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21 August 2004 @ 14:02
Sexism and the Sprinkler  

As you can probably guess from the title, this post is about pronouns. Over at Language Log (what would I blog about if there were no Language Log?), Geoff Pullum is aggrieved:

It grieves me deeply to defend the benighted and probably sexist dimwits of what was must have been Canada's most stupid collection of Supreme Court justices ever, but I'm afraid I have to. The judicial nitwits who ruled that women are not persons were right on a point of grammar, and Bill Poser has it wrong.

The point of grammar in question is the one on which the Persons Case turned. The Sprinkler of Canada held that women were not persons, and consequently could not be magistrates, on the grounds that "persons," in the British North America Act of 1867, were always referred to (in the singular) with the pronoun he. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council sensibly overturned this ruling, embracing the radical notion that women are human beings.

Pullum argues that the otherwise benighted Sprinkler was correct in concluding that there is no such thing as the generic masculine in English:

It's my duty to report that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes the position that he is never generic, i.e., sex-neutral. Chapter 5, by Rodney Huddleston and John Payne (see page 492), talks about "Purportedly sex-neutral he", and on page 494 they give evidence that it just isn't true that this pronoun may be used in a sex-neutral way: if it could, then there would be nothing at all wrong with saying

*Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.

But that's a grammatical catastrophe, or a silly joke. One couldn't possibly think that was normal usage.

[Actually, at least one person does. Poser has posted a reply that makes some of the same points I was gradually getting around to in my long-winded way.]

Pullum further invokes William Shakespeare and Jane Austen in support of number-neutral they as the normal English way of referring to a singular person of unspecified sex.

In general, and certainly for the English of our day, I agree that there is no possibility of using he in a gender-neutral way, and I am as pleased as the next person to see that my usage of they has such distinguished literary precedents. But I think the Sprinkler was wrong.

The law, as Pullum may have noticed, is written neither in colloquial English nor in literary English. It is written in legal English, which, in addition to having various quirks of its own, tends to follow the fatwas and fiats of prescriptive grammarians. Ask any nineteenth-century prescriptivist you can find, and he [sic] will tell you that there is indeed such a thing as the generic masculine in the language in which the BNA Act is written. [Poser points out that the construal of the generic masculine in laws has, in fact, been legislated.] The fact that there are some contexts in which he cannot be sex-neutral does not necessarily mean that he is never generic.

I grant that you will not find many examples along the lines of Pullum's *Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself, but there are some odd cases out there. Unfortunately, sometime in the course of my last two moves, I seem to have misplaced or discarded a quite remarkable dictionary I once owned, which was published in the United States sometime in the nineteen-seventies, and shows it. The best parts are the appendices. There's a guide to astrology, which is so important that, if I recall correctly, it is the only part of the volume printed in full colour. There is also an appendix on sex, for the edification of the adolescent reader, which is in the form of a glossary, and is remarkable primarily for its steadfast consistency in employing the generic masculine throughout. I wish I still had it to quote from, but it does have passages which appear, by the standards of CGEL, to refer specifically to male homosexual relationships, which I do not believe was the intention of the authors.

The other context in which I've been startled to see the generic masculine is Robin Lakoff's Language and Woman's Place (1975). Lakoff predicted that while feminism could reasonably hope to succeed in promoting gender-neutral terms for people like firefighters and department chairs, the pronoun system was unassailable. And indeed, pronouns in general are fairly resistant to innovation, and it's probably not an accident that the gender-neutral pronoun of choice seems to be the recycled they rather than any of the multitude of constructed alternatives. But the standards have changed, and quickly. I would not use they as a singular pronoun in formal writing today (although I hope it will eventually become appropriate to do so), but neither would I use generic he in any context. (Pullum offers Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself as the correct colloquial alternative to the starred sentence above; for an alternative that will pass muster in any register, I'd say the best choice is Either the husband or the wife has committed perjury.) I'm very pleased that Lakoff turned out to have been mistaken about this, but I think it's telling that she, a linguist and a feminist, believed as recently as 1975 in not only the existence, but also the unshakeability of the generic use of masculine pronouns. If the generic masculine had sounded unnatural to her, she would certainly have had little reason to say otherwise. So I think we must conclude, contra CGEL and the Benighted Sprinkler, that at the very least there has been such a thing as the generic masculine, and that it was alive and well as recently as 1975.

Nuværende musik: The Men They Couldn't Hang, "Silver Town"
Tishiewahooweena on 25. August, 2004 20:36 (UTC)
Fascinating (as always)!