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Our Christian Language.

I hadn't really thought about it until I saw his word corrected to His Word on a writing competency test at a publicly funded university.

I can accept a capital letter on God because the word is being used as a name and names are generally capitalized. (However, I do find it rather presumptuous to so appropriate a common noun. It's also a bit coercive: to use a common noun without an article is to imply there's only one--the claim "Raven is happy" demands the question "Which raven?" unless you think there's only one. So when the rest of us want to refer to the Christian god, since we must say God instead of using a real name like Zeus or Hera, we are unwillingly implying the same belief.)

I can also accept capital letters on Holy Bible because these words constitute the title of a book and such words are generally capitalized.

But what's the rationale for capitalizing His Word?

A professor suggested to me, when I questioned the marking committee, that his word was being used to refer to the Bible and so, as a title, should be capitalized. But we generally don't accept substitute titles for other books. For example, at the university level we would not accept The Dictionary, let alone The Big Speller, for The Concise Oxford Dictionary.

I suspect the writer meant His Word not as an equivalent to the Bible but as an equivalent to his teaching. So again, what's the rationale for capitals? With two exceptions, no other pronoun is ever capitalized.

The first exception is that pronouns are capitalized when they refer to royalty--for example, His Majesty. I suspect such use is meant to show respect. But I, for one, don't respect someone who's in a position of power and wealth merely by accident of birth. And for our language rules to impose such a display of respect is completely unjustified. Others suggest that such use is actually a title used either in place of or with the person's name and thus is capitalized for this reason.

The other exception to the pronoun rule is the word I. This one's unjustified on the grounds of inconsistency alone: no other subject pronoun is capitalized in the normal course of things, and to make I an exception is, I believe, egocentric as well as inconsistent. Others argue additionally that capitalizing I is merely a tool for the convenience of the reader --that as a one-letter word (other than an article) it should be capitalized.

Since these exceptions are, to my mind, unjustified, I don't believe any of them support capitalization. So much for his in his word.

As for word (or teaching or messages or whatever), it doesn't belong to any class of nouns usually capitalized (names of people, countries, cities, months, and the like). Case closed.

So capitalizing His Word seems to be an exception to all the rules. On what basis is this exception made?

It seems to me that capitalizing His Word is meant to designate some special status, some special respect. It's a sign of worship, pure and simple. And as I suggested with His Majesty, language has no business legislating opinions of value.

More specifically, worship has no place in our grammatical rules. It especially has no place in the grammatical rules taught in public schools. Jewish schools can teach their students to write G-d and Christian schools can teach students to write His Word, but neither should be stipulated as a common rule of grammar, and students in public schools should not be "corrected" if they don't express these religious opinions through their writing.

Nor should such rules be in any grammar book not identified as a Christian grammar book. Lamentably, five out of five grammar texts I checked listed as a rule that names of deities and other religious names and terms be capitalized. However, in three at least, capitalizing the pronoun was presented as optional.

It's one thing to impose religious belief in public education, which is not only contrary to the view that a just society is one that separates church and state but also contrary to the view that public education is committed to the pursuit of knowledge, not superstition. It's another, and far more insidious, thing to entrench religious belief in our common language.

We've exposed the sexism rooted in our language and managed to begin to make changes. It's past time to do the same for the religionism rooted in our language. Just as BC (Before Christ) has given way to BCE (Before the Common Era), let's make His Word and the like equally anachronistic.

P. Tittle has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in philosophy. She currently teaches applied ethics at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario, Canada, and welcomes your comments by e-mail at ptittle @faculty.unipissing.ca.
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Author:Tittle, P.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:812
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