Monday, March 3, 2008

Language Log Linguist Defends Feminists' Honor

David Gelernter of Yale University claims that feminists have killed all that was beautiful in the English language, writing in The Weekly Standard:
Our language used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers. But in the 1970s and '80s, arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.
Gelernter, a distinguished member of Yale's computer science department, claims that feminists (in cahoots with the "Academic-Industrial Complex") are "style-smashers" and "language rapists."

Yet, Geoffrey K. Pullum of Language Log has come to feminists' defense. Pullum asks (and answers) the obvious question:

What, then, is the terrible thing that the style-smashers have done? The following is (and I stress this) a complete list of all the facts about English usage [Gelernter] cites:

  • Some writers now use either he or she, or singular they, or purportedly sex-neutral she, instead of purportedly sex-neutral he, to refer back to generic or quantified human antecedents that are not specifically marked as masculine.
  • Some people recommend the words chairperson, humankind, and firefighter over chairman, mankind, and fireman.
  • Some try to avoid using the phrases great man when speaking of a great person, or using brotherhood when making reference to fellow-feeling between human beings.

That's it; we're done. That is the totality of the carnage to which he directs our attention, the sum of all his evidence that we have "allowed ideologues to wreck the English language".

Yet, Pullum is not content just to call-out the hysteria. No, indeed. Pullum knows his English Language History, and is well positioned to call BS. For example, he recognizes that Gelernter's claim that feminists are responsible for the singular they that supposedly mars the once beautiful language is hooey:

...ignorance of the history of English literature on this point is breathtaking. It is quite clear that he has no idea Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents (I discussed a couple of examples here).

Gelernter also specifically singles out Austen for praise: "The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written "pure simple English." He obviously is not aware that Jane Austen is famous for her high frequency of use of of singular-anteceded they (Henry Churchyard has a list of examples here).

Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist "ideologues", rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years. One might think it remarkable that someone this ignorant of the history and structure of English would nonetheless presume to pontificate, without having checked anything.
What, someone out there is defending us from slanderous falsehoods using logic and facts? Well, it's about time! (Language Log, we love you!)

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