gender and language

Cathy Luther (cluther@UNM.EDU)
Sun, 1 Jan 1995 16:04:08 -0700

I thought I had seen it all when TECHWR-L (technical writer mailing list)
embarked on a similar thread which started with a simple, civil discussion
of he/she/it/??. As writers, one of our primary concerns has always been
our audience and the subject matter, and the appropriateness of the
language used. That discussion reached a bitter low in civility, but this
discussion has gone further. It has been a weary experience to read the
vitriol, hatred, venom, spite and ridicule that came from the

As a continuing student (working at a university can be a double-edged
sword), I have always made sure I knew what the instructor's viewpoint on
gender was, and wrote appropriately. When I am in conversation, I try
the same. When I find I am talking to an extremist, to whom only one
viewpoint is acceptable, I try to end the conversation because fighting
solves nothing. An extremist is open to no one's viewpoint but their
own. No problem can be solved by shouting, nor can people of opposing
viewpoints learn anything about the other by maintaining a closed
mine--at either end of the spectrum. No one learns anything and no one's
mind entertains new thoughts in such a situation.

As a writer, I have watched language change even in my own lifetime,
which began more than 50 years ago. For example, "gay" no longer carries
the same meaning it had when I was a child. That is one of the most
obvious examples. "he" is now often slashed with "she" when generic
meaning is intended (although some have suggested using "it," and I think
they were serious). Language changes with culture and society and vice
versa, as you all know, but it seldom changes fast. Maybe change should
come faster, more like technology, but at this point in time it does not.

I am curious about one thing though. Had all of you been facing each
other, would the conversation have been civil or acrimonious? Were any
minds changed or opened by this thread's level of emotion and intensity?
Do any of you feel you "won" this battle and how would you feel if you
met the others in person at a later date? Were new ideas formed or

Telecommunication is great and brings us in contact with more people that
we might ever have imagined. But it also brings the cloak of anonymity
and, with that, a loss of civility at times. Are any of you familiar
with Netiquette? We were all taught to "think before you speak."
Perhaps no we need to add, "and think before you write and send on the

Further, it is disappointing to see members of this profession, of all
professions, seem to have lost their sense of tolerance, let alone a
sense of humor.

Since this marks my "de-lurking," Happy New Year to all of you. I have
enjoyed this list, don't plan to un-subscribe from frustration, and will
continue to enjoy this new way to learn and observe life among H. sapiens
sapiens. As one who decided anthropology would be my avocation rather
than profession, ANTHRO-L is a wonderful way to keep up on the field.


Cathy Luther