who owns language: firefighter is such a cumbersome word!

Pardon me if the ideas here aren’t organized so well. In his AEI piece, David Gelernter writes: “Logic has never been a strong suit among the commissar-intellectuals [meaning feminists] who have bossed American culture since the 1970s.” It appears, though, that logic isn’t a strong suit for Gelernter either. In this essay, he writes that feminists have destroyed the English language, destroying our value of conciseness and replacing it with clunky words like “firefighter” instead of “fireman” and the burdensome phrase “he or she” instead of “he.” He opens his essay:

How can I teach my students to write decently when the English language has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Academic-Industrial Complex? Our language used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers. But in the 1970s and ’80s, arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state. In consequence we have all got used to sentences where puffed-up words like “chairperson” and “humankind” strut and preen, where he-or-she’s keep bashing into surrounding phrases like bumper cars and related deformities blossom like blisters; they are all markers of an epoch-making victory of propaganda over common sense.

As Jessica at Feministing writes, “I love that he thinks words like ‘chairperson’ are ‘puffed up’ and ‘strut.’ He might as well call the word an uppity bitch and get it over with.”

Gelernter’s argument probably isn’t worth my time. He’s making a sad logic driven by his male privilege. But on the other hand, the issue of “he or she” has come up in various contexts lately (including a listserve I’m on), so I’m gonna tackle his essay.

Going back to the first passage I quote from Gelernter: In the context of the essay, he’s actually discussing the supposed illogical inconsistencies of feminists who ask that we write “he or she” but not “priest or priestess.” His point falls flat because he’s failed to even consider the motivations behind avoiding -ess words. Why should there be a difference between a priest and a priestess? Especially when connotatively, an actress, say, is given less or different regard than an actor? The suffix “-er” or “-or” isn’t necessarily masculine, though certainly in its roots, it is. According to the OED, “-er” meant “a man who has to do with (the thing denoted by the primary n.),” but this seems largely outdated.

Gelernter desires conciseness in writing, which is fine. However, I fail to see how drastically important it is to him to write “fireman” instead of “firefighter.” One syllable isn’t the downfall of conciseness. More accurately, if he’s going to call upon this mythological past where language seemed more pure (where “he” stood for any gender, supposedly), perhaps he should just revert to using “they,” the third person plural pronoun that used to actually be used as a singular as well. But the sentence “When an Anglican priest mounts the pulpit, they are about to address the congregation” is “awkward” for its lack of subject-pronoun agreement. “[S]uch sentences skreak like fingernails on a blackboard,” he writes. Why is the older standard “he” acceptable, but the older standard “they” is not? Especially when we consider that the rule “they” is plural only is an invention of grammarians, those with institutional power who might more accurately be called “commissar-intellectuals” than the feminists Gelernter derides (minus, perhaps, the Soviet connotations).

“Our language used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers,” Gelernter claims. Only when they took ownership, I’d retort. When tagmemicists deride changes in language and veil their privilege-serving arguments in discussions of style, language has to be taken back, has to be re-owned. Gelernter wants this to be a discussion of style; it’s too bad he ignores his own politics, as well as the claims of others about dignity: if someone doesn’t feel included, then perhaps their claims have some validity. Perhaps when Gelernter writes “our language,” his mystifying use of “our” (a nationalizing term) evokes the very nation he is building: one of men.

Additionally, Gelernter’s pedagogy troubles me: “to write decently” is to write concisely, but nothing more. He says nothing about politics, about audience, about circulation. Of course, the teaching of writing here is used mostly to serve his own political agenda: Not only are these people destroying language, they’re destroying teaching!! But Gelernter’s quick gloss of teaching writing shows that he must not understand that “to write decently” is more than just to write concisely — it’s a lot more complicated than that. Among many other things, it involves comprehensiveness for one’s audience and accuracy. Gelernter’s statement that “a word with useless syllables or a sentence with useless words is a house fancied-up with fake dormers and chimneys. It is ugly and boring and cheap, and impossible to take seriously” doesn’t take the aspects of comprehensiveness or accuracy into account. The use of “He” as a symbol for anyone of any gender simply isn’t accurate or comprehensive.

So, while Gelernter is ascribing masculinist violence to feminist scholars (those rapists of language!), decrying the downfall of writing and pedagogy, and engaging in masculinist nation-building, I’ll keep using “he or she” and that dratted “they” incorrectly.

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5 Responses to who owns language: firefighter is such a cumbersome word!

  1. Reid Parham says:

    Your seventh paragraph (“Additionally, Gelernter’s pedagogy…”) really nails it. We came to similar conclusions at the Barometer’s sexism in media forum:

    While gendered language can be used to target people, gender-neutral (like you’ve said, often with male as default) language can be used to deny status. Gelernter’s love for conciseness allows people to fall into the usual traps of privilege.

    Good writing should accurately describe gender, but appropriate to its context. Not only does this provide opportunity for equality, but it offers respect to the audience through transparency. Including gender allows readers to evaluate the writing’s quality.

    Good points, Michael. Thanks.

  2. Reid Parham says:

    Aww crap, fix my html? 😛

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks, Reid. And I fixed the html in the link. 🙂

  4. k8 says:

    I was just thinking that firefighter is a much more accurate description of the job than fireman.

  5. Greg says:

    You really missed the boat on firefighter vs fireman. Usage was changed somewhere around 100 years ago because the fellows on locomotives were using the term.

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