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Gender-neutral language really burns some people’s beans. One common argument against gender-neutral language is that it’s something new. See, everyone was fine with generic he up until [insert some turning point usually in the 1960s or 1970s], which means concerns about gender neutrality in language are just manufactured complaints by “arrogant ideologues” or people over-concerned with “sensitivity”, and therefore ought to be ignored.

I have two thoughts on this argument. The first: so what? Society progresses, and over time we tend to realize that certain things we used to think were just fine weren’t. The fact that we didn’t see anything wrong with it before doesn’t mean we were right then and wrong now. Furthermore, women have gained power and prominence in many traditionally male-dominated areas, so even if gender-neutral language had been unnecessary in the past (e.g., when all Congressmen were men), that wouldn’t mean it’s a bad idea now.

But my second thought is this: the very premise is wrong. Concerns about gender-neutral language date back far beyond our lifetimes. Here are a few examples:

Freshmen. In the mid-19th century, the first American women’s colleges appeared. One of the earliest of these, Elmira College, had to figure out what to call the first year students, i.e. freshmen. For its first ten years, Elmira referred to this class as the protomathians, before deciding to return to the established usage. Rutgers, similarly, proposed novian to replace “freshman” when they began accepting female students.

Mankind. You can go pretty far back in English and see examples of mankind being viewed as non-gender-neutral. This led some authors who wanted to avoid any confusion about whether they were including women to use the phrase “mankind and womankind”; here’s Anthony Trollope doing so in 1874, and other people’s attestations from 1858, 1843, 1783, and 1740. This suggests that mankind was viewed as sufficiently likely to be non-generic as to cause at least hesitation if not confusion. In some sense, this is sort of an early generic he or she. Speaking of which…

He or she. He or she really gets people’s goats, and to some extent I can see why; it’s not short and simple like pronouns standardly are, and it can throw off the rhythm of the sentence. (This is why I prefer singular they.) Given that it’s ungainly, you might suspect, as most people do, that this is a new usage that only appeared once it was too politically incorrect to ignore women. But while it only started getting popular in the 70s, it’s been used much longer than that. Here it appears 19 times in two paragraphs in an 1864 book of Mormon Doctrine. Turning from religion to law, here it is in an 1844 Maryland law, and here it is in various British laws from 1815. Here’re examples from Acts passed by the First American Congress in 1790, and so on and so on.

Person as a morpheme. Another common complaint is about supposedly ugly new words like salesperson or chairperson or firefighter.* But such gender-neutralized forms were already being created as needed before the 1970s. Here’s salesperson used 100 times in a book from 1916.** Here’s another example, in the title of an article discussing paying commission to salespeople back in 1919. The OED offers even older examples, with tradesperson in 1886 and work-person in 1807.

Singular they. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but singular they — using they in place of generic he for singular referents of unknown gender — has been around a long, long time. Henry Churchyard’s site lists off examples spanning from 1400 to the present day, with a special focus on Jane Austen’s 75 singular uses of their.

In conclusion, I’m definitely not saying that gender-neutral language was as prominent in the past as it is today. I’m just saying that when someone says that everyone was fine with non-neutral English up until the 1970s, they’re wrong. Clearly people were concerned about this before then, and adjusted the language to be gender-neutral when it seemed appropriate. This is not something totally new; it is not unprecedented; it is not a dastardly attempt to undermine the English language. It is just an expansion of an existing concern about English usage.

*: I just want to jump in and note that I find firefighter more precise and cooler-sounding than fireman; then again, I may have some unresolved issues with the latter term stemming from the difficulties I had in beating Fire Man when playing Mega Man.

**: The first part of this book is even titled “The Salesperson and Efficient Salesmanship”, showing gradient gender-neutrality decision-making, where gender-neutral forms are used when the gender is prominent or easily removed, and non-neutral forms when the gender is subtler or difficult to remove.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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