Is Language Really Changing So Rapidly? -- By: Steve Henderson

Journal: Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
Volume: JBMW 002:4 (Sep 1997)
Article: Is Language Really Changing So Rapidly?
Author: Steve Henderson


Is Language Really Changing So Rapidly?

Steve Henderson

The Use Of Words Has Changed Over The Years, But Generic “He” Is Still Alive And Well

Throughout the recent NIV controversy over inclusive language, a common reason given for supporting gender-neutral language has been the changes in usage in contemporary American English. Catherine Kroeger wrote that the decision to abandon gender-related changes in future editions of the NIV “would freeze the text of the NIV in the form of its 1984 revision, thus destroying its nature as a ‘living translation’ that keeps pace with our changing language” (“Open Letter to the International Bible Society,” June 11, 1997). John Kohlenberger, in a seminar address at the Christian Booksellers Association meetings on July 14, 1997, said, “We may not like changes in our language, but we have to recognize them and respond to them or we will miscommunicate.…We must take care not to use potentially exclusive language when we intend our communication to be inclusive. If we are misunderstood, we have miscommunicated, and we have misrepresented the Word of God.”

But is our language really changing at breakneck speed? Syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick, who writes a column on language usage for the Universal Press Syndicate, addressed the “Clumsy struggles to avoid using ‘he.’” He cites numerous “horrid examples,”including: From a headline in San Bernardino, Calif.: “Do your child a favor; teach them grammar.” From a placard of patients’ rights at Kenner Army Hospital in Virginia: “The patient is not a routine concern—he/she is an individual case…the patient is not in a normal condition—he/she is in a state requiring medical attention… The patient is deserving of the most courteous and attentive treatment we can give him/her…”

Kilpatrick asks his readers, “Did you wince? Shudder? Roll your eyes? The problem is as old as the English language itself: There is no genderneutral singular pronoun to link with a singular antecedent.” He notes that for many centuries this lack caused no problem, and the custom developed of using a generic masculine referent. But this practice began to develop some guilt by association and tortured solutions began to appear, including the “plural solution” (instead of asking if each child had his book, asking if all the children had their books); the “Virgulean solution” (using the virgule, more commonly known as the slash to conjoin both pronouns as his/her or he/she); the “distaff solution” (using only feminine pronouns) and the “alternating solution” used by the editors of Parenting magazine, in which alternating paragraphs are cast for girl babies or for boy babies.

Unimpressed with these solutions and somewhat exasp...

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