LINGUIST List 6.1077

Fri Aug 11 1995

Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1070

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 6.1070, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1023

Message 1: Re: 6.1070, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1023

Date: Thu, 10 Aug 1995 17:42:39 Re: 6.1070, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1023
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1070, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1023

In the ongoing discussion of the "epicene he", I think that perhaps
we are making some headway on certain issues, but all kinds of new
loose ends keep unraveling.

What seems clearly established is that the 18th century grammarians
of English did not invent this usage, since (a) it had existed
in English for centuries, and (b) it seems to be a linguistic
universal or something close to it, not a peculiarity of

However, I do not see why anyone should call me "misandrist"
(or "mysandrist"). If it is because my name could easily be
taken to be a woman's name (although I happen to be a man),
that would really be too bad. If it is because of my acceptance
of the common view that almost all or perhaps all societies are
in some important sense male-dominated, then that too would be
inaccurate. I also believe that for several centuries of US
and Brazilian and so on history white people held black slaves
and not vice versa, but that does not mean I hate white people.

The whole issue of the sense in which it is true that men have
dominated human societies is certainly in some respects a subtle
one, and one could certainly argue that this
dominance has done us little if any good, but I do not see
how one can deny that it is a fact. HOWEVER, for the purposes
at hand, this is not germane.

What is relevant is (a) the linguistic fact that languages
that make any kind of gender or sex distinction in pronouns
or verb forms or anything else, as a rule use the male or
masculine forms as unmarked forms for persons of either or
unknown gender in some constructions (which may differ from
language to language in detail), and (b) the anthropological
fact that all or nearly all human societies make social
distinctions based on sex which go beyond reproduction,
breast-feeding, and the like, and (c) the further anthropological
fact that the male roles/activities are routinely PERCEIVED
as somehow superior, dominant, better, normative, whatever
(regardless of whether they really ARE, which is a completely
different issue).

SO what it all boils down to, again, is that I maintain that
it makes no sense whatever to discuss the origin of the
epicene he phenomenon in the context of the story of
English prescriptive grammar, but only in the context of
the way in which perceptions of sex roles have informed
the structure of language (as of any other institution).

Alexis Manaster Ramer
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