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Lord balks at gender-neutral language

Pepper... and Salt

Pictured: “Pepper… and Salt” cartoon, Wall Street Journal, 1/9/14

Over at The Chronicle Review, Geoffrey Pullman (of the Language Log, etc.) has a “Lingua Franca” column dealing with the objection of certain parties in the British House of Lords to the proposal to use gender-neutral language in the framing of future laws. He writes:

Lord Scott defended what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls “purportedly sex-neutral he”: the old-fashioned notion that saying “anyone who thinks he deserves it” doesn’t exclude females. (Of course it does. There’s a reason why it sounds silly to say “You can bring either your father or your mother if he wants to come”—he simply cannot be understood as covering your mom.) […]

The debate cried out for the professionals to be called in. And to my delight, as I read on in the Hansard record of the debate, I saw that they had one: Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury, a distinguished scholar of English grammar and usage, and a former vice chancellor of the University of London, was next to speak. […] 

Of purportedly sex-neutral he, “the convention that masculine pronouns are deemed to include feminine reference,” he said:

If it ever worked, that convention no longer does, and there have been convincing psycholinguistic experiments showing that sentences such as “Anyone parking his car here will be prosecuted” predominantly call up images of a man doing the illicit parking.

And he further noted a shockingly strong tendency in certain legislative amendments to stick entirely to purportedly sex-neutral he whenever the pronoun referred to a judge. (The high-level judiciary in Britain is almost entirely male.) […]

A final stinger: Pullum notes in his last graf that each one of the “grammatically ignorant old sexist fools” who spoke in the debate was…. male.

Inset image from The Wall Street Journal 1/9/14. 

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