Saturday, August 09, 2008

Craig Bloomburg vs. Jacques Barzun on gender-neutral language

Craig Bloomburg, professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, defends the use of gender neutral language in Bible translation. His argument (admittedly brief) is that the continued use of traditional masculine language in a generic way makes language harder to understand.

Here is Jacques Barzun, from From Dawn to Decadence, on the reasons for sticking to the traditional usage in all writing:
The reasons in favor of prolonging that usage are four: etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of "man and woman," and literary tradition.

To begin with the last, it is unwise to give up a long established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served. In Genesis we read: "And God created man, male and female." Plainly, in 1611 and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; "Man inhabits all the climatic zones." Logicians have said "Man is mortal," and philosophers have boasted of "Man's unconquerable mind." The poet Webster writes: "And man does flourish but his time." In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which the context makes clear.

Nor is the inclusive sense of human being an arbitrary convention. the Sanskrit root man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being an does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for "I think." In the compounds that have been regarded as invidious--spokesman, chairman, and the like--man retains that original sense of human being, as is proved by the word woman, which is etymologically the "wife-human being." The wo (shortened from waef) ought to make woman doubly unacceptable to zealots, but the word as it stands seems irreplaceable. In a like manner, the proper name Carman is made up of car, which meant male, and man, which has its usual human being application. Car, originally carl or kerl, was the lowest order of freeman, often a rustic. (Carl has further give us Charles and churlish).

In English, words denoting human beings of various ages and occupations have changed sex over time or lost it altogether. Thus at first girl referred to small children of either sex, likewise maid, which meant simply "grown-up," and ending -ster, as in spinster and webster, designated women. It is no longer so in gangster and roadster. Implications have shifted too. In Latin, homo was the human being and vir the male, so that virtue meant courage in battle; in English it long stood for chastity in women. The message of this mixed-up past is that it is best to let alone what one understands quite well and not insist on a one-sided interpretation of a word in common use.

Some may brush aside this lesson from usage old and new with a "Never mind. Nobody knows or thinks about the past and man remains objectionable." At this point the reformer must face practical needs. To repeat at frequent intervals "man and woman" and follow it with the compulsory "his and her" is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires. It is unfortunate that English no longer has a special term for the job like French on. But on is only the slimmed down form of hom(me)--man again.

For the same neutral use German has man, true to the Sanskrit and meaning people. English had the identical word for the purpose until about 1100. German has also Mensch with the sense of human being. So at bottom both French and German carry on the same double meaning of man as English, just more visibly; it is the only convenient generic term when it is not perversely interpreted. There is after all an obligation to write decent prose and it rules out recurrent oddity or overinsistence on detail, such as is necessary (for example) in legal writing. Besides, the would-be reformers of usage utter contradictory orders. They want woman featured when men are mentioned but they also call for a ban on feminine designations such as actress.

The truth is that any sex-conscious practice defeats itself by sidetracking the thought from the matter in hand to a social issue--an important one, without question. And on that issue, it is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women's authority or earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.

Finally, the thought occurs that if fairness to all divisions of humanity requires their separate mention when referred to in the mass, then the listing must not read simply "men and women", it must include teenagers. They have played a large role in the world an they are not clearly distinguished in the phrase "men and women." Reflection further shows that mention should be given to yet another group: children...
You get the picture.

What disturbs me about comments like that of Bloomburg is that they betray so little thought given to the matter. You would expect people involved in the translation of the Bible to be passionate and thoughtful about words, but Bloomburg's comment on this does not give this impression at all. This very well could be because he makes the remark more in passing in this post, and I'm perfectly willing to cut him slack on this, but on the other hand this cavalier attitude about language seems to pervade the comments I have seen from those who want to change the language for political or social reasons.

In terms of Biblical translation, you have the additional complicating factor that theological conservatives, like, presumably Bloomburg, are supposed to have a commitment to the original language of the Biblical documents. But the original language of the Biblical documents is Greek and Hebrew. I have no familiarity with Hebrew, but certainly Greek is fraught with gender--moreso, in fact, than English. So any attempt to change the language--even in the interest of "understandability," should immediately be considered suspect.

In other words, if in, say, the Greek something is masculine, you better have pretty good grounds for changing it. There may be a good reason, but certainly Bloomburg doesn't give one.

1 comment:

Geoffrey said...

I kind of agree with Bloomburg. My only objection is that gender-inclusive language obscures Messianic prophecies, but as long as the footnotes indicate which words are masculine or feminine in the original language (which the NRSV does well, at least on average), then I see absolutely no problem.

I do have a problem when we're talking about using gender-inclusive language for God.

We need to remember that all translations of Scripture are incredibly inadequate.

It would be wise to imitate the Muslims, and hold only the original language manuscripts to be authoritative. We should work hard so that almost every layman chants some of his prayers in Greek (the Septuagint, it's what Jesus used after all).

That's my two cents. Down with all these cluttering and clanging translations. Let's declare the Septuagint our official Bible, mass-produce copies, and get folks to learn Greek.