistic quest for accuracy and for political correctness and gender equality. But to press this search for gender equality in language further would result to absurdities. If the argument in using the he-slash-she is to avoid sexism, then why not push it a little further and use she-slash-he to prioritize “she”. In fact, I read an article arguing that for those people who find he/she cumbersome, in the name of fairness, since “he” has been used for generations, should consider using “she”. Fine, but isn’t that sexist too. (Even in theology (religious study) this sexism in language is creating debates. Consider this footnote from an essay on the Holy Spirit and Liberation Movements by Dr. Richard Tholin: “One form of oppression is found in language, in this case, the use of masculine for all generic terms. Much of the quoted material in this paper uses male generic language. In the lecture form that language was changed to more inclusive terms. Readers might well attempt the same discipline. In addition, where the pronoun is used for the Holy Spirit the spoken version used “she”…there are some hotly debated linguistic arguments for this usage. In any event, use of the female pronoun for the Spirit can be a constructive way to move beyond exclusively male designations for the triune God (Trinity).” This is absurd. What should be done instead is to avoid using pronouns for God. 

If gender sensitivity is the issue, then we should also reconsider using the word “woma(e)n”. Since woman is derived from the root man—in short, woman is a marked man (no pun intended). “Marked” in linguistics refers to the alteration of meaning by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning of its own. The unmarked (base) form of the word carries the meaning. The word mann in old English denoted either “man” or “person,” and the compound word wifmann meant female person. The base “man” is masculine and the “wo” from “wif” is the added linguistic particle denotes the female gender to the root man. So, woma(e)n should be out for the obvious reason.

“Female”, following the above argument should also be out. “Male” from Latin ”mas” is the unmarked word that means “man” and “fe” from the Latin “femina” (women) is the added linguistic particle, thus, “female” transliterated could mean “feminine man” (no pun intended also). Female, definitely, should be out too.
Although many consider “lady” as aristocratic and inappropriate in a classless society, it is still used today. In greetings, it’s “Ladies and Gentleman” (notice the precedence of Ladies which is condescending to some), in comfort rooms it’s “ladies”, etc. for some “lady” denotes class but for some it is an anachronism. Is lady then an alternative to “woma(e)n” and “female”. This may come as a surprise but “lady” comes from the old English “hlaefdig”, “kneader of bread”. No expounding necessary, “lady” definitely is out. That pretty much clears the slate.

To be free from masculine tinge, this search for a term for the other gender can go on (“other gender” is problematic too since “other” implies the precedent existence of the “first” gender thus the need for the qualifier “other”) but still it will not solve anything. Words mean what we want them to mean and its connotations can change with convention. Today, in Hollywood, the word actress is disdained. Alfre Woodard (Desperate Housewives), an Oscar nominee for best supporting actress says she identifies herself as an actor because “actresses worry about eyelashes and cellulite, and woman who are actors worry about the character we are playing.” I once heard a Filipino woman government official insisted she be called “The Chairman” and not “the chairwoman, or the chairperson (I think it was the late PCGG Chairman Haydee Yorac) because she reasoned that she is as good as any man. The suffix –ess and –ette can also connote frivolousness that it is now seldom used formally. It’s now director and not directress, host and not hostess, etc. Isn’t this confusing?

If “women” is historically derived from man, hence connotes inferiority hence it should not be used, and if female is also a derivative of male, hence inferior too, and if lady is a “kneader of bread”…no discussion here, definitely out. Who knows, why not also object to the use of the noun and the adjective “human and humane” because of the “man” in there. Why stop there? “Humanity” has man in there too.

I’m not a linguist. Heck, I’m barely into grammar and punctuations. But what I’m trying to say is, why complicate things, why not just be politically or grammatically incorrect than use this he-slash-she thing. The damned formula disrupts my reading!

It’s a good thing Filipino pronouns are neuter maybe it shows that we look at both gender equally.

*(Of course the paragraph can be rephrased using the third person plural. Managers are responsible…They must…etc. I used the third person singular for illustration.)

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