LINGUIST List 6.1070

Thu Aug 10 1995

Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1023

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. , Disc. Sex/Lang

Message 1: Disc. Sex/Lang

Date: Thu, 03 Aug 1995 12:41:02 Disc. Sex/Lang
From: <>
Subject: Disc. Sex/Lang

I have been proceeding with a "Disc He/She" theme. It has been somewhat
expanded, and I would like to have it posted under the "Disc: Sex/Lang"
subject head. Thanks, jw]

In the continuing discussion of pronouns, I'm making a summary and a shift.
The shift is spurred by the necessity to widen the orbit from pronouns to
"sex and language", perhaps an inevitable transition. Alexis Manaster
Ramer (see below) has suggested that a discussion of universal male dominace
in society/language should take place prior to one of pronouns. I willingly
go along, but reject the misandrist characterization. First the pronoun

In my "he" work, I have suggested that to understand
the generic and proverbial uses of modern English "he", one would have to
integrate into their data the facts that 1) "he" as a feminine pronoun
survived much later in historical English than is generally acknowledged, and
that 2) the late-archaic English "he", on the one hand, as feminine, had an
association with the all-genders plural, and on the other, as a masculine,
had an association with the singular and neuter. "Him" and "his" were during
Middle English, and later, also neuter ("not one or the other") pronouns, and
the ontogeny of the modern paradigm must account for these facts.

There are more than a few examples of "he" in a generic/proverbial context in
which, if there is any sex distinction at all, it must be considered
FEMININE, not masculine, as in the following (_Piers Plowman_, Walter Kane --
Passus VII, manuscript H3, lines 235-36):

He that etyn here fode throw trauail God 3eueth
They/she that eat/eats their/her food through work God gives

hem his blissing that here liflode so wynneth
them his blessing that their/her livelihood so earns.
When the 18th century grammarians put the "he" rule on paper, the feminine
morphology was NOT unknown, NOT yet forgotten. If gender feminists today put
a gendrist interpretation on the grammarians' motives and on the evolution of
the "he" rule, it is through historical oversight, to put it kindly, and not
for, as some maintain, misogynist motives, conscious or
unconscious. Finally, I have challenged the interpretation of the
"worthiness" doctrine. According to it, the grammarians of yore said "he" was
more "worthy". The word "worthy" has, I believe, been too quickly accepted in
its Old English root-meaning of "deserving", whereas I have yet to see any
contexts that contradict its OTHER meaning, based on its OTHER Old English
root, "appropriate". Are there any clarifying contexts? Please show I'm
- -----------------------------------------------------

Alexis Manaster Ramer sent me a personal response to my ideas; when I
asked, he said I could post for general reading. (BTW, what are some of the
etymologies given for "girl" , "boy", "marry"?)

Alexis says:
Thank you for responding. Since we obviously agree about the final
resolution of this issue, I guess I would say that there are simply
two aspects to the way one must respond to the people who are claiming
that the generic he was invented by male chauvinist grammarians. One
is yours (that it has a continuous history within English) [did I say
that?-jw]. The other is mine (that if we knew nothing about the history of
English, the universal picture would authorize us to suppose that this was
indeed a natural phenomenon, not an invention of the grammarians).

But I would then say that the presumed reason why this phenomenon IS
universal is presumably that all known cultures (or maybe there is
one exception, according to what I read somewhere) have been male-dominated
at all known time periods, and the fact that masculine/male is
'unmarked' must surely be a reflection of this. So, the locus of
the blame [!] shifts from the conscious work of English grammarians to
the subconscious workings of the language faculties of countless
generations of human beings all over the planet who have lived in
societies where there was no concept of sex equality.
What do you think?

- ------------------------
Jeff Responds

Thanks for the elaboration. What do I think? First, to get it straight...

You are saying that comparable structures to "generic he" are found in all
languages (with perhaps a few exceptions), and on that basis a person might
be led to conclude it is a natural phenomenon, but they would be wrong.
Rather, universal male domination is the explanation, as seen in the unmarked
pronoun "he", and we must "blame" the subconscious workings of the language
faculties of all people in history, who have had no concept
of sex equality.

I have three questions, each of which I provide some of my own
views about.

1) What are some of the parameters of and who (authors) do you look to for
your idea that all history has been male dominated? (I personally resent this
characterization.) "Dominated" hinges on what you mean -- the crimson sunset
dominated the horizon and the pimples dominated the young girl's face. On a
group level, men, qua males, have been sufficiently dutiful to "women and
children first" that they can be said to have historically regarded their own
lot as the more expendable, i.e., at least as might say the contour of a
bell-curve measuring such a thing. Men subdue the metaphorical Colin
Fergusons of the world, not women. On an individual level, Camille Paglia
nails it when she talks about the substantial power of women over men, qua
males, based on women's power to close their legs.

2) Where does your concept of linguistic markedness come from, and on what
basis do you establish a cause-effect relationship between patriarchy and
markedness in pronouns? My own idea of markedness is based on the original
exposition as seen formulated by Jakobson and Trubetzkoy about 1930 (see _On
Language_, Roman Jakobson, Ed. Linda R. Waugh, 1990. Chapter 8). A conclusion
OPPOSITE to yours (and gender feminists) seems evident from the original
formulation. Their concept of "the mark" grew out of interest in binary
aspects of language, like past/present, long/short. Trubetzkoy wrote, "only
one of the terms of a correlation is perceived as actively modified and as
positively possessing some mark, while the other term is perceived as lacking
the mark and as passively unmodified" (p136). This suggests to me that
"woman" and "she" are "species" terms which females "have" as an exclusive
and special privilege, whereas males do NOT have a "species" name exclusively
their own, but instead must suffer to share a "genus" designation. It is for
this reason I prefer sometimes to call the masculine unmarked words
"tautonyms" (i.e., in biology, one name for both species and genus). The
editor of the book goes on to comment on the concept: "Thus, the general
meaning of _lion_, in contradistinction to that of _lioness_, implies no
sexual specification -- and only the *basic meaning* of _lion_ prompted by
informative contexts suggests a sexual specification: e.g., _lions and

Isn't this saying that man qua male emerges only in contexts that contrast
him with the female? Otherwise, he is a generic (genus, genre) person and
accordingly unmarked -- i.e., "just" a person. The Jakobson book continues,
"The constraining, focusing character of the marked term of any grammatical
opposition is directed toward a more narrowly specified and delimited
conceptual item".

If men wanted to throw a testy beef about it, they could say, "how
come the gals have exclusive words, but the guys have to share theirs with
everybody else?"

3) Finally, you propose that in all past history they've had "no concept of
sex equality". There is an inherent chronocentrism (my term) in your
indictment, but, notwithstanding, I'm somewhat sure you're talking about
"rights" . "Rights", equal or otherwise, is a modern concept that is often
muddled and sometimes useless if one considers, as I do, that the more
important ends of life are happiness, inner peace, and freedom from fear --
what good are abstract rights if one is miserable all the time?. The extremely
important distinction is too often lost sight of between concepts of inherent
rights and entitlement rights. If we discuss "women's equality" and "men's
equality" without talking about documents like the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, the United States Constitution, the Code of Hammurabi, etc., or
sources of rights, like God or the barrel of a gun, we are not going to get
anywhere. If we take into account considerations of class, age, history,
geography, etc., I would argue that on a DE FACTO level, women have had, and
continue to have, COLLECTIVELY, an advantage over men. I know that saying so
will upset a few of us, even give some of us a little gas and heartburn, my
being the direct precipitation of which I apologize for in advance.

Best Regards,
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue