LINGUIST List 4.595

Mon 02 Aug 1993

Disc: Last Posting: Gender Markedness

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. mark, re: 4.562 Gender Markedness
  2. , gender markedness
  3. Steven Schaufele, Hann redux & epicene pronouns

Message 1: re: 4.562 Gender Markedness

Date: Wed, 28 Jul 93 13:13:24 ESre: 4.562 Gender Markedness
From: mark <>
Subject: re: 4.562 Gender Markedness

Herb Stahlke asks if there are contexts besides soccer (in which
the warning cry "Man on!" is used in female as well as male games)
in which other considerations outweigh the demands of gender
sensitivity. I recall reading that the Navy has explicitly NOT
modified the emergency alert "Man overboard!" Urgency seems to be
an overriding factor, and little wonder!

 Mark A. Mandel
 Dragon Systems, Inc. : speech recognition : +1 617 965-5200
 320 Nevada St. : Newton, Mass. 02160, USA :
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Message 2: gender markedness

Date: Thu, 29 Jul 93 06:38:54 EDgender markedness
From: <>
Subject: gender markedness

Leland Mccleary asks for a new noun marked for male gender ("xoman"),
so as to leave "man" unmarked. The historical form fitting this bill
is of course "wepman" (OED wapman, OE waepmann), the male equivalent
of the female "wifman." Lawman's Brut, e.g., offers "Leode nere thar
nane, ne wapmen ne wifmen" ('No people were there, neither men nor
women'); and the Owl & the Nightingale mentions "luve..bitweone
wepmon & wimmane." "Wepmon" is a contraction of "Waepned-mann" =
'male man'; literally 'armed ('weaponed') man.'

Also, regarding "they/them" in place of "he/she/her/him," has it occurred
to no one that actively encouraging this usage on the grounds of
sensitivity might impede or delay its widespread use? That is,
that it might serve to mark the usage as distinctive of feminists?
(Pronouns have in the past seemed susceptible to such ideological marking,
and even the adoption of "you" was not without its struggles, as Quakers
can attest.) Or is this wholly implausible?

Paul Schaffner usergfnkumichum (BITNET)
Middle English Dictionary
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Message 3: Hann redux & epicene pronouns

Date: Wed, 28 Jul 1993 20:40:21 Hann redux & epicene pronouns
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: Hann redux & epicene pronouns

There have been a few more postings, some to me personally but some to the
List, since i posted (LINGUIST 4-538) an explanation of the epicene pronoun
'hann' that i have been using. Some of these have included questions and
challenges, some of which i will try to address here.

One question boils down to 'what's wrong with/why can't you use *they* as
an epicene pronoun?' There are two answers to that. One is theological
and may not be of much general interest (though i will give it briefly
here), the other more, i think, specifically linguistic. Both turn on the
fact that, for me at least, 'they' is still basically a plural form, and
serviceable as a generic pronoun only in the sense that crowds are
inherently generic.

(1) As a progressive Christian, i am no longer willing to refer to God
consistently or typically as 'He', although i have no qualms about
referring to the historical human Jesus by that pronoun. But as an
orthodox Christian, i am not willing to refer to Hann as 'They'. And as a
style-conscious English-speaker, i insist on having some pronoun i can use
in such contexts.

(2) As Michael Newman points out (at the beginning of his 1993 Columbia
dissertation A Theoretical and Descriptive Study of Epicene Pronouns: the
Linguistics of a Prescriptive Problem), there are actually a variety of
environments in which an epicene pronoun might be desirable, and
English-speakers may vary as to what they will accept in each of these
different environments; 'they' may not be equally acceptable in all of
them. I give his examples (with the appropriate form of 'they' inserted
into the pronominal slot, and brackets and indices to indicate
co-referencing), organized according to my own judgments.

(a) Somebody(i) might at that time contradict their(i) own position.

(b) [Every student](i) continued in the program, and the results showed
that they(i) profited from the experience.

In these cases, had i not the option of using 'hann(s)' i would have no
qualms about using 'they', and would not be startled by others' using it.

(c) ?[The typical American high school student](i) believes that
their(i) life will be more difficult than their(i) parents' was.

(d) ?When [a person](i) looks at themselves(i) in the mirror, what
might they(i) see?

For me, these are a little awkward. They would be much improved if some
relevant NP or verb were pluralized:

(c') [The typical American high school student](i) believes that
their(i) _lives_ will be more difficult than their(i) parents' _were_.

(d') When [people](i) _look_ at themselves(i) in the mirror, what might
they(i) see?

Note that, in each of the examples so far, although the pronoun's
antecendent may be grammatically singular it refers either to a set of
undefined but possibly large cardinality or to an individual as merely a
representative member of such a set. Thus the use of an etymologically
plural pronoun can be justified (for me) on the basis of reference to such
a set.

In the following examples, however, it is clearly unique, individual human
beings that are being referred to as such, and if i didn't have access to a
pronoun clearly marked (in my own grammar) as [-plural, +epicene] i would
be forced to avoid any personal pronoun at all by circumlocution (e.g.
'this person').

(e) You never told me you had [a pen pal in Spain](i). *Do you have a
picture of them(i)?

(f) Paul has [a new assistant](i)
 --You're kidding! *Have you met them(i)?

(In fact, if i were to hear such usages, i would, i think, interpret them
thus: 'The speaker is trying hard not to betray hanns assumptions about the
sex of the pen-pal/assistant. Bet she's female.')

In short, the reason i can't use 'they' as an epicene pronoun is that it is
acceptable to me in only some but not all of the environments in which i
find such a pronoun desirable. I would note that those environments that
are most commonly raised, sarcastically by my challengers as well as
seriously by prescriptive grammarians, as examples of the 'inadmissability'
of 'they' as singular epicene, e.g. (a-b) above, are precisely the ones in
which it is most acceptable to me.

Further comments have come from people more deeply familiar with the
Scandinavian (= North Germanic) languages than i, a native English-speaker.
 Some of them are disturbed by the adoption as an epicene form of what
looks, from their background, like a blatant masculine pronoun.

It has never been, nor is it now, any intention of mine to offend my
Scandinavian colleagues. And if i were speaking or writing Icelandic i
would certainly not want to use 'hann' where an epicene form would be
appropriate. But i am here using English, and it is not unheard of for a
word to be borrowed from one language to another and to undergo a semantic
shift along the way. Witness 'beef', 'pork', 'veal', and 'mutton', which
in Norman French all referred to animals, or 'hamburger' or 'wiener', which
in German are adjectives derived from the names of cities, but which all in
English refer only to types of food.

As i said before, my goal in adopting 'hann' was to fill a personal need.
The fact that English had already adopted a pronominal paradigm from Old
Norse (i.e., 'they' itself) encouraged me to consider such a source. I was
quite aware that in Old Norse and Modern Icelandic 'hann' is specifically
masculine. But my attraction to it was compounded by its (near-)homonymy
with the Finnish 'han', which is truly epicene in the sense of being
clearly without gender referent (Finnish having no grammatical gender at
all). If my Scandinavian colleagues would prefer, i would be willing to at
least consider striking from it the extra 'n'. I have not done so in the
past mainly in order to avoid confusion with the (extremely masculine)
'Star Wars' character Han Solo (whose name is pronounced the same way).

Dr. Steven Schaufele c/o Department of Linguistics
712 West Washington Ave. University of Illinois
Urbana, IL 61801 4088 Foreign Languages Building
 707 South Mathews Street
217-344-8240 Urbana, IL 61801

*** O syntagmata linguarum liberemini humanarum! ***
 **** Nihil vestris privari nisi obicibus potestis! ****
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