Column: A column for him and her

By Elie Dvorin

It was 36 years ago that Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon and boldly proclaimed, “That’s one small step for persons, one giant leap for humankind.” At least that’s what he would have said if the proponents of gender-neutral language had their way.

Beginning in the 1970’s, feminist language reformers began to push for the institution of particular linguistic rules that today have become accepted as normative by most in the academic community. These reforms are based on the premise that the English language is inherently sexist and that it has real-life implications concerning the devaluation of women in American society.

This argument, convincing as it may be to the casual observer, fails to hold water. For one, many linguists argue that the “sexist” language structure we use today dates back to ancient matriarchal civilizations. Naturally, this contradicts the feminist view that language patterns are determined by and reflect the values of the social structure of the time.

So much of this linguistic criticism is based on misinformation. Last week I spoke with a woman who explained to me that the very nature of English gender references are sexist since “female” is just a derivative of the word “male.” Naturally, I had to explain to her that “female” comes from the Latin word femella and was introduced to English by way of Old French around 1330. “Male”, from the Latin masculus, was also introduced to English via Old French – but not until 1373. Not only does “female” not come from “male” but the two words have no relation whatsoever.

It became obvious during the heyday of the feminist revolution that the push for the gender neutrality of language had little to do with linguistic equality and much to do with infusing feminist ideology into an already ideologically free language. This is evidenced by the serious, albeit comical, push for words like “womyn” to be introduced into the common lexicon. By respelling “women” without using the word “men” the feminists were breaking the shackles of linguistic oppression. That being said, I highly doubt I’m the only one that questions the priorities of the movement.

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The proposed solutions to the problem of “sexist” language are often more ridiculous than much of the criticism itself. “Mankind” becomes “humankind,” “chairman” becomes “chairperson,” and “history” becomes “herstory” or “ourstory.” The generic pronoun “he” has also come under attack when referring to any individual and is currently being replaced by the ridiculous “s/he,” which I have no idea how to pronounce. In other circles, it has been replaced by the all-inclusive, yet horribly cumbersome, “he or she.” If one disagrees with my assessment, he or she can let me know and I’ll inform him or her that he or she is the one that is mistaken.

Aside from sounding awful and reading even worse, the feminist approach to language reform hinders the power of language. It’s both absurd and naive to think that one could ban certain phrases or grammatical sequences without limiting the expressiveness of the language. When artificial limitations are imposed on traditional discourse, accuracy is diminished, syntax is destroyed and meaning and nuances get lost in translation. If people really believe that female babies are killed in China and women aren’t permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia because of evil words in the English language like – gasp for air – “mankind,” then they need to stop watching the Lifetime network and put down the Gloria Steinem book.

It’s not that I don’t doubt the sincerity of these language reform advocates. It’s that they’re looking to force social change by addressing the wrong source – and destroying the English language in the process. This is a perfect example of political correctness gone mad. First, we were told what to think. Then, we were told what to say. Now, we’re being told how to say it. I, for one, refuse. And if the editor has a problem with that, he or she can come and get me.

Elie Dvorin is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Monday. He can be reached at [email protected].