Words matter. Words have meanings. In fact, I have often reminded people that before you can change a society, you must first change the language. This means two things. First, we must fight for time-tested Biblical language in our daily speaking and writing. Second, we must recognize the force of words being hard-pressed on society by modern and post-modern culture and stand against this onslaught. Scott Allen has written on this here.
When the United States was founded, lexicographer Noah Webster produced the American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster understood that a nation was shaped by its language and that a new nation needed to define itself. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary was consciously developed from the framework of a Biblical worldview and the principles of belief of the founding fathers who were, for the most part, confessing Christians. Webster’s definitions were contemporary with the nation’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
While I know these things, unfortunately, I do not always act with wisdom. I do not consistently apply what I understand. I recently learned a new insight from a professional wordsmith about the meanings of words: words have historic meaning that transcends cultures.
My book, Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women to Build Healthy Cultures, was published in 2008. In this book I used “human beings” or “humankind” in place of “man.” I also alternated between the adjectives “female” and “male” when writing about people in general. I have since come to rethink these vocabulary choices.
During a later book project (Emancipating the World: A Christian Response to Radical Islam and Fundamentalist Atheism) I consulted Dr. Timothy Friberg. Timothy and his wife, Barbara, are linguists and Bible translators living and working in Southeast Asia. They are founders and managers of the Analytical Greek New Testament project, an electronic tool to aid students, pastors, and translators in their interaction with the original Koine Greek text. I asked for, and received, Timothy’s input about a Greek phrase from Matthew 28:18-20. To thank Tim for his counsel, I sent him a copy of Emancipating when it was published.
After reading the book, Dr. Friberg wrote a friendly critique on some of the pronouns I used: “I would like to comment on your vocabulary choices as forced on you by political correctness and women’s liberationists.” Friberg pointed to three related instances where I had illustrated this tendency.
Sometimes into your text you insert a wholly unexpected “she,” deferring to the pleasure of those that decry the standard generic pronoun in English for one of its less controversial substitutes. The problem with “she” is twofold. … generic means generic and “she” is specific for feminine in English at this stage of its development. There are quite a few strategies for expressing generic identity found among the world’s 6000 plus languages, but never among them is the feminine pronoun used, as far as I know. That says something significant about the psychology of communication. Whereas I am far more egalitarian than complementarian, I defer to the inventory of possibilities for generic referent expression and eschew “she.”
I had chosen to use the feminine pronoun to avoid raising red flags with readers who might take exception to masculine language. This decision was made as a layman, and I was very interested to read the critique of a linguist. But I realized how clearly Friberg had spoken the truth when he said that my choices were “forced on me by political correctness and women’s liberationists.” I had to admit that if I had been writing thirty or forty years earlier, this dilemma would never have emerged.
Dr. Friberg convinced me that it is mistaken to substitute a specific (feminine) pronoun for the universally generic (masculine) “he.” From there he continued.
Sometimes in your text you say “he or she” or again “his or her.” That is clearly an effort to please all parties. But it breaks a cognitive rule that impedes communication. In particular, these “choice phrases” are normally used following a “somebody,” “anyone,” “everyone,” “nobody,” or “a certain individual” (or its many possible equivalents), but these latter are incontrovertibly referring in context to a single unique individual (whether his identity is known or only hypothesized or denied or whatever). So when a single person has been introduced and then you present your reader with a choice, you are introducing cognitive dissonance into the communication. The effect of that is actually to slow the reader down on a point of communication that should be fully automatic. You do your communication purpose a disservice by so doing.
Once again, his point was compelling. If I want to write clearly, I cannot use a singular term (someone, anyone, et al) with a plural phrase (“he or she”). From there he went on.
Most frequently you have a sentence structure of the type “somebody lost their way.” The plural pronoun is the most viable candidate for the generic pronoun if “he” is ever to be dethroned. Interestingly, there is at least a two-hundred year history of “they” trying to unseat “he” as the generic singular pronoun in English. That “he” is never really displaced (language is always in flux and “he” is as likely to change as anything else) probably means that “they” is perceived as inadequate, at least in thoughtful writings (and speech). Incidentally, over the decades I have trained myself to say “he” as generic and thus to carry on a solid history.
Clearly if you have to abandon “he,” “they” is the most viable candidate. However, I would argue that for believers communication is too precious a commodity to use anything but what is unambiguously what it claims to be. My informal surveys over the past decades seem to indicate that no one except card-carrying feminists is offended by its use. And more important, people understand “he” to be the generic singular as well as “masculine singular.” It seems that the most derogatory evaluations of steadfast users of “he” as generic singular is that they are bookish, scholarly, or intent on saying what they mean.
I responded to Tim, expressing my thanks for writing so clearly. I added that
I am an unapologetic complementarian and yet have bent over backwards to communicate and not burn bridges unnecessarily. I struggled over the use of language as I wrote Nurturing the Nations. I wish I could have had this discussion ten years ago; it would have been invaluable. …
On a similar level would you use the word “man” to refer to all human beings; or would you use “humankind “ or “human beings?” In the modern world, I have tried to train myself to use humankind or human being. But even these expressions cannot get away from human. I have never been completely happy, nor, I am afraid, consistent.
Dr. Friberg responded:
Yes, I would use Man as generic of all human beings, though that one specific usage has virtually been pushed off stage. That is, “Man has made a mess of taking dominion over the world.” So even I might say, “Humans have failed the trusteeship given them by God–from the word go.” Personally, I would never say “humankind” for that is an artificial hybrid meant to sound inclusive. “Mankind” is fully adequate for me. But then I purposely withstand political correctness, especially in language. For me, postman and spokesman, as well as seamstress, adulteress and actress are fully functional words in my language.
Note the irony of an egalitarian challenging a complementarian to use “man” as inclusive for both sexes!
It is a reminder that I need to be objective in my use of language and not seek to be politically correct. Too often we who follow Christ have ceded the language (consider “gay” or “quality of life”), but God is the first communicator, the speaker. Christ is the Word.