The Magazine

Feminism and the English Language

Can the damage to our mother tongue be undone?

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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"The driver turns on his headlights" is not about a male or female person; it is about a driving person. But "the driver turns on her headlights" is a sentence about a female driver. Just as any competent reader listens to what he is reading, he pictures it too (if it can be pictured); hearing and imagining the written word are ingrained habits. A reader who had thought the topic was drivers is now faced by a specifically female driver, and naturally wonders why. What is the writer getting at? To distract your reader for political purposes, to trip him up merely to demonstrate your praiseworthy right-thinkingness, is a low trick.

White's comment: "If you think she is a handy substitute for he, try it and see what happens."

Sometimes a writer can avoid plastering his prose with feminist bumper-stickers and still not provoke the running dogs of the Establishment by diving into the plural whenever danger threatens. ("Drivers turn on their headlights.") White's comment:

Alternatively, put all controversial nouns in the plural and avoid the choice of sex altogether, and you may find your prose sounding general and diffuse as a result.

But the real problem goes deeper. Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone's ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one's whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway. Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose? Bargaining over the next word, shaping each phrase, netting and vetting the countless images that drift through the mind like butterflies in a summer garden, mounting some and releasing others--and keeping the trajectory and target always in mind?

Throw the bum out.

It's a disgrace that we graduate class after class of young Americans who will never be able to write down their thoughts effectively--in a business report, a letter of application or recommendation, a postcard or email, or any other form. Our one consolation is that the country is filling up gradually with people who have been reared on ugly, childish writing and will never expect anything else. But the implications of our spineless surrender go deeper. We have accepted, implicitly, a hit-and-run vandalizing of English--the richest, most expressive language in the world. Languages such as French are shaped and guided by official boards of big shots. But English used to be a language of the people, by the people, for the people. "The living language is like a cowpath," wrote White; "it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or their needs." We have allowed our academic overlords to plow up White's cow-path and replace it with a steel-and-concrete highway, hemmed in by guardrails and heavily patrolled by police.

Of course all languages change. A feminist might say that he-or-she is merely the latest twist in our ever-changing cowpath; that he-or-she was the will of the people. But this too is a lie, and in fairness to my opponents I have never heard them deploy it. They know that Americans of the late 1960s were not struck en masse by sudden unhappiness over the neutral he or the word "chairman." Such complaints never did rank high on the average American's list of worries. (Way back in the 1970s, "chairperson" was in fact a one-word joke: an object lesson in the ludicrous places you would reach if you took Feminist English seriously.) In fact the New English was deliberately created and pounded into children's heads by an intellectual elite asserting its control over American culture. The same conclusion follows independently from a language's well-established tendency to simplify and compress its existing structure (like a settling sea-bed) to make room for constantly arriving new coinages. Words like "authoress" would almost certainly have disappeared with no help from feminists. But "he" transforming itself into "he or she" is like a ball rolling uphill. It doesn't happen unless someone has volunteered to push.

The depressing trail continues one last mile. What happens to a nation's thinking when you ban such phrases as "great men"? The alternatives are so bad--"great person" sounds silly; "great human being" is a casual tribute to a friend--that it's hard to know where to turn. "Hero" doesn't work; "Wittgenstein was a great man" is a self-sufficient assertion, but "Wittgenstein was a hero" is not. Was he a war hero, a philosophical hero? (Yes and yes.) "Wittgenstein was a great heart" (also true) can't be rephrased in hero-speak, and can't substitute for "great man" either.

We happen to know also that the idea of "great men" has been bounced right out of education at every level. Nowadays students are taught to admire celebrities and money instead. We might well have misplaced the "great man" idea anyway, but losing the phrase didn't help. Civilization copes poorly with ideas that have no names.

And what should we say instead of "brotherhood"? "Crown thy good with siblinghood"? "Tolerance" is no substitute for "brotherhood"; it's passive and bland where "brotherhood" is active and inspiring. "Brotherhood" has accordingly been quietly stricken from the list of good things to which Americans should aspire.

We allowed ideologues to wreck the English language. Do we have the courage to rebuild?

David Gelernter, a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a professor of computer science at Yale.