Category Archives: linguistics

God, pronouns and freedom

I have written previously about what pronouns should be used for God, regarded as a genderless being in most faiths. Should we refer to Him in the masculine, Her in the feminine or even Se in the neutral? I came to the conclusion that everyone is entitled to their own choice because God doesn’t have “preferred pronouns” like we mortals do.

This issue has since come to the forefront at certain American divinity colleges, one of which, Vanderbilt, has gone as far as to suggest that masculine pronouns for God is a “cornerstone of the patriarchy”. True, modern society is nowhere near as patriarchal as it was at the time the Bible was being written. But some people, particularly of faith, may insist on calling God a He because that’s what they’re used to. Fortunately, a spokesperson for Vanderbilt told Heat Street that the guidelines are “suggestions” and not mandatory as implied by the headline “DIVINITY SCHOOLS: STOP USING ‘HE’ OR ‘HIM’ TO REFER TO GOD”. It reads like a Daily Mail headline and is not a good look for an online magazine sometimes called “reactionary”. Despite the implicit accusation of sexism to those who use male pronouns for God, it’s not a punishable offence.

Neither should be calling God a She. The Jewish traditions in particular are very vocal about God having a feminine essence, the shekhinah. To call Her by feminine pronouns would both uphold this and to demonstrate a commitment to egalitarianism. Duke Divinity School encourages lecturers to mix it up– probably more for egalitarian purposes than in reference to Jewish mysticism- referring to God in the masculine then immediately switching to the feminine. However, this could get quite confusing and is far from ideal in my opinion. I can only imagine them being barraged by emails saying “what pronouns do I use for God in my essay”?

As for referring to God in the neuter, the only gender-neutral pronoun that has come into general usage is singular they. And that can get very ambiguous. The Abrahamic faiths consider God to be one being, so to hear someone say “They created the heavens and the earth” could be very jarring. This is in spite of the original Hebrew Bible texts frequently referring to God as “Elohim”, a plural form of the term meaning “Lord”, but this is most likely a holdover from pre-monotheistic times as They are referred to by singular male pronouns elsewhere. And let’s not go forgetting “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One”. I have been suggesting and using se as a GNP to replace singular they and I would be very flattered if people began using it due to the natural sound and disambiguity.

Religion is far more flexible than it’s ever been. This is often referred to by critics as “cafeteria religion” but that’s missing a lot of it out. Again, I say “your rules”. Nobody should be forced into using a specific pronoun or pronouns for God. He/She/Se never personally stated them in the Bible.

Language change cannot be forced

Recently, the University of Sussex released a list of guidelines regarding gender language in official contexts.

It includes the demand that all participants in meetings state their preferred pronouns even when known. This is not the way to accomodate those of us who use gender-neutral language. Rather, it will increase the stigma against them by forcing people who feel that their gender is obvious to state their preferred language. The people who use gender-neutral language- the nonbinaries, the abolitionists, the nonconformists- are a small minority to begin with. Most peoples’ gender can be inferred immediately by their dress, sex characteristics and other nuances, even in this day and age when gender-neutral clothing is the order of the day. Six-foot-five bearded men in lumberjack shirts saying “my name is Dave, my pronouns are he, him and his” is verging on the ridiculous and this is coming from someone who is a strong advocate for GNL.

Furthermore, the guidelines also state that somebody whose gender is not known must be referred to as “they”. This is not only a commonly-accepted practice in English that most adhere to to begin with, but the wording is ripe for taking things even further. If Dave, the six-foot-five bearded lumberjack, doesn’t state his pronouns are we to refer to him as “they”? Even I would find that difficult- I do believe that all people will be referred to by gender-neutral language in the future, but forcing it straight into action as seen here ensures that GNL will not be accepted by the mainstream for a while, possibly even years. We have seen that things which were seen as “PC gone mad” years ago are now accepted because they required time. Besides, I have stated before that singular they, while gramatically correct at least in British English, can be ambiguous and I prefer the alternative (specifically designed to sound natural) se.

The takeaway is that forcing people to state their pronouns and take extra care not to infer a persons’ gender even when they are explicitly male or female is not only the antithesis of progressiveism, but it can be detrimental to those who genuinely prefer gender-neutral language. It ensures that GNL will be pooh-poohed by the average Joes in the street for a long time to come.

It’s a shame really.

Can gender-neutral language just be foisted upon the majority?

Recently, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London proposed abolishing the traditional “ladies and gentlemen” announcement on his city’s transport. And just this past weekend a guide was distributed to a small number of schools encouraging people to use “pupils” in place of “boys and girls”.

As a part-time linguist and a strong advocate for gender-neutral language (GNL), I believe that language change should be progressive and not immediate. The coldness of “pupils” disregarded (“children” sounds far more natural), these are two changes replacing gendered terms with neutral yet common language. This is a continuation of the progress made since the 1960s, when many people still considered it radical. Considered radical today is the genderless title “Mx.” and a gamut of new personal pronouns including “xe”, “hir” (pronounced “here”) and anything else that isn’t he, she or singular they. Will these be widely accepted in fifty years?

Well there are some language changes from the 1960s considered radical even today with no widespread adoption. For example, the term “womyn”, coined by separatist feminists to remove the connotations of maleness from the word, sees virtually no usage today even amongst the same group who came up with it. Same with other attempts at “smashing the patriarchy” through language reform. “Herstory”. Now I’ve never seen that one used outside a Women’s Studies course and a Hillary Clinton ad campaign. An urban myth says that a group of radical feminists even tried to get the city of Manchester renamed, but again just an urban myth with seemingly no evidence to back it up.

Other attempts at neutralising language appear clumsy, for example “personhole” (which also sounds incredibly sexual ;)). In the US, there is an aversion to singular they due to Webster, and constructions such as “him/her” and “s/he” are common. Many new pronouns were coined to get around this awkwardness as well as to include the minority of people who identify as neither male or female. Unfortunately, in my opinion many of them are in the “womyn” mould of “too radical to be accepted” and I coined the se pronoun set as an alternative that doesn’t stray too far from the sound of “xe”/”ze” but looks more “natural”. See how it rolls off the tongue compared to other sets and the standard gendered pronouns of English:

  • He saw his cat.
  • She ate her lunch.
  • Se grabbed ses phone.
  • Xe packed xer bags.
  • Ze stroked hir dog.

And there’s a precedent to this- I would argue that the eventual official recognition of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun “hen” is that it sounds natural, being halfway between “han” and “hon” both phonetically and alphabetically.

To sum up, I believe that gender-neutral language will only be accepted by the majority over time if it sounds natural. Many coinages are awkward and others need a few kinks working out (singular they, while correct in British English, can be ambiguous and “hir” looks too much like “her” on paper to be true GNL in my opinion). That’s why I advocate for the use of se, sem and ses- a good halfway point that looks good on paper and sounds good from the mouth.

Continuing on from yesterday…

…will the Bible of the year 3016 be different from the Bible in the year 2016?

I personally think so.

I believe that one of the more liberal translations that edits out verses referring in the negative to homosexuality and other left-wing issues will become the accepted version. We might even have some people considering it a revelation from God, as do many of the extreme King James readers. I’m not kidding. There are people in the “King James Only” movement of fundamentalist Christianity that believe the KJV is a God-given translation. But I digress. Society has evolved quickly in the last hundred years, rendering said verses unacceptable to many, and we now have feminist and LGBT translations of the Bible. While targeted largely at a niche audience, their influence has been felt in mainstream modern translations. The use of gender-neutral language is common (“people” as opposed to “men” in the KJV), as well as toning down the abovementioned verses considered homophobic.

Perhaps the best-known translation in this mould is the New International Version, which featured open lesbian Virginia Molenkott on its critic team. The NIV is beginning to be widely used and is a candidate for the “standard” Bible translation as the KJV was, and is to an extent today. But as the left shifts more to the left (and the right more to the right), people may complain that the NIV doesn’t do enough to affirm egalitarianism. While I am a strong supporter of egalitarianism, I believe that a truly egalitarian Bible translation would be impossible without making major textual edits. Much of Leviticus would have to go, as not only is gay okay for most of us, many of us have tattoos, and many of us eat pork and shellfish. Even Jews, who the laws are traditionally considered to be aimed at. But I don’t see it stopping people from trying to edit it in a modern framework.

So I believe the Bible of 3016 will be very different from the Bible of 2016. Adam and Steve? Probably not, as the creation of complimentary woman is a vital part of the Genesis story, but I can see large chunks of text that exist in our versions gone whereas KJVs and even NIVs are museum pieces only read by scholars and critics.

Aur Anglic wil probubly bi: verry diffrun tu:.

The gendered grammar of God

It is commonly accepted that God of Abraham is without gender and the use of non-masculine pronouns to refer to Sem has become a hot topic in theological circles. This is primarily motivated by feminism and its idea of deconstructing what is believed to be a patriarchal structure common to most institutions including religion. In the 1970s, it was trendy for a while to refer to God in the feminine, with some religious material from the era referring to the divine as “She”. When Helen Reddy did so at the 1972 Grammys, the world was abuzz.

So what pronouns should we used to refer to He/She/Se/They…?

Here we are in the decade of pumpkin spice lattes, selfies and President Trump. Feminism is back in vogue, but this time in the “intersectional” mould, believing that it should centralise the experiences of LGBT and minority women rather than the straight white females it believes are overrepresented. Part of the centralisation of LGBT in particular are the discussions about “preferred pronouns”. Some consider it rude to assume somebody’s pronouns based on their gender presentation, a concept I have difficulty with considering that most people align with and use the pronouns of their birth gender. A few even go as far as to introduce themselves not only with name but pronouns, for example “my name is Dave, I use the pronouns he, him and his.” But God does not outright state a pronoun preference, “He” being implied in not only English but the original Hebrew of the Bible (hu is used as opposed to hi, “she”).

Here’s where the argument gets tricky. Some believe that we should not change a 3,000 year old text at all, not even to incorporate modern ideas such as egalitarianism and gender neutrality. Others believe that the Bible is outdated and needs to be changed, if not completely discarded. There is no doubt that the Bible, including the earliest versions, needs to be preserved on historical grounds. A commonly-accepted position in liberal theology is that the Bible was regularly rewritten as community standards changed. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide proof of this happening as recently as 300 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. In these 2,000 years, the morals of not only the people of Biblical Israel but much of the world have changed and many passages seem repugnant to us now. There are many Bibles that try to reconcile the original text with modern thinking (including the brilliantly named Queen James Bible), but as far as I know none of them refer to God using gender-neutral pronouns.

So in light of both sides having their salient points, it is impossible to formulate a final opinion on the subject. I would also find it inappropriate considering that nobody knows what pronouns God prefers if any. I personally favour the “Fletcher pronouns”- se, sem and ses- to refer to beings of indeterminate gender, including deities. That being said, I find it very unlikely that a pronoun other than “He” will become widely accepted outside feminist circles due to tradition and the fear of breaking with it.

Sév Inglish

If thi Inglish languij wos mór lyk this, litrasy wud imprúv. Standerdysd spelling withaut thi sylunt lettrs and uthr distrakshuns.

Kompérd tú uthr languijs, Inglish is bakwuds. Thér is no standerdysashun ov spelling. Onlí konfyúshon. Wí hav stólun ellimunts from ólmóst evrí uthr languij. Aurs is písmíl and has bín fór óvr a millenium.

Klín up thi languij, inkrís litrasy, mék it mór aksessibul.

Sév Inglish.