Category Archives: Sexism

A mad pensioner

There once was a mad pensioner from Brecon
Who sat at her desk and said: “I reckon
I am not a he
Whatever they decree.”
So said that mad pensioner from Brecon.

The writer of the booklet I reviewed in a publication I edit (unpaid voluntary work) with some others wrote a reply correcting some errors I had made. However, the paragraph she wrote in defense of the language which I had called sexist in a brief note at the end of my review, was longer than anything else in the letter. The booklet is written totally in the language of he/man. The only “she” to be found between the covers of the booklet is the author. In the letter the author states that the original meaning of the word “man” is “a human”. She thinks it is absurd to try and change the language and that she wants us to return to the sanity of the old meaning.

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

Image via Wikipedia

The letter got me thinking and reading. I found out that indeed the word “man” (or “mann” as it was also spelt) meant “a human” in Old English before 1066. The word “wer” or “waepman” was used for a male human and the word “wyf” or “wifman” for a female human. So how was this kind of equal presence in the language lost to women? Lost to the extent that in 1971 Richard Gilman can observe “that our language employs the words man and mankind as terms for the whole human race demonstrates that male dominance, the IDEA of masculine superiority is perennial, institutional, and rooted at the deepest level of our historical experience.” (quoted in Man Made language by Dale Spender). As Dale Spender put it “I saw it as a convenient means of making women invisible, for blanketing them under a male term.”

The Norman Conquest brought the Norman French to the fore and the Old English remained the language of commoners. Over the years Old English disappeared and although traces of it can be seen in our Modern English it is a different language altogether. Later on what was to be known as Middle English became the language of the country although French retained its  importance for some time. The Middle English developed further into our Modern English and even the Middle English can be understood by present English speakers if some words were translated for them. Like the lines

First I pronounce whennes that I come,                                             And thanne my bulles shewe I, alle and some.

This means: First I declare where I come from, and then I show my official documents, each and every one. (The Pardoner’s Prologue, Chaucer.)

In the Middle English, in which Chaucer wrote, the noun “man” means both a human and a human male. There does not seem to be any trace of “wer” left, but the word “wif” means a wife and “wives” and “wommen” mean women. So already there is a shift to making a man to be a norm and hiding a female under the man. Dale Spender relates the progression of how this was achieved in her book Man Made Language. In 1553 Thomas Wilson “insisted that it was more natural to place the man before the woman, as for example in male and female, husband and wife, brother and sister, son and daughter.”  Next came Joshua Poole who in 1646 put forward that “it was not only natural that the male should take ‘pride of place’ it was also proper because, in his line of reasoning, the male gender was the worthier gender.” This was taken even further by John Kirby in 1746 when he  “formulated his ‘Eighty Eight Grammatical Rules’ … Rule Number Twenty One stated that the male gender  was more comprehensive than the female.” Thus the male grammarians had come to the decision that the correct pronoun to use when the gender is not clear is  “he” and not “they” which had been in general use in these instances. But even the 1850 Act of Parliament which made this legal could not totally get rid of the usage of “they” when the gender is not clear.

It seems after all this that it is impossible to return to the use of “man” as meaning only “a human” and not also a male human. However, there have been changes since Dale Spender’s book was published. Women have been clamouring to get noticed. They have been telling that they do not feel included in that terminology. They do not really want to be included in the word “man” or in the pronoun “he”. It is quite common nowadays to see the word “humankind” instead of “mankind” and more people are using two third person singular pronouns instead of just “he” when they write about people. All good and well. Just as it should be. Perhaps we should even invent a third person singular pronoun which can mean both she and he when we do not know the gender of a person. Marge Piercy in her book Woman on the Edge of Time used “per” for both she and he. Perhaps we can adopt this usage and forget she and he altogether.