'Human' and it inclusivity.

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Thu, 6 Apr 1995 12:19:32 -0400

In the last couple of days, Valerie Samson has commented that
'reading the word [mankind/man] as non-inclusive of the totality of
the human race is self-sabotage', and Matt Tomaso has replied that
'adding the prefix 'hu-' is merely arbitrary and therefore no one
should be upset about it. Bob Wrathall is worried about what to do
with the name for the genus _homo_. I find this interesting, but
entirly lacking is an understanding of languages historical
development, and the way the logic of categories work in them,
especially in English.

First, I find puzzling the lack of historical perspective on the words
'Human',_homo_, 'man' and 'mankind', and the supposed gender bias or
inclusivity of one or the other. As far as I am aware, the notion
that 'man' or 'mankind' is exclusive of females is datable ot
sometime in the 1970s when somewhere in the feminist literature and
issue came to be made of these terms. It seemed to me then that this
was an interesting cultural-political move, but it is not founded in
any real knowledge of the history of language. As anthropologists,
at least, we ought to be aware of this. All of these terms are
merely historical variants of each other. 'hu-' is not an arbitary
prefix as Matt Tomaso seems to think, but rather is part of the root
word from the indo-european past of the languages that are spoken in
wide parts of EurAsia. The English 'human' derives ultimately from
the Latin _homo_, through declined forms in Latin grammar from
_homo_, 'man' to _humanus_ , to 'human' in English. Through a
different historical route, the word 'man' derives from the same
root, homo, but dropping the first syllable, /ho-/ to form a root
/-mo(n)/, and through grammatical transformations to 'Man'. The
suffixing of -kind to this introduces a Germanic/Teutonic term
meaning 'type', and thus humankind, OR Mankind, means persons of the
human type. Historically,and consistent with the rather wide
latitude of English grammar, either 'humankind' or 'mankind' is
possible, and neither is more inclusive or exclusive of gender than
the other -- UNLESS, of course, we choose to make it so. What is
arbitrary, then, is not the use of 'human' vs. 'man' or humankind'
vs. 'mankind', but the also historical choice made by some people who
called themselves feminists in the 1970s (unsure of the dating) who
did indeed choose to introduce a distinction that the language made
possible but in no way required.
Along the way, too, English, though deriving from mixed Germanic
roots (rather than Latin/romance roots) lost grammatical gender.
Grammatical gender is the categorisation of words, and *potentially*
the objects they refer to into classes that were called, by
grammarians, feminine and masculine. There is no inherent reason why
some words are feminine and some masculine in German or French or
Latin or Greek, and there is no necessary correspondence between the
grammatical classes and the categorisation fo the world into feminine
and masculine categories. Nevertheless, social scientists chose at
some point -- early 20th century? -- to use the grammatical notion of
gender to talk about the sexual differences of human beings. This
was originally and analogy -- drawing from the words used by medieval
grammarians to label word classes in Eropean languages to label
sexual differences in human beings. This is not an entirely
unproblematic choice, but be have now all taken it for granted. The
point I wish to make, here, however, is that these are historical
choices, and are motivated by intellectual and cultural-political
needs at the time they are created. The persist in language far
beyond that moment, hwoever, and can potentially cause difficulties
in making ourselves understood.
The debate about what word to use -- both here and in the public at
large-- simply misses the historical and logical problems that we as
anthropologists shoudl be aware of. It is a different problem what
this all MEANS. Some have argued that it is legitimate to have
(once) agreed (in a kind of social contract abetted by media
publicisation of particular works and cultural innovations) that 'Man'
will henceforth be taken to mean 'males, excluding females'. Since
there are many instances in social life where men do exclude females,
it seemed natural to most, I suspect, that the language should also
somehow 'code' for this. After all, that is what STructuralism
taought us to believe: that languages do such things. In my
experience, this is not necessarily so. Languages do sometimes do
this, but not necessarily. Bantu languages, for instance, use up to
13 grammatical classes with nouns, adjectives and adverbvs all having
to agree with the noun-class. In some grammars of these langauges
these are called 'genders'. If we choose to use this term, then
Bantu languages have 5-13 genders (depending on the history of the
langauge, and how it also treats number in the category system).
Since English has lost gender for almost all usages, and certainly
has to noun categories that would qualify as grammical gender, then
we should expect that English speakers would have no 'gender' in
their sexual and social relations. By the same token, Bantu language
speakers should have up to 13 gneders in their sexual/social life.
That is, this would be true if language coded for 'gender' the way
the feminists who advocate dropping the term 'man' and 'mankind',
among other so called sexist usages. But this is not the case, and I
conclude that langauge does not, in fact, work in this way.
There are other categorical imperatives that languages to obey
however. Markedness of categoreis seems to be one of these. For
instance, in English, 'female' is a (so-called) _marked_ form of
'male'. In other words, the language (but not [some] feminists, as
noted!) does seem to take the term 'male' as the unmarked or general
term, and 'female' as the marked term in the pair. This process seems
to operate at a subconscious level much as the phonology system does.
For comparison, there is the interesting case of the use of the
linguistically new terms 'gay' and 'lesbian'. In this pair, 'gay' is
taken to be the unmarked or general term in some contexts. 'Gay' may
refer to either men or women when maximum inclusivity is sought,
especially by writers outsdie of the movement. Lesbian is the marked
term, and can never denote males . This is homologous to the
male/female pair of words in English. What this shows is that there
are categorical structures in English that make certain meanings
unlikely, and other extensions of meanings impossible even where we
might like to make these non-sexist: as in the (hypothetical) case in
which we might decide to use either 'gay' or 'lesbian' in a non-
sexist way. One alternative is possible, under English's sub-
consicous rules of category-inclusivity, while the other is, if not
impossible, extremely unlikely, and likely to be perceive as strongly
Thus, I agree with VAlerie Samson that the recent reading of gender
exclusivity in the term 'man' is likely to be 'self-sabotage'. It
has indeed already led many otherwise reasonably people to suppose
that feminists who support language change of this sort are doing 'non-
natural' things! The changes in the language that a particular
cultural/ideological perspective seemed to demand, are indeed
perceived by most people as non-natural, and they resist them. I
think they tend to see the other aspects of feminist discourse(s) in
the same light. The attempt at langauge change does not play by the
rules of the underlying unconscious sturcture of the language (as
seen by analogies and homologies in other word and semiotic systems).
Nevertheless, the re-definition of the scope of the term has been
successful enough to lead the British anthropology journal,
previously known as _Man_ to change its name back to its original
name Journal fo the Royal Anthropological Institute or JRAI. The
irony is that the title was changed during a different historical
period when the term 'Man" was seen as precisely the _most inclusive_
term that would cover the entire of field of the anthropological
object, that is, ourselves, male and female. The current change is
the 'flop' to accompany the previous 'flip'. In all probability, the
ground will shift again, and the teerms we use now in response to
certain ideoological and cultural pressures that seems of utmost
importatnce to us today will change again. That's history, folks,
and that's language.
What disturbs me is that some people make generalisations about
what people who use one form of the other MUST BELIEVE about other
things. This is the sort of categorical judgment that we call
prejudice in other contexts.
Must go, though much more remains to be said. later ....

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
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