Gender-Inclusive

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My post on slaves and sons reminded me of a point I've been thinking that I don't think I've ever discussed with anyone or written anything about. The term "gender-inclusive" has come to be associated with a certain translation philosophy in Bible translation, namely the translation philosophy that considers it accurate to translate terms referring to multiple genders only with terms that in contemporary English can apply to multiple genders. In other words, using "he" to refer to a gender-unknown or gender-unspecified person or using "sons" to refer to a gender-mixed group would not be gender-inclusive.

It strikes me, however, that the term "gender-inclusive" is actually ambiguous, and the translations that use "sons" for a gender-mixed group or "he" to refer to a gender-unspecified or gender-unknown person are actually the gender-inclusive ones in one sense of the term. After all, they're using usually-masculine terms in a gender-inclusive way, right? They're using a sometimes gender-specific term in a gender-inclusive way. So why is it the opposite approach that always gets to be called gender-inclusive?

[cross-posted at Evangel]

6 Comments

It's unfortunate that we've all but lost the distinction between the terms gender and sex, and I believe this has contributed to the confusion.

It was once the case (and I would argue that it still is the case) that gender was a grammatical term only; it applied to words. A word's gender is feminine, masculine, or neuter. In English, most words are neuter. Sex was (is) the term used to describe whether a person is male or female. A person has a sex; a person does not have a gender*. This distinction between gender and sex is useful and makes it much easier to talk about these things.

When we define our terms this way, it eliminates much of the ambiguity. Actually, it makes the term "gender-inclusive" nonsensical, because every word has one gender: feminine, masculine, or neuter (and it would be incorrect to consider neuter inclusive of the other genders). Gender-inclusive words simply don't exist.

The term "sex-inclusive," if we were to substitute it, might have some meaning. But as you point out, Jeremy, masculine words do necessarily not exclude women. In the sentence, "Everyone should go to his own home," "his" is masculine but it in no way restricts its antecedent, everyone, to those who are male. That English sentence is sex-inclusive.

There are many feminine words in English that are sex-exclusive: woman, actress, heroine, and her for example. But their masculine counterparts are not self-exclusive. Man, actor, hero, and he do not necessarily exclude women. On the other hand, there are comparatively few masculine words that are sex-exclusive. Father and husband are two that are.

The only time, though, that a translator would use any of this actual sex-exclusive language is when the meaning of the text is clearly sex-exclusive. And that makes the push for gender/sex-inclusive language pretty silly, in my opinion.

*I realize that social scientists messed this all up a few decades ago when they decided to distingish between the physical sex of a person and what social scientists call the "psychological/societal aspects of being male or female." They determined that one can be physically male while psychologically or societally female (or vice versa). So they needed a seperate term and adopted "gender." (My thoughts on that distinction notwithstanding, I wish they had at least picked a new word and not messed up this perfectly good word.) "Gender" then went from being used in this technical sense by social scientists to being popularly used as a synonym for "sex" and finally to replacing "sex" pretty much altogether (I suppose because people thought it sounded dirty to use the term "sex.")

In the sentence, "Everyone should go to his own home," "his" is masculine but it in no way restricts its antecedent, everyone, to those who are male. That English sentence is sex-inclusive.

That's where we disagree, I think. That sentence is not sex-inclusive as used by the majority of Americans, I think. There are a significant number of people who remain who do use it that way, but it's a jolt to my ears and the ears of most people of my generation when someone uses a masculine-gender pronoun to refer to a group of mixed sex. The linguistic facts at this point are that different dialects exist, some of which allow such sex-inclusive use of masculine terms, some of which don't.

At this point my own dialect does not allow such sex-inclusive terms, which is why I had to go out of my way to declare a justification for using "sons" in such a way. That seems like it's no longer good English in my understanding of how most people I know use it. Those who still do things like that are using a legitimate dialect, but it's one that's on its way out and not shared by most people, and it comes across as offensive to a large enough segment of the population that I think it's morally important for those who still use the older dialect to try to avoid doing so.

I would say the same of "man" but not of "hero" or "actor". I think it's actually insulting to women to expect that they have to be either second-class or separate-but-equal and instead be heroines or actresses, since (I think I'm correct on this) both were invented terms as an attempt to be more inclusive of women but give the opposite effect.

"The linguistic facts at this point are that different dialects exist, some of which allow such sex-inclusive use of masculine terms, some of which don't."

Yes, that is true. And when I am writing I do my best to avoid using language that, even though standard English, will distract my readers from my message. So, in my own writing, I would change:

"Everyone should go to his own home."

to something like this:

"All of people should go to their own homes."

But I don't believe it's for me to make that change when translating scripture. Nor do I believe that scripture translations using gender-noninclusive language really distract very many readers.

When I say I don't think it's for me to make that change, I'm not necessarily advocating literal over dynamic equivalence. I beleive this goes beyond that issue. Adding this additional concern interfers with the translator determining the best equivalence, whether literal or dynamic.

Consider James 1:9. The NIV, a dynamic equivalence translation, renders it:

The brother in humble circumstance ought to take pride in his high position.

The TNIV, which is essentially the NIV with concern to use gender-inclusive language, changes it to:

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.

1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I doubt that the NIV jolts your ear when you read this verse. I understand that if you were reading the morning paper and a writer used a masculine pronoun to refer to males and females, that might distract you. But I really don't believe that most people who read scripture with the right motivation are jolted by this at all.

2. I have a problem with changing this from singlar to plural just to avoid using a masculine pronoun, when the translators originally decided on the singlar version. It changes the affect, and that's important (yes, I mean affect, with an "a" :).

3. I have a problem with changing brother to believers to avoid a masculine noun. Although the denotative meaning may be the same in this usage, believers lacks some of the connotations that brother has. (I would prefer "brother or sister," although I don't think it is necessary and it becomes cumbersome -- but at least you don't lose part of the meaning.)

4. There are certain things (and I would put scripture at the top of the list; legal documents would be another) that should be translated/written in standard English, not a dialect. I understand that we ALL have a dialect that varies from standard English. But we must agree that there is some objective standard. Otherwise we lose the ability to objectively interpret ("Well, in my dialect, it means such and such.")

I guess my bottom line is, using "gender-inclusive" costs a lot in terms of what you lose and gains us relatively little (in my opinion).

The NIV is about halfway between dynamic and formal. The NLT is a better example of dynamic.

"All of people should go to their own homes" sounds really awkward to me.

James 1:9 sounds less jarring, because the antecedent is "brother", which is also masculine grammatically. I don't like translating the word for "brothers" as "believers". I do think it sounds odd to continue in 2010 to treat a term that most people wouldn't use inclusively in such a way that it covers both men and women. I also get annoyed at reading the NLT's "brother and sister". I'm not sure there's any way to translate this sort of thing in a way that loses nothing. So the question is which elements are less problematic to lose?

There are parts of the Bible that aren't written in upper-crusty Hebrew or Greek, so why should we use outdated, upper-crusty Englih tos translate?

"I do think it sounds odd to continue in 2010 to treat a term that most people wouldn't use inclusively in such a way that it covers both men and women."

If what you are saying is:

Standard English in 2010 no longer uses terms such as "his" inclusively, therefore we should not use these terms this way in our translations.

Then I may disagree with your premise, but given that premise I would agree with the conclusion.

But if what you are saying is:

Although it is non-standard English, too many dialects in 2010 do not use terms such as "his" inclusively, therefore we should not use these terms this way in our translations.

Then I would disagree with the conclusion. Actually, I'd disagree with the implied minor premise, which is that we should translate into the majority dialect(s) rather than into standard English.

(By the way, I really appreciate your blog, Jeremy. I read it often, although I rarely comment. And when I am in the market for a commentary, your reviews are always one of the first places I look.)

Philip, I think what I'm saying makes those two options converge. I think enough dialects have transformed on this to make it the case that standard English has largely changed. It seems non-standard to me to use "his" in a way that refers to someone of unknown sex. I'm committed to the view that usage determines meaning, and thus proper usage simply uses terms in the way that the grammar of popular usage involves. It makes sense to speak of what's correct within different dialects, but what's standard doesn't exist on top of that. Written English in academia, for instance, might differ somewhat in its standards from written English in the business world and then again from ordinary conversational speech in the business world or in more leisurely contexts. What's standard depends on the context. But I think enough has changed now that the standards in most contexts frown on the older way of doing things that uses "his" in a way that doesn't necessarily indicate the sex of the person it refers to.

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