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Friday, December 16, 2005

"he" vs. "they" as generic pronouns in Bible translation

Mark Bertrand, author, blogger, and a careful thinker, notes in a comment to a recent BBB post:
At 35, I'm not exactly an old man, but whenever I hear someone substitute "their" for "his" in a sentence -- and I concede that it's done -- I can't escape the feeling that a mistake has been made.
Mark's feeling is legitimate for him, one which is grounded in how he (and I) were taught "proper" English. I would quibble with Mark's saying that someone substitutes "their" for "his." For those who use the singular "they" there is no such substitution. "He" is not the original generic form in the mind of speakers for which they substitute singular "they." There is simply use of the singular "they". But that's a minor point. (I'm now finished responding to Mark.) Now let's move on to more important points, for everyone.

We've addressed the issue of English generic pronouns on this blog a number of times, but I'd like to address this issue from a little different angle this time.

Unlike French, with its generic pronoun on, in English there is no generic pronoun used to refer to singular entities which is without a problem of one kind or another. The long-used generic pronoun "he" is grammatically masculine. To use it generically an English speaker must convert it from a masculine to a generic. English speakers have been taught--in "grammar school"--to do so for centuries and have proven quite capable of making the conversion unconciously. But any time a mental conversion is required to convert a linguist form from which is called, in lay terms, it's "literal" meaning, a greater processing burden is required. Speakers of all languages can handle processing burdens fairly easily, but they are a burden nonetheless.

Generic singular "they" is grammatically plural. To use it generically an English speaker must convert it from a plural to a singular. Again, there is an additional process burden, just as there is with the generic "he." As with generic "he," there have been many centuries of usage of singular "they" in English, including by some of well respected authors. Singular "they" was used by the translators of the KJV (emphasis added):
Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards. (Numbers 2:17)

And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. (Numbers 2:34)

According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. (Numbers 15:12)

And Judah was put to the worse before Israel; and they fled every man to their tents. (2 Kings 14:12)

So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (Matthew 18:35)

[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. (Philippians 2:3)
Among those speakers and writers who naturally use "he" as their generic pronoun many never think of the fact that it is grammatically masculine. They are so accustomed to using "he" as a generic that their brains simply give them the generic meaning in a generic linguistic context. For many of these speakers there is absolutely no intent to be linguistic reactionaries, misogynists, or any of the other claims which have been made by those who believe that it is socially improper to use a grammatically masculine pronoun to refer to either a male or a female.

Among those speakers and writers who naturally use singular "they" as their generic pronoun many never think of the fact that it is grammatically plural. They are so accustomed to using "they" as a generic that their brains simply give them the generic meaning in a generic linguistic context. I happen to use the singular "they" myself, most of the time, even though it was drilled into my brain by my "grammar school" teachers that I should only use "he" as a generic pronoun. For me, and many other English speakers, it simply sounds better to use "they," rather than "he" in a sentence such as:
If everyone turns in their term paper on time, I'll treat the class to pizza for lunch on Friday.
For many who use singular "they" the idea of being politically correct by using non-gendered pronoun as a generic never crosses their minds. They are just using a generic pronoun that sounds most natural to them. Singular "they" has been in use in the English language for centuries, as has generic "he," and both have sounded natural to those who regularly use them as generics.

Is there any theological reason why a grammatically masculine generic "he" should be used in English rather than singular "they"? Of course not, in spite of claims by Grudem and Poythress to the contrary. Language is language. There is nothing theological about grammatical systems of languages. There is nothing sacred about the fact that pistis 'faith' is of the feminine gender in Greek, but nomos 'law' is of the masculine gender. There is nothing sacred about the fact that Greek uses grammatically masculine forms for generics. Nor is there anything sacred, or un-sacred, for that matter, about the fact that Cheyenne, which is my language of research, lacks gendered forms for generics. In Cheyenne any third person singular is referred to by a pronominal prefix e- which has no gender. It can refer to a male, female, or biologically genderless object such as a stick.

Does a singular "they" distort singulars and plurals in the minds of English speakers, as is claimed by Grudem and the CBMW, for instance, in their discussion of Rev. 3:20 in the TNIV (boldface emphasis is in the CBMW text, not the TNIV itself):
NIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
TNIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.

Comment: Mistranslates Greek masculine singular pronoun autos ("he, him"). Loses the teaching of fellowship between Jesus and an individual believer. The plural pronoun “them” naturally refers to “those whom I love” in the church of Laodicea in the previous verse. So in the TNIV, if any one person in the church opens the door, Jesus will come in and eat with a group, with the whole church. What is lost is the teaching that Jesus will fellowship with one person individually and personally.
(Note on generic masculine singulars: In order to avoid this kind of generic use of “he,” the TNIV has to change hundreds of verses in similar ways, and the cumulative effect is a loss of the Bible’s emphasis on individual responsibility and individual relationship with God. The TNIV preface says the changes include “the elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns.”)
Is there a loss of "individual responsibility and individual relationship with God,", as claimed? Of course not. The CBMW text confuses semantic reference with grammatical form. No one who uses the singular "they"--which will be the majority of the target audience of the TNIV--confuses grammatical number in TNIV Rev. 3:20. The TNIV wording does not "drain" this verse of its focus on an individual, as claimed by Grudem and repeated many times by those who follow him. Those who use singular "they" use it to refer to a single person and they know they are doing so; they are not confused about this and there is no loss of a focus on a single invidual.

Can we allow people to speak as they normally do without making judgements about their speech? I think we can and I think we should. Even though I naturally use a singular "they," it would be improper of me to judge others who use a generic "he." And the converse is true.

Paul addressed a parallel issue in Romans 14. Some Christians felt free in their consciences to eat meat which had previously been offered to idols but was later sold for human consumption. Others did not. Paul recognized that there was nothing wrong with eating meat offered to idols. But if someone truly felt in their conscience that there was something wrong with it, he said we should be sensitive to their concerns and not cause them to "stumble" by eating idol meat. There are many such issues for believers and the spiritual principles drawn from Romans 14 apply to such issues. When I was growing up the church I attended had a list of several "deadly sins": smoking, going to movies, dancing, playing cards, and drinking. Today there are many Christians who do each of these things and do not consider it sinful.

It is not sinful or "inaccurate" to use a singular "they" in a Bible translation targeted to today's speakers of English. Several recent English versions use singular "they" or some other generics because they are more natural for today's speakers than generic "he." The claim that such translations (or those who do not use generic "he") are conscious or unconscious followers of a feminist agenda does not reflect the centuries long tradition of the use of singular "they" in English (from long before there ever was a feminist movement). And it does not adequately take into account language change which occurs naturally in languages, for whatever reason. And think about it, what if someone did, at some point, stop using generic "he" out of respect to those that generic "he" offended? Would such respect be wrong? Or sinful? It seems to me that the principle of respecting differences of opinion, which Paul promoted in Romans 14, would suggest that avoiding use of generic "he" when it offends would be a sign of love, not of carnal compromise or theological error. Of course, we cannot live our lives constantly concerned about whether someone else will be offended by anything we do. Paul himself offended Judaizers by eating with Gentiles and not insisting that Gentiles be circumcised in order to become part of the Jesus movement of his day.

Let's give each other some linguistic slack. It is appropriate to debate these issues. It is important to state our opinions. It is important for Dr. Grudem to state what he believes, including that he believes that singular "they" distorts grammtical number. It is also appropriate for others to respond to him, pointing out where they disagree with him. But these issues do not rise to the level of any Bible version of being "inaccurate". Something is not linguistically "inaccurate" if it is worded with language forms which are used by a majority of the speakers who are the target audience of a Bible translation. There is nothing sacred about any linguistic forms in any language. There is something sacred about what God wants us to know, and much of what he wants us to know is found in the Bible. Its teachings are found in its propositions (statements), not in grammatical forms which may or may not have any connection to the "real world."

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At Fri Dec 16, 11:07:00 AM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Thanks for the lengthy reply! I always feel a little unworthy when one of my remarks merits a whole post in response, but it's much appreciated. I know this is a thorny subject, and I don't envy those of you who have to cut through the brambles on a daily basis.

With my reference to feminist theory -- i.e., the stuff I encountered in the academy, not the fuzzy "agenda" I'm always being warned about on the radio -- I had in mind not the use of a singular "they," which reads unconsciously to me as bad grammar rather than leftist politics, but the rigorous prohibition and stigmatization of the traditional usage we both learned as proper English in school. Are you as opposed to that as you are to the reverse? Let's face it, I'm much more likely to run into trouble, editorially speaking, writing as I do than you are writing as you do! And the sort of "offense" my usage engenders (!) is akin not to, say, the offense caused by profanity, but to the offense caused by beliefs other than one's own, arguably not what Paul had in mind.

I've just finished reading Matthew's gospel in the REB, and I have to say the way these matters are handled in that translation struck me as quite good. I looked the REB up in your archive and enjoyed what you had to say.

At Fri Dec 16, 01:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mark, I didn't even notice that you had said anything about feminist theory. I'm sorry I wasn't clearer but I only wrote to your comments in my first paragraph or two. The rest of my post was to a wider audience, and not about your post. I have now tweaked my post a bit to make it clearer where I stop responding to your comment.

As to the issue of political correctness in language and the requirements made on writers today, including at universities, I do not approve of language policing either from the left, the middle, or the right. I don't know if you've seen my comments on this, but I oppose language policing and language engineering, regardless of whether it comes from feminists or Dr. Grudem. I don't think anyone should be telling others how to speak or what grammatical forms to use in Bible translations. I do think we should be sensitive to the concerns people have as to how different kinds of language impact them. If women honestly feel left out by masculinist language, then we need to be sensitive to that and try to do whatever we can linguistically so that our language does not cause them to feel left out. That to me is a matter of Christian care, not of language policing. I should be sensitive to people's language concerns because I am a Christian, not because I am feminist (which I am not, although I do share some beliefs with feminists such as the idea that a woman should get the same pay for the same work as a man).

At Fri Dec 16, 02:32:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Thanks Wayne. Too bad much of the evangelical popular culture seems shut down to any voice like yours. But keep talking.

At Fri Dec 16, 05:11:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Howdy, Wayne. My question is how to distinguish between a "generic singular they" and a genuine plural? To me the underlying text (whther Hebrew or Greek) would indicate such a difference, but this approach seems to erase the distinction. I think of Psalm 1 as one example.

Can you address this point?

At Fri Dec 16, 09:50:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...

Hi Wayne,

In your examples from the book of Numbers, the English you quote is simply the literal rendition of the Hebrew.

They are all of a similar construction too: THEY will do/every ONE/according to THEIR objects. The "every one" clause is almost parenthetical, and one could easily read the phrase without it -- which would make the THEIR a plural use and not a generic singular use.

I don't think it was an English construction at all, but just a very literal Hebrew one. It would be interesting to see if there were uses of the singular THEY prior to the KJV. Maybe it originated with the Hebrew?

AFter all, the KJV translators felt no compunction to use ordinary contemporary English. Perhaps they felt that any harm to English grammar was less important than the accuracy of the text?

At Fri Dec 16, 10:51:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I don't think it was an English construction at all, but just a very literal Hebrew one. It would be interesting to see if there were uses of the singular THEY prior to the KJV. Maybe it originated with the Hebrew?

Interesting idea, Talmida. I have looked again at all of the examples I cited, and several of them do look like true singular "they" examples. Perhaps the exx. from Numbers are, as you say, not exactly singular "they" but, rather following the Hebrew literally. They still sound like singular "they" to me.

Yes, there was usage of singular "they" in English long before the KJV. Here are some examples:

1464 Rolls of Parlt. V. 513/2 Inheritements, of which any of the seid persones... was seised by theym self, or joyntly with other.
c 1489 CAXTON Sonnes of Aymon i. 39 Eche of theym sholde... make theymselfe redy.
1533 MORE Apol. 55b, Neyther Tyndale there nor thys precher... hath by theyr maner of expounyng... wonne them self mych wurshyp.
1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 163b, Yf... a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt. they omyt one verse or twayne.
1535 FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383 He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.
c 1420 Sir Amadace (Camden) l, Iche mon in thayre degre.
14.. Arth. & Merl. 2440 (Kolbing) Many a Sarazen lost their liffe.
1548 UDALL, etc. Erasm. Par. Luke 94 b, No bodye will receiue you into their house.
c 1530 LD. BERNERS Arch. Lyt. Brit. 285 Everye bodye was in theyre lodgynges.
c 1510 MORE Picus Wks. (1557) 9/1 Eche of them after their deseruing.
c. 1400 MAUNDEV. (Roxb.) iii. 10 Wha so weddes ofter þan anes, þaire childer er bastardes.
"And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up... (Chaucer, "The Pardoner's Prologue", ca. 1395).

At Sat Dec 17, 05:08:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I thought about just giving the link, but in previewing it decided that it would be okay. I wish the explanations of the TNIV CBT would have the same time as their opponents. But I guess that wouldn't be fair? I guess more like "right" for those who have made up their minds.

Here goes (this is in their explanation with reference to Psalm 1):

"Nor is the shift from the singular of the Hebrew to the plural of the TNIV the kind of problem that our critics claim it is. In Hebrew as in English, generic terms can be either singular or plural with no difference in meaning. For example, in English to say "A horse is a quadruped" is to say the same thing as "Horses are quadrupeds." Consider the following Hebrew wisdom passage (Ps. 37:9-15, woodenly rendered):

For evildoers (pl) will be cut off (pl),
but those who hope (pl) in the LORD will inherit the land.
In just a little while the wicked (sing.) will be no more;
though you search his (sing) place, he (sing) will not be there.
But the meek (pl) will inherit (pl) the land
and enjoy an abundance of shalom.
The wicked (sing) plot (sing) against the righteous (sing)
and gnash his (sing) teeth at him (sing).
The Lord laughs at him (sing),
because he knows that his (sing) day comes.
The wicked (pl) draw (pl) the sword (sing)
and tread (pl) their (pl) bow (sing)
to bring down the poor (sing) and needy (sing),
to kill those who are upright (pl) in the way (sing).
But their (pl) sword (sing) will pierce their (pl) heart (sing)
and their (pl) bows (pl) will be broken (pl).
The interplay of generic singulars and plurals is strictly a matter of the Hebrew poet's stylistic choices, without implying any such difference as that the singulars refer to individuals while the plurals refer to groups. To turn this poetic segment into good English idiom calls for making similar choices on the part of English translators—remembering that generics can be expressed in either the singular or the plural, and that generic plurals speak of that which all the entities referred to have in common, not to what characterizes them as a collectivity.

A further criticism is that the rendering the singular ha'ish with the plural "those" obscures "the picture of the moral courage of a solitary righteous person standing against plural sinners." But to suppose that the depiction of such a "picture" was the author's intent is to read a piece of ancient lsraelite "wisdom" composition through strictly modern spectacles. Israel's wisdom authors did not set up the scenario of an heroic individual resisting the blandishments of the many, but urged those they addressed to stand against the blandishments of those, whether one or many, whom they characterized generically as "wicked."

A related criticism is that the rendering the singular ha'ish with the plural "those" is "a shift away from the Bible's emphasis on the relationship between God and individual persons to a greater emphasis on groups." This allegation arises from a misreading of both Hebrew and English. The mere use of plurals in no way turns the focus away from the individual to a group. As has been pointed out above, use of the generic plural speaks of what individual entities (or persons) have in common, not of what characterizes them as a group. When Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (echoing Psalm 37) he employed a collective generic, "the meek," saying of them that "they will inherit the earth." But no one supposes that he was not speaking of individuals. And when he concludes the beatitudes with "Blessed are you when people insult you ..." no one has to be told that here "you" is plural, and no one draws the conclusion that Jesus in implying that only the plural "you" will be insulted and persecuted. And when the TNIV renders the Greek generic singulars of Rev 22:17 with English plurals—"The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let those who hear say, 'Come!' Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life"—no one who understands English idiom will conclude that here the individual reference has been in any way obscured.

Yet another issue related to the shift from singulars to plurals in Ps. 1:1-3 is the claim that the plural rendering takes away "any possibility of seeing this 'blessed man' in the Psalms as a foreshadowing of Christ, the truly righteous Man." To suppose that any piece of OT wisdom literature contains a "foreshadowing" or "type" of the Messiah assumes a misconstrual of the nature of this literature. It speaks not of a particular "righteous" person who "foreshadows" someone to come but of the generic "righteous" person(s). Of course the depiction in Psalm 1 of a truly "righteous" person(s) in differentiation from "the wicked" makes it relevant for our understanding of the One who more than any other was "righteous." And that is in no way obscured by employing the English generic plural for the Hebrew generic singular. (See also comments on Ps. 34:20.)

Finally, it is alleged that "the change to plural . . . produces a comical picture in verse 3. . . . All God's people around the world are like one tree?" This allegation is itself "strange." That the use of "those" does not evoke a group—except by way of a very strained reading—has already been shown above. And as for the use of a generic plural in a simile pertaining to those who share a common characteristic, that is a frequent rhetorical device (in both Hebrew and English) and is not at all "comical." Note the following:
"They are like a well-watered plant in the sunshine" (Job 8:16)

"So humans waste away like something rotten" (Job 13:28)

"They will be like a vine stripped of its unripe grapes" (Job 15:33)

"they will tear me like a lion" (Ps. 7:2)

"They are like a lion hungry for prey" (Ps. 17:12)

Such examples could be multiplied."

At Sat Dec 17, 07:55:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

Thanks, Wayne, that was very helpful.


At Sat Dec 17, 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

A couple of points:
1) Speaking of the "feminist agenda" there is something, especially in academic philosophy today, with regard to this issue which I refer to as "feminist revisionist grammar." That is, the majority of academic philosophical writing from the past few decades uses the generic "she," something that has never been a part of the English language (I think - but correct me if I'm wrong) and has been artificially created by people who find English grammar offensive. To which I always respond: it's not sexism, it's grammar!

2) But the other issue is that people like me (and, I suspect, the majority of English speakers) understand both the singular they and the generic he (although I literally cringe every time I see the singular they in writing - for some reason it doesn't both me nearly as much in speech, and I occasionally even use it myself), and as such it may make sense to speak differently depending on whether you are more concerned with confusion about gender than with confusion about number, or vice versa. For instance, the TNIV Revelation 3:20 DOES bother me for the reasons Grudem indicates. I notice that I am more prone to use they with words like "anyone" or "everyone" than in other cases, and I think that it's not actually a singular they, but, rather, that the grammatical number gets lost, and I forget I'm talking about an individual person. So if I were to read Rev. 3:20 in the TNIV, being completely unfamiliar with the text, I WOULD be likely to lose the singularness of the statement, at least on my first reading, and think that it was talking about groups of people rather than individuals. The use of singular pronouns with "everyone" or "anyone" reminds me that we are talking about each person individually, rather than the whole group, something that gets forgotten when they is used (and that I'm likely to forget in speech and therefore use they, confusing the number). On the other hand, using they with words like "someone" carries no such confusion, and there may be other cases where confusion in gender is more likely than confusion in number.

Of course, the issue is not that the TNIV should line up with MY linguistic judgments - I simply choose note to use it. The question is, are there people for whom the TNIV renderings more accurrately reflect the original languages than the renderings of other versions, and the answer is very probably yes (though there is certainly room for empirical research on this subject).

As long as you don't use the generic she I won't complain :)

At Sat Dec 17, 04:14:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, Kenny, I find the generic "she" offensive for the same reason that many women find the generic "he" offensive, because I feel excluded by it. And the offence is compounded by the knowledge that it is being done deliberately, and not simply out of thoughtlessly following custom.

Just to reassure you all that I am by no means a radical feminist! But I cringe when I see the generic "he" as well as "she", probably in about the same way as you cringe when you see singular "they". I also cringe at "he or she", although for different, more stylistic reasons. What is to be done? Perhaps we simply have to recognise that we speak different dialects. And it is not a matter of age: according to your profile you are 30 years YOUNGER than me!

At Sun Dec 18, 05:07:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I am 49 and for me "gender he" is more or less archaic. Even conservative pastors I've heard seem to avoid it in one way or another.

At Sun Dec 18, 05:08:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I should have said "generic he"

At Sun Dec 18, 07:46:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

I am amazed! I had no idea that the generic "she" was so offensive!

I recall one book (a book on developmental problems in children, IIRC) that announced in the introduction that the author would use "child" as his exemplar. In odd numbered chapters the pronouns would be feminine, in even, they would be male. Worked for me.

When I write about raising children, I always use the generic she. All my children are girls. I don't even think about it - babies in my world are female until proven otherwise. It's not to offend, it's just my experience.

My doctor is female, my dentist is female, my accountant is female. Intentionally so -- being a domestic goddess myself, I wanted my daughters to see women in other careers as role models as well.

But now, if I talk about a dentist, I think she. If a friend tells me about her (there you go, 9 out of 10 of my friends are female!) doctor, I tend to ask "what's she like?" It's not a conscious feminization, it is experiential.

There is no more offense in using the generic "she" than there is in the generic "he". The only difference is the experience of the speaker, and the sex of the person being offended.

I do not believe that generic "he" has always been grammatical. It became grammatical because it was experienced. Why address women? you would no more address children or slaves! It became grammatical the same way "she" has become the generic in my house.

So please do not take offense. Some of us are just trying to teach our daughters that they are not just a subset of "he". They are not.

Society has changed, and to reflect new experience, language will change too (as it already is changing).

Every time you gentlemen are offended by seeing "she", think of all the generations of girls who asked their parents why they were "he", why they were "men".

A generic is an example, and the example can be either male or female.

At Sun Dec 18, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

1) From the perspective of traditional prescriptive English grammar (and there's room for debate about whether prescriptive grammar even matters, but we'll leave that discussion for another day), the statement "when a driver comes to a stoplight she ..." assumes that all drivers are female, whereas the statement "when a driver comes to stoplight he ..." does not assume all drivers are male. This is presumably just an historical accident, and, as I said, may not matter. Certainly from the perspective of Bible translation, we must say that getting the message of Scripture to people is so important that it would be either cruel or idiotic (or both) to attempt to force people to learn what we think of as "good English" (and we of course all differ on just what that is) in order to read the Bible. Knowing the truth about God and salvation and the purpose of human life and experiencing the Scripture in the way most natural to you is infinitely more important than "good English," whatever that is, and that's why, even though in another context I might object to the singular they, I would never do so in this context.

2) I don't know if offensive is the right term for the generic she, from my perspective. Irritating I think would be a better word, and your situation, Talmida, seems to be different. Philosophers are in general very precise and self-conscious about the way we speak. For instance, two of my philosophy professors are married to one another, and neither of them ever uses the words "husband" or "wife," they always say "spouse." (The reason I noticed this is that the husband often goes by his initials, KC, and his wife once refered to "my spouse, KC," before I knew they were married or knew to whom she was referring, and there was a great deal of gender confusion on my part!) I don't believe for a second that this is a natural linguistic development. Rather, as philosophers, they are used to speaking in very precise ways and examining the assumptions behind their speech. I strongly suspect that they thought there was some assumption they were unhappy with behind the use of the different terms "husband" and "wife," perhaps with respect to gender roles (assumptions, about, for instance, a wife staying home while a husband works), and intentionally chose to use different language. (Of course, I could be completely wrong about this - they are from Canada, perhaps they speak that way there? This seems doubtful to me, but I don't really know.) Now, I approve of this sort of thing in these sorts of context, and am very much this way myself. My dialect is largely affected, and I do make a point of using words in non-standard ways when I think the standard usage is deeply flawed. For instance, I refuse to refer to Democrats as "liberal," because in my view they are in now way the successors of classic liberals like John Locke, instead I nearly always use the phrase "modern American Neo-Liberals." It's just a matter of what the new assumptions being imported by your intentional language changes are.

For these reasons, I assume that academic philosophers are intentionally changing language in this way to alter what they see as some underlying assumptions of the English language. This has been going on at least since Plato, who used to make up all kinds of words and use existing words in non-standard ways because he thought that the "folk taxonomies" that we've been talking about didn't divide up the world the way it really was. Of course, presumably some philosophers started doing this and others just followed them, and I don't think every one of them has thought through it, necessarily. I wouldn't be surprised if there were even some journal editors or book publishers enforcing it. It wouldn't irritate me so much if they used singular they (that, from my perspective, would just be "bad English," not any kind of hidden agenda), or if they used generic he and generic she equally (as, in fact, Amartya Sen does in his book - and even explains it in the introduction - but Amartya Sen isn't actually an academic philosopher, he's an economics professor who happened to write a couple of books about political philosophy). It's because they use generic she exclusively, and I have every reason to believe that it is done for some kind of theoretical/ideological reason, and my best guess at that reason is that it's the same kind of uber-radical feminism that leads people to pretend that there are NO differences between men and women (when, in fact, there are clearly at least anatomical differences) and to make up ridiculous words like "herstory" (to replace "history"). I believe that this is demeaning to both men and women, because the REAL gender differences (not man-made gender differences like "men work while women stay at home and cook") are gifts of God that make the woman the great thing she is and make the man the great thing he is. This is not at all the same, Talmida, as your instinctive assumption, based on your experience, that children or dentists are predominantly female.

That was very long, but I hope it clarifies things.

At Sun Dec 18, 09:35:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...


Thank you Kenny, yes it does. I am so glad I didn't major in philosophy!


Your driver examples were not a problem. Neither struck me as being exclusive. But then that might be the nature of driving.

What about this one:

"A candidate for President must submit his birth certificate along with his nominations papers."

Is that the generic "he"? Would women think so too?

If your daughter read it, would she think she was eligible?

And as a Canadian, I can assure you that "spouse" is not a common way to speak of one's er... spouse. However, with the legalization of gay marriage, perhaps it's the next big thing.

At Mon Dec 19, 04:16:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Talmida wrote:

Every time you gentlemen are offended by seeing "she", think of all the generations of girls who asked their parents why they were "he", why they were "men".

Precisely! It helps me to remember how offensive generic "he" can be. But also, every time you ladies are offended by generic "he", remember that you are doing just the same thing, and probably for the same mostly unobjectionable reasons, when you use generic "she".

Also, at least here in the UK, generic "she" is used most commonly to refer not to doctors and dentists, but to nurses, secretaries and homemakers, on the basis of gender stereotyping of these occupations. I would expect such usage to be offensive to women as well as to men.

As you said, Talmida, a lot of this is experiential, and it is far less objectionable when based on real experience without ideology. However, even the experience rule is double-edged, as with your sentence "A candidate for President must submit his birth certificate along with his nominations papers." The experience, at least in the USA, is of male presidents only, but that does not justify a statement, especially in this kind of legal instruction, which seems to exclude the possibility of future female presidents.

But this implies that both generic "he" and generic "she" should be avoided in Bible translation; this should not be dependent on the translators' personal experience, and the translated text is likely to be taken as legally binding in the same way as "A candidate for President must submit his birth certificate along with his nominations papers."

At Mon Dec 19, 07:05:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

Hmmm... I don't feel offended if the generic "he" is alternated with the generic "she", but I can see that it has the potential to create great confusion.

So that leaves us with the dreaded singular "they".

Well, I suppose we will all get used to it. Language changes.

Maybe what we really need are Big Red Letters on the cover of every English Bible saying, "This is not the Bible -- it is a TRANSLATION of the Bible. No translation is perfect."

At Mon Dec 19, 04:47:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

It seems that now is the time to introduce a new term, the "generic third person sibgular". Here are some candidates:

heshe - of course, someone might object that this favors the male.

shehe - of course, someone might object that this favors the female.

datun - this has no generic connotation, and has phonetic value that relates to "that one". We have to consider a couple of variants cases:

possessive: datuns
direct object: datunat

Let's try it out:

The teacher said that datun was very solid in philosophy. Of course, datun, was embarrassed. Datuns book was a challenge to everyone, but especially when the greatest philosopher handed datunat the sequel.

Hmmmm. Methinks we have our winner. LOL

At Mon Dec 19, 04:55:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I'm all for the generic singular 'they' as a longtime student of linguistics and languages, rather than of philosphy, (although I have had my fill of Plato and Aristotle, for sure) but in linguistics as you go from one language to the next you lose a lot of ideas about correctness.

I have also read and written about children and it seems more common to alternate 'he' and 'she' in that context for some reason. There is also a certain culture in education, not just philosophy, that shapes language as there is in any discipline.

However, the gospel must not depend on participation in a subculture and understanding specialist language. It must be plain English. I have really been thinking about this as I read the posts here. Thanks.

My own little story about Bible language is that as a child I thought that families in the OT had 12 boys to every girl. I don't think I realized that this wasn't so until I was in my teens and thought it through logically. .

At Mon Dec 19, 05:22:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rich, the creative author, wrote:

The teacher said that datun was very solid in philosophy. Of course, datun, was embarrassed. Datuns book was a challenge to everyone, but especially when the greatest philosopher handed datunat the sequel.

It might work, Rich. It just might. Or we could try singular "dey" (rhymes with "hey")as in:

"Dey just don't make cars like dey used to. But if everyone would submit ideas for better cars, dey might get cars dat dey would like better."

At Tue Dec 20, 10:19:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

Actually the third person singular generic pronoun "ze/zer/zim" (or something like that) has been proposed before. It does seem like it would be an improvement on the language, as there is currently no good way to do generic singulars in English, but its hard to intentionally alter a language in fundamental ways by doing things like making up pronouns (the historical adoption of Scandanavian pronouns by English, IIRC, notwithstanding).

At Tue Dec 20, 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Indeed "its hard to intentionally alter a language in fundamental ways" like imposing rules for hyphens and banning split infinitives! Kenny, I'm not having a go at you because I don't approve of prescriptive linguistics, and I happily split infinitives myself although I try to use apostrophes where I was taught to do so. But it is interesting that it has not been possible to impose the old prescriptive rules even on someone like you, who does seem to be sensitive to such rules like the deprecation of singular "they".

At Wed Dec 21, 10:11:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I think it's as clear that 'anyone' and 'everyone' have become plurals as much as 'they' has, at least among most people I interact with. One thing I've tried to make clear to people who realize that the English language is changing, though, is that for a large enough group that transition hasn't taken place. People in this group think of this the same way most people think about the recent street language Bibles that really do sound irreverent to the average person to use seriously. Those insisting that English has changed sometimes ignore this.


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