Re: gender bias in language

Valerie Samson (samson@NETCOM.COM)
Fri, 7 Apr 1995 07:41:05 -0700

On April 5, Matt Tomaso remarked:
I think it might be instructive to try to imagine what
>issues feminists, generally (both men and women), will be excluded from if
>they (we) dislike the use of the word 'mankind'.

Self-limitation and self-exclusion result from not tolerating other
people's use of words. You can exclude yourself from whatever issues or
discussions you like (or dislike). And to the extent that you are
preoccupied with subject "A" (redefining terms), your attention cannot be
engaged in subject "B" (anything else).

Tomaso continues:
Moreover, why can't the words themselves and their contested
>meanings BE a substantive issue? The meaningsof
>power-gender-connotation-ideology loaded terminology are, in the minds of
>many anthropologists, substantive issues, right?

Of all issues in the humanities, those concerning language are perhaps the
most substantive and pervasive. We could not talk to each other at all
without relying on common linguistic ground. Fundamental assumptions do
need to be examined, as indeed they are here on this list. For decades,
students in musicology and ethnomusicology have had little respite from the
problems of using language to discuss the non-verbal performing arts.

The late Charles Seeger, founder of the Music Department at UC Berkeley,
urged reconnecting the splintered factions of the humanities, pointing out
the important role of language in such an undertaking. I quote from his
1964 article, "The Musicological Juncture: Music as Value:"

"What the founders of Christianity seem to have realized is that
the art of speech - at least in the languages of the Western world -
depends for its operation, wherever there is even a modicum of rationality,
upon a recurring alternation of analysis-synthesis, synthesis-analysis, in
which analysis, a splitting technique, and synthesis, a technique of
joining the split parts, effect an appearance of one-to-one correspondence
between the verbal symbols of speech and the apprehensions of our senses
and feelings. The utter fragmentation of this apparent correspondence in
Greco-Roman sophistry and the cynicism of Roman imperialism presented in
crisis form a need and a demand to control what amounted to runaway verbal
inflation. Assumption of the single, unequivocal supremacy of the Word - an
unanalyzable, unsynthesizable, eternal oneness of primitive and ultimate
value, knowable only by faith but backed by sufficient (verbal) propaganda
and physical power, economic, social and political - met both need and
demand. It endured intact for well over a thousand years and still carries
enormous weight throughout the world. Fact was subordinate to value, at
least in theory." Charles Seeger,"Studies in Musicology, 1935-1975," p.53

I interpret this to mean that definitions of terms cannot be mandated from
any one source, but must arise from each user at each occasion of use.
Otherwise disintegration between the verbal symbol and the meaning/feeling
of the speaker is an eventuality. Seeger's approach entails a risk. If the
users determine the meanings of words, how can we expect them to agree? To
what extent must they agree for successful communication? Can the rifts
between musicology and ethnomusicology (not to mention all the other rifts)
be mended? Seeger thought so in the 1960's. Does anyone think so today? In
the late 1980's UCLA's Music Department voted a resounding NO by splitting
itself into three separate departments....

Valerie Samson