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The language of exclusion and the people of God: a socio-theological look at the question of inclusive language.

Language is more than a means of communication--a neutral medium necessary for the exchange of ideas. It is an integral part of our humanity. Language not only mirrors the ideals, values, and structures of a particular society, it also plays a decisive role in shaping and preserving these ideals, values, and structures. Language, by its very nature, is a more complex phenomena than we are often wont to assume.

Several years ago while learning the German language via immersion in Southern Germany, I expressed my exasperation at the labyrinth of grammar to a Russian student with whom I was studying. He simply shrugged his shoulders and told me that in Russian, there were seven cases for each noun and men and women used entirely different grammatical constructions. "What nonsense!" I blurted out, "Why should any language have to be so complicated?" I shall never forget his response. He patiently looked at me and said: "Language is complicated because people are complicated." He was right. Attempts to uncomplicate language are attacks on the very people who speak that language.

Three popular language myths

The appeal, however, of an uncomplicated language, is strong. So also is the temptation to underestimate the complexity and implications of the language so many of us take for granted. This has contributed, in my opinion, to the rise of three fundamental language myths.

The first language myth is that language is value-neutral. This minimalist approach to language suggests that language is nothing more, or at the very most, little more than a tool. It is a means by which ideas can be exchanged but it does not itself contribute to the form or content of the ideas for which it is employed to express. Words are words are words, and it matters not--at least not greatly, in which language or in which form or stage of development of a language an idea is expressed. Grammar and rules of syntax do not prejudice ideas.

It is a beautiful myth and one that holds great appeal. Unfortunately it is a myth which is contrary to the reality of human experience. Anyone who speaks a second language well will confess that there are things in that language that can be translated into our own only with great awkwardness and no small sacrifice of meaning. The great American writer Mark Twain was once so amused at the attempt to translate one of his very rustic and uniquely American short stories "The Jumping Frog" into French, that he translated with great effect the story back into English from the French and published what had now become a comedy under the title: "The Jumping Frog in English. Then in French. Then Clawed Back a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil."

Differences in language can lead, however, to far more serious matters than the humorous accounts of those who find themselves unable to say what it is that they wish to communicate. We need only recall, for instance, that one of the most fundamental and enduring splits within the Christian Church is that between Eastern and Western Christianity. This was certainly contributed to by the difficulty of the early church in confessing their faith in precisely the same manner in Latin, the vocabulary of which was formed in the courtroom and the political sphere, and Greek, the language of the philosophers and epic storytellers.

The second language myth is that language is, or at least ideally should be, static. This myth has undergone great assult in our own generation but it is stubbornly held to by many. Put quite simply, it is the belief that language does not change, or at least should not change. The rules of grammar I learned in school as sacrosanct should be held to just as firmly by my children and by their children. Words that have a particular meaning-content should retain that meaning-content, and new versions of the Bible are viewed with suspicion as unnecessary innovations.

Reality, however is that language is always changing because people are always changing. Language, like human culture itself, is fluid. A language that never changes is a language that has lost its people. We call such a language a dead language. The living, however, need a living language that reflects the changing experiences, aspirations, and values of its speakers.

In those few cases in history when a dead language has been resurrected it immediately begins to continue to change and evolve. We have seen this in our own century with the resurrection of Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, with the new life that Latin found in the ecclesiastical realm of the medieval world. The very significant differences between modern Hebrew and ecclesiastical Latin and their classical predecessors are not signs of corruption but of life!

The implications for inclusive language usage is obvious. We cannot reject the use of language that includes both males and females on the basis that when we were in school we were taught than man refers to both men and women, hence there is no problem. Many of us were also taught that gay means happy and Thy and Thou were the correct biblical ways to speak to God in prayer. Language, however, changes--usually without consulting us at all. We are then faced with a choice. Is my chief concern to pretend that no change at all has occurred and hope that others will follow suit, or is it to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible in the language forms currently in use? It is worth remembering here that the New Testament writers chose to write using the vocabulary, spelling, and grammatical forms in common use among the common people of their day, that is, the so-called Koine or common Greek--despised as this was by the purists and self-appointed guardians of the language--rather than write in the much more respectable classical forms of the language with which they were also familiar.

The third language myth is that language is a level playing field. This myth expresses the assumption that all users of a given language engage one another on equal footing and that no one is disadvantaged in dialogue with another speaker of the same language on the basis of any features or qualities of that language. Again, it is a beautiful myth, well-befitting the values of contemporary Western democratic ideals.

The reality, however, is that all languages, by their very nature, express to some degree one's socioeconomic standing, education, level of power, relationship to other speakers (whether close or distant through level of formality), country or region of origin, etc. Hence language equals power--and loss of power. It can and is used to intimidate or to express superiority. When, for example, women are forced to use language forms in which they must refer to themselves as a sub-category of the male of the species, they are disadvantaged each time they engage in dialogue. There is no equal footing in language. The pretence that there is, is often little more than a veiled attempt to resist changes that seek to redress inherent inequalities in language by those who benefit from these.

The problem of exclusive language

This brings us specifically to the problem of exclusive language--a problem to which each of the afore-mentioned language myths have significantly contributed and continue to contribute.


(1) the value-neutral language myth as a denial of the problem:

(2) the static language myth as a rejection of the possibility of language reformation in this area; and

(3) the level playing field myth as not only a denial of the problem but also as an active and wilful suppression of one part of humanity by another.

At this point I wish to make clear that I intend to focus not on inclusive language, which is often the main subject of discussion, but rather on exclusive language, which is where the real problem lies. The real problem in much of our current church life is not that some are seeking to impose some new and so-called politically correct form of inclusive language on everyone else, but rather that many are continuing to insist upon, for a variety of reasons, the use of language in worship, in sermons, in songs, in scripture readings and in conversation that excludes women. With regard to exclusive language I wish to make the following observations.

Firstly, exclusive language is not a new problem, it is not limited to English, and it is not the product of the feminist movement. Was there ever a time, for instance, when the grammatically correct sentence, "Someone has left his makeup in the bathroom" ever really made sense. Or at what point should the woman of the late nineteenth century have known that the speaker was not referring to her too when he proclaimed: "The twentieth century will bring about the most significant changes for man. Twentieth century man will have every modern convenience at his disposal, he will avail himself of the best educational opportunities, he will not have to worry about economic hardship, he will enjoy short working hours, and will have ample time to rest at home with his wife and children." From a purely grammatical and linguistic point-of-view, therefore, exclusive language has long been a problem.

Secondly, I believe it important to distinguish between inclusive language referring to persons, and questions concerning God-language. Although the issues are related, they are also very different issues. The fact that a person firmly believes that God should always or normally be referred to using male pronouns should never be used as justification for continuing to use exclusive language when referring to women and men. The question of the language we use for God may well be debated for some time to come in the Christian community, with a variety of possible outcomes. The question of whether or not to use language that an increasing number of women (and men!) find exclusive and offensive when speaking to and about other women and men is an issue of effective and appropriate communication of the gospel.

Thirdly, it is important to be aware of the various types of attempts at a defense of exclusive language if we are to understand the concerns and motivations that underlie its persistence in some circles. The following is a non-exhaustive survey of such defenses.

A. Popular and popularist defenses. These include the following arguments I have heard from other pastors alone in recent months. Inclusive language should not be used because it is a fad, an American issue, it is not an issue in our congregation, it might offend people (!), and, it leads to the ordination of women.

B. Vernard Eller, in his book, The language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism, attempts to add philosophical credibility to the use of exclusive language by employing Ludwig Wittgenstein's language games and so-called level one-words. Eller suggests that "man" is a level one-word that expresses truths that no other word can express and which represents, within its particular language game, all types and categories under the concept "man"--hence it not only can mean women as well but must be used to speak of women. There can be only one level one-word for each category and in this category it must be man, not human, though Eller never explains why. We might label this particularly creative defense of exclusive language, and those akin to it, the "make people so confused that they cannot continue the conversation with you" defense.

C. There also exists a so-called biblical defense. Proponents of this defense suggest that biblical revelation is not only the norm for faith and life but also gives us normative grammatical forms. At first glance this seems to be a very weighty argument and deserves closer attention. Putting aside, for the moment, the objection that scripture nowhere tells us that it is useful for reproof in grammatical forms; as well as the objection that any possible normative grammatical form could never realistically be transferred from one language to another; we might point out that those who employ such arguments, while sounding very pious and theologically correct, have a very limited and naive view of biblical Hebrew and Greek. In Hebrew all nouns are either masculine or feminine. There are both independent pronouns and pronominal suffixes, which vary in form according to whether the noun to which they are attached is grammatically feminine or masculine. While masculine nouns normally have masculine plural endings and feminine nouns normally have feminine plurals endings, "fathers" has a feminine ending and "women" has a masculine ending. Clothing, however, whether worn by a male or a female, is always feminine, as is the Spirit of God. Precisely in what way biblical Hebrew is to be normative for English in our use of pronouns and gender distinction is unclear. With regard to biblical Greek the waters are even muddier. Here we have three genders; masculine, feminine, and neuter, and to one of these categories every noun must belong. Again, words associated with males are usually masculine and those associated with females feminine, though this is not always the case. The Holy Spirit progresses from a feminine word in Hebrew to a neuter word in Greek. One wonders on what basis, if the biblical languages are grammatically normative, we tend to refer to the Holy Spirit in English as masculine?! Granted, anthropos, the Greek word for "man" is also used to refer to human beings in general, but if this particular language of one language is made normative for another--as it suits the needs of those presenting the argument--on what basis do we not make the entire grammar of the language normative? Or at the very least insist that God's Spirit must on the basis of a consistent application of this same logic be referred to either as she or it?

D. There is also an etymological defense making the rounds of late. In brief, the argument goes like this: There is no need to call someone a chairperson since the word chairman includes both sexes. This is proven from the etymology of the man in chairman, which, it is claimed, comes from the Latin manus, meaning hand--hence chairman means the hand that rules. Of course those who employ this argument are concerned with more than a single word but hope to discredit all inclusive language by means of this single example. There are a number of problems with the argument. Firstly, even if correct, it can only legitimately be applied to this one word, or at best a very few words. Secondly, will anyone be so bold as to contend that the man in such words as fireman and policeman means hand? And thirdly, even if the argument held weight etymologically, in terms of the theory and function of language it is far more important what people take a word to mean that what its origins may have been. Of course the really irritating aspect of this argument is that no English dictionary or etymological text of English words that I can find suggest that the man in chairman came from anything other than, or meant anything other than the English word man. The exact etymology of the word "man" is uncertain. Some etymologists believe it come from an old Celtic root, others believe it has a proto-Indo-European origin. Those who believe that its origin is Latin suggest that it comes not from manus, but from mens, a feminine noun which means "mind". If one wishes to take this argument earnestly, however, and resist inclusive language in the case of this single word "chairman" then we would only wish to point out (1) that thought it appears to be masculine manus is actually a feminine in Latin, and (2) the plural of manus is mani, therefore, to be quite correct, the plural of chairman cannot be chairmen but must certainly be chairmani!

Theological implications of the use of exclusive language

Finally, we must ask what the theological implications of the use of exclusive language within the Christian community are.

Exclusive language, we will contend, is built upon, and fosters a false doctrine of humanity. According to the rhetoric of classical feminism, exclusive language disempowers, suppresses, and excludes women. This, however, is only half the truth. It is certainly the truth as experienced by women. When, however, it is accepted as the complete truth about exclusive language, it portrays the use of inclusive language as a women's issue. But it is also a men's issue. The destructive and dehumanising effects of exclusive language are not limited to women alone. Nor should women alone be expected to bear the burden of challenging the appropriateness of exclusive language.

Language that recognizes only male persons or that reduces the female to the status of a sub-category of the male also dehumanises men. It robs us men of our full humanity, forcing us to speak of our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives or partners as if they were not really or fully there. It is a denial of God's creation of the human being as male and female. It subtly but consistently rips the heart out of our humanity.

Exclusive language also undermines the Gospel. In Christ we confess that there is no male or female. The good news is equally good news for men and women. Half a gospel proclaimed to half of humanity, however, is no gospel at all. Where is the good news when a young women or a young man is faced every Sunday with the confession that Jesus Christ came down from heaven "for us men and for our salvation," is asked to sing before the reception of the Lord's supper "Lord you take away man's sin," hears the Christian person repeatedly refereed to as "he" and "him" in the scripture readings, and is confronted with a pastor who insists on proclaiming from the pulpit that "Jesus died for the sins of every man" rather than "every person"?

Implications for the ministry of women among the people of God

The legacy of the oppression of women is writ all too large across the pages of our liturgies, our hymns and our lectionaries. It resounds unabated in congregations throughout our land Sunday after Sunday as if the language myths of a previous generation remained alive and unchallenged. In such an environment how can the ministry of women be experienced or appreciated? If we are serious about challenging our church to recognize the ministries of women in our congregations and institutions, then challenging the language of exclusion still commonplace in our church must be made a high priority. If, as men and women for whom Christ died we are truly passionate about hearing and speaking the gospel in its fullness, then the language of exclusion cannot go unchallenged and unchecked.
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Author:Worthing, Mark Wm
Publication:Women Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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