Language Change

It’s been quite obvious that I’ve had language change on my mind with reference to man vs. human and he vs. they for generics. I’ve written a couple posts now.

And I know that there are a variety of people out there who are convinced that the change is directly related to the feminist movement. My personal opinion on that one is 1) I doubt it and 2) so what? If the language has truly changed (and it has) then it’s too late to go back to man and he anyway. And I should that it’s too late to go back in a previous post on the subject where two late middle aged men quite clearly mistook a generic man for male-referring man — ironically, in the context of a book where that had at one point argued that English hasn’t changed (specifically, chapters 7-10 of the book, which you can find via the link above).

Now, I know there are a few people who read this blog who also have found this whole issue and debate rather interesting. I’d like to make it slightly more interesting by providing another real life comparison of language change in another language. This one is another attempt at forced language change, something that feminists have been charged with doing. But in this example, the group attempting to force change failed.

And so I ask: If we have two politically motivated language changes, why does one fail and the other succeed so much so that even those who fight the change accidentally fall into it?

And so, with that question in mind, I point you to: Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος byNick Nicholas and his post, Greek diglossia and how it isn’t. The thesis of the post is distinct from this discussion, but the content & history he provides basically begs for parallels to be drawn.

So why does one change succeed and the other fail?

30 thoughts on “Language Change

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  1. My head hurts just from reading Nick’s post. I can actually feel the text flying right over my head. I read it voraciously, finding it interesting, but continuously right above my ability to understand.

    I hate being an amateur. Someone give me some money so I can go to school and study this stuff! Oh, who am I kidding. I don’t have time for that anyway 🙂

  2. Mike,

    You might be interested in the discussion of this topic in “The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader,” Deborah Cameron, ed. For example, check out the discussion on pp. 176-77 by Susan Ehrlich and Ruth King. The pages are viewable on Google Reader.

    Note that the essayists emphasize that even in newspapers which have issued PC guidelines, adherence to the guidelines is still sporadic.

    My sense is that the whole topic has become a huge minefield, and not just in ecclesiastical contexts, in which the push to eliminate the use of generic he and man in Bible translation has been perceived as going hand in hand with a larger agenda.

    It is hardly a problem that fundagelicals alone are up against. The other branches of Christianity, Catholicism quite obviously, is likewise split right down the middle on these things.

    So are ordinary people with zero interest in the ecclesiastical spats. Recently, a member of my congregation who is not at all attuned to the ecclesiastical debate chided me for calling her a firefighter. “I’m a fireman,” she corrected me. Fine with me, dude, I replied.

    1. It’s true, adherence *is* sporadic, but the bigger issue is that the generics “man” and “he” are becoming more and more difficult to interpret. And that’s a fact not easily disputable separate from the PC battle.

    2. Mike,
      The analogy you point us to is very helpful, I think! The dispute Nik writes about had to peter out. In his second sentence of the blogpost, he shows the principle: “But the very fact that there were diglossia wars in Greece means ‘diglossia’ was no longer the right word to describe what was going on in Greece.”

      But I think if the lopsidedness of English pronouns in the past had leaned in favor of women, and not men, then the battle would have been much more aggressive indeed.

      John, your friend wishing to stay out of “ecclesiastical spats” and wishing for the status quo, to be called a “fireman” as a women, says volumes. To me it says, in part, that men are not driving the useful change. That we’re all relegating the issue to narrow areas of battle (i.e., “theology”) rather than to our humanity, male and female. If this were a problem for men (rather than a seeming problem for women), then we’d have had the agonistic determination to change our language.

      And I’m not talking about linguistic prescriptivism when I say change. I’m talking about things like our Speech Acts, the way sociolinguists use that phrase. We’ve been able to stop advertisers in the USA from blasting harmful tobacco buying incentives on billboards, in magazines and newspapers, and on tv and the radio. Healthwise and moneywise, society here is a little better off. That’s the kind of linguistic change we might effect if we (men mostly) weren’t just so amused.

      Speaking of amusing, I think Gloria Steinem makes a great point with her humorous essay “If Men Could Menstruate”:

      And if men could live in a world where the default pronouns were “she” and “her,” then I really think they wouldn’t. They’d do better than those battling for “diglossia.”

      1. Interesting conversation, Kurk. On the one hand you have feminists who are very active prescriptivists, and very up front about it. On the other hand, there are feminists like you who run interference for them, claiming that this is not about prescriptivism. This seems like a subterfuge to me.

        On a practical matter, I will make a prediction. If the new NIV insists on pluralizing in the Psalms where the singular is an important vehicle of structural meaning, it will suffer the same fate as similar translations among Catholics. It will be dissed. I touched on the subject matter in this post:

        1. John,
          If I were a sexist, I would agree with Mike that “Man” in particular can no longer perform the double duty that it performed a century ago. (See his comment below). And, John, I can’t agree with you more in your statement that you’ve made over at your blog: “The problem with the debate is that no matter how one sees it, there are extremists who will accuse you of high crimes and misdemeanors because you don’t see it their way. A huge dose of charity is in order in this discussion, charity that cuts all ways.”

          Ironically, it feels to me like you’ve come down on me. I’ll confess my own irony: I’m absolutely a relativist when it comes to language. But when it comes to my parent and yours, my spouse and yours, and my children and yours, whose bodies are sexed fe-male, I’m aware how sexists (masculinists) tend to push for the continued marking of “wo-men” and for leaving the default category of language for people in general “man.” Our language practices are not neutral, and the changes (though some would prescribe them) are better changes when they do not denigrate.

          I’ve noticed that African Americans tend not to favor being called by color terms, even though there’s a long history otherwise of them being othered by allusions to blackness:

          I’ve noticed that Baptists in America are tending to leave that word out of the proper names of their local churches.

          Wouldn’t you cheer them on in making such changes? Why get all snagged about a linguist male like me cheering on women, who can speak for themselves by the way when they don’t want to be called “men”?

  3. Sorry about the density, George; and to think, I am fretting it isn’t dense enough! 🙂

    I don’t know why Puristic failed myself; ever since I posted a translation of another blogger’s takedown of Puristic as a Dead Language, I’ve been wondering whether that’s really why. And I’m starting to think the problem more about the inconsistency of Puristic than its artificiality. Not so much of a problem with gender inclusive language.

    After all, every standard language is to some degree artificial. And those artificialities do end up changing one’s understanding of the language. The point of the “Ignis!” anecdote wasn’t that veterans in 1833 didn’t understand that “Ignis!” meant “Fire!” It’s that I in 1990 didn’t understand that “gunfire” meant “burning fire”: my understanding of the language had been molded by the artificiality of Puristic (though not the way the molders intended).

    1. I think there’s still a parallel to be drawn. I’d say that in terms of those linguistic conservatives who are trying to maintain generic wordforms that are no longer generic is a prime example of the challenges that inconsistency brings for maintaining “he” and “man” as generic. “Man” in particular can no longer perform the double duty that it performed a century ago.

  4. Kurk,

    I’m not sure how to reply. I assume then you are trying to tell me that you are in favor of linguistic prescriptivism, so long as your team is doing it. Meanwhile you call yourself a relativist. I don’t see any rhyme or reason in your rhetoric.

    I’ll stop bugging you about it, though. You’re a cheerleader, as you say. You do have a team you root for. You have a name for them: “women.” Of course, many women would not feel comfortable with the way you pigeonhole them.

    1. Mike,
      By no means do I mean you are a sexist. What my sentence means is that I’m not always a very clear writer. I intended to say something like “whether I’m a sexist or a feminist, I would still agree with your linguistic sense – that “man” is lousy English today for “human being.” Sorry if our comments here are hijacking your post.

      Why are you trying to characterize me any particular way? Why attack my statements as rhetoric without rhyme or reason? Why accuse me of pigeonholing anyone? Why presume that others are uncomfortable with what I say, as if I’m characterizing them? Why these slaps? Why don’t you say I have a name for African Americans and am on their team? Why don’t you say I have a name for Baptists and am on their team? Am I speaking for anyone but myself? Why are you trying to speak for me, about me, at me? Why do you start by saying you’re “not sure how to reply” and then reply with such slap-down certainty?

      1. Kurk,

        Now you’ve left me speechless. I really was finding it difficult to understand your train of thought.

        I’ll try once more at conveying to you how I hear you. I hear you saying that you want to reform my speech habits, and those of the general populace, along lines the women you are cheering on advocate for.

        But maybe not, since you also say that you are not a linguistic prescriptivist.

        1. John,

          Why won’t you answer my questions? But how have I left you speechless?

          Really, I’m not trying to be difficult! Mike’s use of analogy is brilliant. Sometimes when language change is so charged with labels, it’s good to step out of one context into analogous one. My bringing up the speech acts about tobacco was also an attempt to show language change that is not only good and acceptable but that also was prescriptive. I also brought up a couple of other analogies. African Americans’ names for themselves and Baptists dropping their names are prescriptive moves, but these (prescribed) language changes are something a linguistic relativist can appreciate also. (I’m not an African American nor a Baptist by the way — if you do insist I’m also their “cheerleader”).

          Would you be surprised that William Labov, a linguist and relativist with respect to language, was a cheerleader for the Oakland School District, and the desire to prescribe Ebonics as part of the school curriculum? Labov, not African American, cheered for Orlando Taylor and Robert Williams who are linguists that are native speakers of Ebonics, and Williams is the coiner of that term. Subsequently, members of the Linguistic Society of America actually wrote politically stronger resolutions (dare I say “prescriptions”) about Ebonics and the need for language change in education in America.

          Just as your “fireman” friend isn’t on board with some of the moves to change English, so also were some African Americans not on board with either recognizing Ebonics as a language or changing American education linguistically so that just the one mainly white standard of English was taught.

          I’m interested, John, in our talking about the good directions of language change. I’m not at all happy that you seem, instead, to want to disparage me by conveying to me how you hear me. I’m really sorry if I’m somehow offending you. Please know my intent is to appreciate Mike’s use of analogy, to offer additional analogies, and to imagine (even as a man) what it’s like for our grandmothers and mothers and wives and friends and sisters and daughters to have to experience by language that slights them and is resistant to change because of sexism and “ideals” like purity of linguistic relativism.

          So, is Bill Labov being a pure relativist if he insists on using sentences like this one?

          “Thus if a subject chose [a particular word] and his or her mean value [in the linguistic experiment] was closest to [another different word]… ” (from page 201 of Principles of Linguistic Change: Social factors). See how he uses such politically correct language as “his or her”?

          Why get hung up on a linguist approving of, cheering on, and even participating in good language change?

  5. Hey Kurk,

    You cleared up my problem. You now agree that you are a prescriptivist. You now make a distinction between good and bad prescriptivism. Now we are on the same page. Our only difference is that I don’t agree with your prescriptions and you don’t agree with mine.

    1. John,
      But I like your appreciation of NJB’s English for Psalm 1, and some of your proposals for the new NIV. Have I misunderstood how our prescriptions differ? never mind; I’ll reread your post. Sorry Mike!

  6. “My personal opinion on that one is 1) I doubt it”

    I’m tempted to agree, but what is your reasoning? As a supportive example, feminists wanted to differentiate between sex and gender with respect to people. While we’ve seen a upsurge in the use of “gender” which was hitherto reserved for language and technical usages, I don’t think it had much to do with feminists. As proof, the public doesn’t use “sex” and “gender” the way feminists define them much of the time. Rather, we associated “sex” with “sexual relations” and “gender” was recognized as an alternative absent the connotation of sexual behavior and desire. Thus many use “gender” which “sex” is technically appropriate but rarely the other way around.

    1. reasoning? I was kind of hoping to get away with not providing any…

      Part of my reasoning is exactly what you say in your comment below: word-association, convenience, & clarity.

      But then also, especially for pronouns, there have always been other strategies – singular “they” is almost as old as the English language is. A NYTimes writer believes that things like Twitter have contributed to it since with only so many characters, “he or she” is simply too big.

  7. Eh, I’ll have to spend more time think about these issues, but when I talked about artificiality, what I really meant is, sometimes, prescription works. In fact, often it works. Linguists love to poo-poo prescriptivism, but prescriptivism is a real force in language change, whether linguists like it or not.

    So in this context, I see “I’m not a prescriptivist” as a smokescreen, and agree with Hobbins’ and Kurk’s conclusion: we are indeed all prescriptivists. That’s not the issue to judge this issue on. The issue is whether the prescription has succeeded in changing the language. I’m with our host, I believe it has.

    And I take it that’s why our host cited my anecdote in the first place.

  8. I tend to think that some of the language change had happened already. For example, in the LSJ for aner it gives this example,

    II. man, opp. god, πατὴρ ἀνδρῶν τε θεῶν τε ib.1.544, “father of gods and men.” This dates back at least to 1869. I would think that most people know that the gods are both male and female and the “men” are both male and female. Aner is used as a generic in this case.

    But Grudem writes,

    “The LSJ Lexicon does not give the meaning “person” for aner, but rather, “man, opposed to women,” “man, opposed to god,” “man, opposed to youth,” “man emphatically, man indeed,” “husband,” and some special usages.”

    What does Grudem think “man, opposed to god” means?

    Grudem also writes,

    “I could add a note here on the Greek word aner: Greek scholars for hundreds of years have known that aner means “man” not “person.” Recently, with no new evidence, but under cultural pressure, some have discovered a new meaning, “person.” But no scholar has produced any convincing examples among the 216 uses in the NT. Even if it could mean “person” in rare cases, is would require compelling evidence from each context to overturn normal use. But with no compelling evidence, the TNIV translates aner in a gender-neutral way 31 times.)”

    Given that I have found at least a dozen examples from the LSJ entry and elsewhere of aner meaning a generic human being, how are we to understand Grudem’s misunderstanding? He is almost a generation older than us. What happened to the English language that he did not know that a 19th century lexicon was using the word “man” in a generic sense?

    I think the generic meaning of “man” had already been lost for some people, at least.

    1. Suzanne,

      This is shocking news! You mean it isn’t radical feminists who are “prescribing” language change? And, rather, it’s men like Aristotle, Wayne Grudem, Thomas Jefferson, and Marquis de La Fayette who have written the prescriptions for men who would lose their own inclusive nuanced language?

      Aristotle- ὁ γὰρ ἄνθρωπος οὐ μόνον πολιτικὸν ἀλλὰ καὶοἰκονομικὸν ζῷον, καὶ οὐχ ὥσπερ τἆλλά ποτε συνδυάζεται καὶ τῷ τυχόντι καὶ θήλει καὶ ἄρρενι ἀλλ’ αἱ διὰ δύμον αὐλικόν, ἀλλὰ κοινωνικὸν ἄνθρωπος ζῷον πρὸς οὓς φύσει συγγένεια ἐστίν· …

      οἰκία δ’ἐστί τις φιλία. δεσπότου μὲν οὖν καὶ δούλου ἥπερ καὶ τέχνης …

      γυναικὸς δὲ καὶ ἀνδρὸς φιλία ὡς χρήσιμον καὶ κοινωνία· πατρὸς δὲ καὶ υἱοῦ ἡ αὐτὴ ἥπερ θεοῦ πρὸς ἄνθρωπον καὶ τοῦ εὖ ποιήσαντος πρὸς τὸν παθόντα καὶ ὅλως τοῦ φύσει ἄρχοντος πρὸς τὸν φύσει ἀρχόμενον·

      Grudem, or someone following him, translating Aristotle –
      “For man is not only a political but also a house-holding animal, and does not, like the other animals, couple occasionally and with any chance female or male, but man is in a special way not a solitary but a gregarious animal, associating with the persons with whom he has a natural kinship…

      And a household is a sort of friendship—or rather the relationships of master and slave is that of craft and tools…

      But the friendship of man and wife is one of utility, a partnership; that of father and son is the same as that between god and man and between benefactor and beneficiary, and generally between natural ruler and natural subject.”

      Jefferson — “All men are created equal”

      de La Fayette — “Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen”

      When all along Sappho like a linguistic relativist allowed what Aristotle refused:

      κάλλος ἀνθρώπων Ἐλένα

      When all along several men and women, even Elizabeth Cady Stanton with them, like linguistic relativists allowed what Jefferson refused:

      “All men and women are created equal”

      When all along Olympe de Gouges like a linguistic relativist also allowed what de La Fayette refused:

      “Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne”

      1. I’m a feminist (I don’t know what you mean by “radical”, but I’m not a mysandronous lesbian, if that’s what you’re implying; they mostly simmered down years ago) and I DO prescribe radical language change. But I think Mike and I know both believe English doesn’t care what we want. Language is a democracy and we’re outvoted.

        But didn’t Jefferson mean Man (exclusive) not Humanity (inclusive)? He didn’t bother with women voting which does not lend them to being “created equal.”

        1. Ephilei,
          Thanks for your comment! As far as I’m concerned, there’s a new election every day. Sue makes an excellent point that English has been different, more open, more inclusive, for a long long time – and that certain people want it to be circumscribed and prescribed by their own narrow and exclusive uses doesn’t change those facts. My “radical” here drips with sarcasm.

          I think you’re absolutely right about what Jefferson meant (by his actions). He owned a woman and called her slave; in The Declaration, he also used the words “human,” “people,” and “mankind,” but for some people (also created) he also called them by this name: “the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

  9. If the language has truly changed (and it has) then it’s too late to go back.

    This statement represents one side of a vicious debate about the very nature of language. Your side (and my side) believes that language is what it is — and we should try to understand it before we create a translation in it. The other side (generally) believes that experts should determine what language should be.

    For example, I think the disagreement over the “generic singular plural” (for example, “when someone sees their neighbor….”) in the TINV is really two disagreements. One is over the nature of language: Who decides what counts as grammatical English? The other is over the facts: Even if the speakers of English get to decide what’s grammatical, is the generic singular plural really part of the written language?


    1. Even if the speakers of English get to decide what’s grammatical, is the generic singular plural really part of the written language?

      Chaucer thought so – as did the KJV translators.

      But yes, that is indeed a very good point. I think the other side also wants it to be a theological issue – where they’re standing firm against a heathen culture – at least that how it tends to be portrayed in North America.

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