Re: gender bias in language

M.D.Fischer (M.D.Fischer@UKC.AC.UK)
Mon, 10 Apr 1995 17:43:16 +0100

on Denise O'Brien and "tyranny of the informant"

You cannot have it all ways at once. The issues relating to 'man' and 'mankind' might

a) "gender inclusive" language as a political issue to attain political gains;
b) a response to a trend in the English language, or conservation of same;
c) a newly forming indigenous viewpoint vs old indigenous viewpoints; or
d) a debate on technical usage within anthropology.

a) appears to be the main intention of most of the comment on this list, though there are
often arguments which draw on b,c and d.

On b), in the 8th-14th century 'man' was explicitly a term to denote the collectivity of
persons, homo sapiens human beings etc. Since that time this use has greatly diminished
to the form used today, where 'man' used without syntactic article or with a limited
range of inclusive quantifiers (many, all, most) is the only form to denote 'person';
other forms of 'man; include females only by implication in some contexts. This suggests
than 'man' has been losing the 'person' meaning for a great deal longer than the appearance
of the feminist movement in the USA, and that the observation of this change in usage in
the 1960s and 1970s was not due to any special feminist perspective. It is true that 'man'
in its origins is derived from the Latin homo, but times have changed. Human is also
undergoing change in becoming a regular noun, this quite likely originated with science
fiction writers of the 1940s and has been further stimulated by the feminist movement,
since it has until recently been an adjective or quality outside of these contexts.

on c), this is a slippery slope. If one simply writes the 'validity' of usage off to
informants, at least us 'old style' anthropologists must respect all viewpoints in the
course of fieldwork. In this case it includes the 'barefoot and pregnant' brigade as well
as the human rights and feminist groups. I must admit I am seriously out of touch with the
current uses of 'offensiveness' amongst indigenous USA groups as political rhetoric, since
this has escalated greatly since I last lived there. I gather the basic idea is to define
a new meaning for some act or word, and then become offended if everyone doesn't agree
with this new usage. Then come the counter-offensives, who are offended if people do.

on d) this carries on from c). The extent to which this issue concerns anthropology is in
terms of the meta-lives of anthropologists, subject matter for anthropological study, and
technical vocabulary. In none of these contexts is it appropriate, under the "old
fashioned" schema, to be offended simply because someone does not agree with you, or at
least not to attempt to use this state of offence as a means of argument. It also
disingenuous to claim not to understand another point of view, when it is full well
understood, though not accepted. 'Man' is now, at best, a figurative term, which used
without syntactic article, or with a range of inclusive quantifiers, does indeed mean all
human persons to most human persons who speak English to some degree.
However, some people can choose to ignore this meaning, and with good cause. They cannot
be particularly mystified when others do not choose to do so. However, within a discipline
such as anthropology, if enough people choose the new meaning, then the value of the term
as a technical one within anthropology is in question, because the whole point of a
technical term is that it should have a very definite meaning. But, in the subject as a
whole for at least the past forty years, 'man' has been reserved much more for its
figurative use than its technical use within anthropology; book titles, grand conclusions
and introductions.

A figurative use only requires that people can figure it out. I would not choose to
use the term myself, but cannot become very concerned, as an anthropologist,
if others use it in this context. I also cannot become very concerned if other
anthropologists want it excluded, in this context. It is obvious that many others are
concerned. It might be appropriate to move adherents of a) to soc.politics, b) to
soc.language, c) to soc.native, and leave d) on Anthro-L.

Michael Fischer
University of Kent at Canterbury