He or she: a bicultural and bilingual rant

He or she: a bicultural and bilingual rant

Aug 13, 2016, 5:38:44 PM Entertainment

OK, I’ve had enough, and I need to rant, stir the pot, and start a discussion here.
First, in case you don’t know yet, you need to keep in mind that my native language is French, and also that I have studied several other languages, ancient and modern. If you only read and speak in English, this piece may totally sound irrelevant. I now live in the US, so I will only be referring here to American English. Oh, and I am a woman, in her 50s.

Among other things, I am currently reading two nonfiction books, one dealing with Jungian psychology and spirituality published in 1999 and one on literary criticism published in 2005. I mention the dates, as things may have changed slightly since then.

Let me first offer to you two brief passages from these two books I am reading:

An introvert goes to be alone by the lake, finds a seat, gets comfortable, and realizes when a dog comes by that she (the emphasis is mine) had been there for thirty minutes lost in her own thoughts.

Any reader’s list of her ten favorite novels exhausts the interpretive capacities of generations of critics, but is readily accessible, over and over, to the reader herself.

When I run into this type of use of the feminine personal pronoun or possessive adjective, it gives me pause and totally disrupts the flow of my reading. I suddenly wonder, wait, who is she?

Of course, that she/her is supposed to refer to any introvert and any reader in general. And I’m aware it is used as a deliberate choice to give a deserved place back to women in society and it is therefore meant to be inclusive of all.  But for me, it totally feels exclusive and extremely limiting.

I was trying to think about this whole issue in reference to grammar. In French, we only use two genders: male and female. So when we refer to anything neutral, let’s say like in “ that’s nice”, we would put the adjective “nice” in the masculine (yes, adjectives have genders in French and other Romance languages), as neuter does not exist in French. This has been traditionally the case, and it is not going to change soon, as then all adjectives would need to be turned into the feminine everywhere if the French were trying to follow English inclusiveness. Short of starting a new Revolution, it would also be a total source of confusion, and an extra hurdle for foreign students of the language!

Now in English, neuter does exist, but it is only used to refer to things, not persons, so when you speak about a person, you still need to choose between the masculine or the male or the female pronoun.

Why does it sound problematic to keep the traditional use of he/his? For me, far from enhancing the place of women in society, it only seems to mean: we women of nowadays are so stupid that if a text says he, I think it refers only to men as andros, male, and to men as anthropos, a human being.
It is a linguistic basis that 'man' can mean 'hu-man', 'human' (it never was a huwoman), so what’s really the big deal?
Choosing exclusively the feminine form sounds so limiting to me that I wonder how male readers react, as the feminine form has not been used originally as a general gender.

Why not opt for a more balanced way of expression, if we can’t accept the fact that he=human and not only he=male?
I do not refer to the clunky choice of using he/she in every sentence, but English is flexible enough to offer other alternatives, such as they, one, we, or even you.

To come back to the two examples quoted above, I actually think a form with you would have been a great choice for the psychology book, even more engaging to the reader, to all readers. As for the literary criticism work, why not use they and refer to readers in general?

I would like you to tell me what you think about these issues, how you honestly feel when you read the type of sentences I quoted. It would be great if both men and women were taking part in this conversation. Please also mention if you do read or speak a language other than English on a regular basis.

NB: I intentionally did not include here the titles of the books I’m referring to, as I do not want to give the impression I find these books bad per se in their content, and they are unfortunately not unique examples.

Published by Words And Peace

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