Man, I’m Tired of Inclusive Language

Earlier this summer, I worked with some colleagues to organize an event which included a series of speakers.  Walking through the details, I gave an example about the first presenter, “Tom.”  “Let’s go through the order,” I said. “‘Tom’ walks up to the podium, introduces himself, and then gives a short summary about his subject.”  A voice from somewhere in the peanut gallery shouts “or HER subject!”

I smiled congenially and said, “Yes, of course, him or her.”  But, inside my head, a series of snarky comments exploded: “I’m pretty sure that ‘Tom’ self-identifies as male.” Or, “Oh, I’m sorry, I only believe in using male pronouns in formal speech.”  And, simply, “C’mon, man, the example is about a GUY!”

My annoyed reaction to this anonymous voice for inclusive language surprised me.  On the one hand, I am a perfectionist who hates criticism, so this public correction ruImage result for man inclusive languageffled by self-righteous feathers.  But, more deeply, this correcting voice had no idea how hard I’ve fought for inclusive language during my short course of life.  The voice did not know how much the lack of inclusive language has troubled my heart and disturbed my spiritual journey.  The voice did not know how much resignation regarding the absence of inclusive language I’ve found it necessary to adopt in order to participate prayerfully and thoughtfully in circles of worship.

Perhaps my corrector thought I was a young, millennial “conservative” who eschewed just language.  Or, perhaps the shout was intended to be funny and I took it seriously.  In any case, the comment was ill-placed in the moment and seemed to refract what I believe is a growing reality regarding inclusive language in the United States English-language context:  inclusive language appears to be dead, and those of us who continue to demand it appear obsolete and out-of-touch.

My undergraduate students, the freshman class of which was born in 2000, rarely use forms of inclusive language for humanity, and I have not yet seen any student use un-gendered language for God.  I have seen some students use the “their/they” form as an alternative to “him or her,” but find this grammatically stressful (I don’t care what the Oxford English Dictionary says, I just can’t handle it!).  Outside of my theology classroom, I have been shocked to hear news reporters from media of all stripes, including National Public Radio, use “man” to describe the human race. 

This lack of attentiveness to inclusive language cannot but spill into worship.  There are, of course, some moments in the 3rd English translation of the Roman Missal which highlight andropocentric language, such as within the Nicene Creed.  But, the instance which particularly troubles me is the “Orate Fratres” exhortation, which appears in many Roman Missals in English as “Pray brethren (brothers and sisters)….”  “Brethren” is not a commonly used word in contemporary English, and “brothers and sisters” appears, explicitly even, to be the intended English rendering.  Yet, I have heard (oftentimes) young priests invite “brethren” to pray.

I am at a point where I feel that few people—whether in sacred or secular contexts—care about how language crafts reality.  I am also not interested in boycotting my tradition, or the Church, because of non-inclusive language.  Nonetheless, I remain troubled and sore of heart over the lack of care regarding how English language translations and our everyday speech negotiate the reality of women.

I use inclusive language religiously in my speech (I even greet my students with “Hi, folks, how’re y’all doing?), but I don’t seem to make any impact on the world around me.  If I pay too much attention to it during worship, I can no longer pray or sing my faith.  When I have suggested alternatives to exclusive language in my students’ papers, I have been flagged as imposing a “liberal agenda.”  It is easier, it seems, to give up on inclusive language, or at least not to expect any one of my brethren to use it in his speech, writing, or prayer. Image result for what language shall i borrow hymn

Experiences such as the one I had this summer often give me inspiration for change—but this one has left me stumped.  As theologian and hymn writer Brian Wren once asked, “What Language Shall I Borrow” to describe human reality, let alone my God?  I certainly know that I cannot change language by myself—as we know, no man is an island—but I cannot help but be shocked that calls for inclusive language have gone increasingly silent.

What do you think?  Is inclusive language dead?

Share:

8 comments

  1. After three years of having to find creative ways to avoid the terrible construction “God Godself” ca. 2007-2010, I have lost the ability to stress about it. Like you, I try to stick with plurals as a matter of course — folks, people, students, y’all, etc. The military also has a useful designation for e-mails addressed to a mixed audience – ALCON for “all concerned” – which I use when I’m not sure how to address someone. We also use the term “Airmen” as a catchall. Occasionally someone will add “and Airwomen,” but that usage is exceedingly rare and comes across as a bit silly to most.

    As an aside, there’s a quirk to using military customs in civilian settings. I use “sir” or “ma’am” for nearly everyone; the Air Force even commonly uses it for enlisted personnel nowadays. I rarely get a negative response for “sir,” but when I have used “ma’am” for a civilian, I frequently get the “Don’t call me ma’am. It makes me feel old.” routine. This response amuses and vexes me because a 22 year old brand new female lieutenant is a ma’am, even when crusty enlisted personnel address her.

  2. I once lectured on a medieval mystical text, which I had translated myself. As it was written for a community of men I did not hesitate to translate terms such as “fratres” as “brothers”, and came under fierce attack from a section of the class for this use of exclusive language. After some discussion, which seemed only to provoke further resistance, I raised the example of the works of Teresa of Avila. They were written for a female audience, almost always addressed as “my sisters” and “my daughters”. Should such expressions be rendered inclusive? Or would this falsify the socio-historical context of the original?
    Men must read themselves into Teresa’s audience across expressions which exclude them, making adjustments as they go, and of course have long done so.
    We are often enough faced with difficult choices: will the use of exclusive terms be like a punch in the nose (usually to women), or will the substitution of inclusive ones be a falsification not only of the text in question, but of the history of women itself, with its many oppressions and its occasional glorious escapes from it?
    In the liturgy I always try to use inclusive terms (“my friends”, certainly not “brethren”, and preferably not “brothers and sisters”, which still seems to underline difference where it is not necessary). But I hear on-the-fly adaptations of the lectionary readings which make nonsense of the scriptures and of the history of women.
    I would certainly agree that modern texts should be written in inclusive language, and that historic texts should be translated inclusively whenever appropriate (“homines” does not mean “men”). Nevertheless, how will we continue to understand the alienation of women in patriarchy if an automatic commitment to inclusive language is used to disguise all traces of its history and functioning. It’s just a fact (with exceptions, of course; there are always exceptions) that “children” did not inherit, “sons” did, and until quite recently at that. We need to keep telling &…

  3. With the Roman Missal, if you only ever use the Apostles’ Creed, never use EP4 and choose the right option a few other times (common for religious jumps to mind), I don’t think you ever have to use male-for-human exclusive language, which is a notable change from the previous translation (and makes the current breviary grate even more!). I find it’s a minority of my students that I have to correct on this point, and they all take it well. I’m teaching intro Greek for the first time this year and I expect that I’ll actually have to teach them that sometimes I need them to translate gendered language as gendered language so as I can check they understand the grammar and forms of the text (even though this isn’t how they’d prepare a translation for any other purpose).

  4. Part of my quandary with inclusive language is that the English word “man,” for example, has long held parallel definitions, either as a male or a generic term for humanity, depending on context. While the current English translation of the Nicene creed does use this (“for us ‘men’ and for our salvation…), I haven’t seen anyone automatically understand it as anything other than the generic form, unless they were trying to make an academic argument. While I’m not opposed to the concept of updating our language to be more explicit or inclusive, we shouldn’t let organic nuances to our language get in the way our spiritual relationships, because the ideas that our words are trying to express are always more important than the words themselves.

  5. I think it remains alive, but in the moderate form that the American and Canadian bishops advised in their guidelines of the last century (traditional language for Trinity, inclusive language for human persons). Whoever translates Pope Francis’s works into English employs a moderate form of inclusive language when working the texts into colloquial English. For example, the Italian will have fratelli, but in English, brothers and sisters.

    1. Hi, Rita, and I think your usage of the word “alive” is apt, because what seems to be at the heart of the controversy here is the failure to see language as living and dynamic, rather than dead and static. We often hear arguments from etymology, as if what a word is supposed to mean today is exactly what was intended when it was coined centuries in the past. Which is fairly absurd when one realizes how languages develop across generations and cultures.

  6. I once worked for a UCC church in a big-university town where the membership leaned decidedly left. They were deciding whether or not to adopt The New Century Hymnal, which goes farther with inclusive language than any other hymnal I know. They decided against adopting it, and instead stayed with the old Pilgrim Hymnal. Why? There were English professors in the church who objected to the radical alteration of the poetry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *