The Word for Writers
THE CHALLENGE OF NON SEXIST LANGUAGE
by Maurice A. Williams
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I recently wrote a commentary on Revelation. Realizing that masculine pronouns applied to God will offend some people--and I do not want to offend anyone--I tried my hand at writing in non-sexist language. I found expressing myself that way very difficult. It can be done, but I wonder if itís really necessary. As I worked through my book, I realized that the whole issue of non-sexist language really stems from inadequacies in English and not from human thinking.
We all know God is a spirit. God does not have a physical body. Having no physical body means that God is neither male nor female. Only living, physical beings are male and female. The English pronouns used today for all nonliving physical things are neuter. In the past, some inanimate things were referred to using feminine pronouns, such as ships, etc., but only in a very limited way. However, other languages, like German and Spanish, regularly refer to many nonliving things as male or female. Confusing, isn't it?
Most languages we are familiar with have only three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. English, as I mentioned, uses masculine and feminine primarily for living, physical beings that reproduce sexually. Most nonliving physical beings are neuter. No matter what language we speak, we all know that God, angels, and devils are all living beings, yet none of them reproduce sexually. Therefore, we all recognize that masculine and feminine pronouns are not correct for them. Neuter pronouns are even less correct. English needs a fourth gender that provides pronouns other than masculine, feminine, and neuter. We English-speaking people cannot imagine such pronouns--try inventing some--but that is what we need: pronouns for spiritual beings.
Try speaking about God or spirits without using pronouns. It's almost impossible, so ingrained is the habit to use pronouns rather than repeat nouns over and over again. When speaking, I can come close, but I can't eliminate pronouns referring to God. I can avoid pronouns when I write, but it required practice. Rather than use the same noun over and over again, I choose synonyms to avoid overworking any single noun.
Referring to God with masculine pronouns is a problem with our language, not our thinking. Since there are no adequate pronouns, we use masculine pronouns only because longstanding tradition always used masculine pronouns. We can read into masculine pronouns whatever we like. Most of these insights are not relevant. If English had a fourth gender for spiritual beings, everybody would use that gender. Then, all concern about maleness applied to God would disappear. I learned later that India has more than twenty-five hundred dialects and most have non-masculine, non-feminine and, non-neuter pronouns that are specific for spiritual beings. These languages have more than three genders. People who speak those languages tell of humorous word plays when trying to translate from these languages into English. At the opposite extreme, a Persian language has no distinction of gender in pronouns. The same pronouns suffice for masculine, feminine, and neuter genders.
I did succeed in writing an entire book using non-sexist language. How challenging: writing a book interpreting God's Revelation and never using a single pronoun referring to God. I believe I am the only author who wrote a commentary devoid of sexist language. Now I'm working on the impossible: using non-sexist spoken conversation. Wish me luck! And I will pray that God may keep all of you in the palm of ..... Whoops! There I go again.
Maurice A. Williams
Author of "Revelation and The Fall of Judea"
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Quite an interesting article. Some people, like myself, get around the problem by writing 'he/she', so as not to offend. But it certainly is a problem not to have a pronoun that we can use for God. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
The Finnish language has the same word used for he and she. It may explain why it was on of the first countries to give women the right to vote. It's interesting to note that there are other non-gendered languages.