Our language has moved on a bit . . .

. . . and this is good!

I just started reading Norman Perrin’s The kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus, (1963) Philadelphia, Westminster Press and his language is driving me crazy! He is clear and lucid etc, but he uses “man” and “men” as inclusive terms at every turn. My vote for most irritating so far is on p18 : “The high point of this development is the rabbinical conception of an act of obedience whereby a man or a people take upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of God.” I cannot imagine why anyone  would compare “a people” with anything other than “a person”. This occurs on a page that is nearly 1/3rd footnotes and has four other instances in the main text where he uses “man” or “men” to refer to human beings in general.

Perrin was, however, a person of his time. Now, even in pieces written by people who see no point at all in attempting to make their lanugage gender inclusive with respect to human beings, the rate of man/men to denote all people is much lower than it is in this book of Perrin’s.  Our language is becoming more inclusive through usage as well as intent, I think, and I’m encouraged that this is happening.

Why? Well, because our language shapes the way we think. This has, of course, been the argument of people who are trying to change racist and sexist language for decades and is typically dismissed as “political correctness” by their opponents.  However, some work that has been done by psychologist Lera Boridski in her labs at Stanford and MIT has demonstrated that it is true. In her article “How does our language shape the way we think?” and a number of other articles available from her website, she traces the effects of differences in the way different languages express concepts on native speakers and people who have been taught to speak them as second languages. Gender issues are not her primary focus, but she does touch on them. People who translate between languages are aware of the problems that are involved in translating some concepts between languages, but I found this bit fascinating:

Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers. Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.

It would seem to me that this kind of work provides concrete evidence for the argument that it is important that we say “people” or “women and men” rather than “men” because it does affect how people of both genders conceptualise themselves in their relationships with other people.

This morning, I grabbed my copy of  Brian Wren’s What Language Shall I Borrow? (Wren, Brian A. 1989. What language shall I borrow?: God-talk in worship : a male response to feminist theology. New York: Crossroad) to lend to a friend whose interest was piqued when I introduced a Wren hymn in worship a little while ago with a comment about Wren’s hymn-writing. I was waiting for my husband to be ready to leave for church, so I started reading it for the first time in well over a decade and ended up regretting that I’d promised to lend it. His language usage is in stark contrast to Perrin. He talks about the effect that male gender language has on our concept of ourselves, others and God, but without any “proof” other than common sense. Boroditsky and her associates are producing empirical evidence for what common sense and personal experience have been telling us for some time.

So, having got that off my chest, I’m hoping that when I go back to Perrin I can ignore his expression and concentrate on the meaning of his words because what he writes makes sense. I will, however, continue to encourage the people I mix with to speak more inclusively, because speaking does change how we think.

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One thought on “Our language has moved on a bit . . .

  1. This post was so interesting! I’m a bit of a linguist, particularly of Romance languages which typically gender their nouns. Whenever I took a language class, my professors would say, yes, this noun is called feminine but that doesn’t mean it’s characteristics are feminine. Of course, a key is a key, but our language does affect how we think of things. For example, have you ever noticed how many violent words/phrases there are in the English langauge? Or in some agricultural societies, like in South America, some have over a hundred words to describe a cow. Some societies don’t have words for “tomorrow” or “yesterday” because their lives take place in the here and now, worrying about surviving today.

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