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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 418-420
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Changes In Progress
Language Change and Gender
Charles F. Meyer, University of Massachusetts at Boston
I remember the first linguistics course I took rather clearly. Although I was taught many new and interesting "facts" about language, what I recall most clearly was the particular class devoted to the topic of linguistic change and evolution. During this session, the instructor told us that language change was natural, inevitable, and usually quite slow and that speakers of the language were very often unaware that it was happening. Since taking this course, I have been keenly interested in observing the language changing around me. And one change has always struck me as remarkable: the rapid pace with which changing roles in gender in American culture have affected the English language.
In the early 1980s, I recall walking by a restaurant that had a job advertisement posted on its window: "Wanted: Waitperson." I remember my shock at seeing the expression waitperson and thinking to myself that it was so awkward that it would never catch on. But almost two decades later not only is this expression a part of the English language but we now have waitron and server to go with it. Moreover, formerly common expressions, such as waitress and waiter, are on their way out and now have a faintly archaic ring to them.
Expressions such as server are responses to social changes in American culture that began in the 1970s, changes that have sought to eliminate gender distinctions in the English language and that by the normal standards of language change have been rapid. We see these changes particularly in the professions where women have taken jobs that had in the past been held mainly by men. We have flight attendants, not stewardesses; mail carriers, not mailmen; police officers, not policemen; chairpersons, not chairmen. [End Page 418] Style guides for books, journals, and other periodicals have written into their guidelines prohibitions against the use of so-called gender-biased language. The navy now forbids any reference to ships by feminine pronouns such as she or her. Occasionally, we witness conflicts between traditional and contemporary usages, as when the sportscaster on a local news show a few years ago referred to the women's basketball team at the University of Massachusetts as the "Lady Minutemen." But overall the transition to a gender-neutral language has taken place rather peacefully, despite the complaints from some that such usages are merely motivated by "political correctness," not by the need to make all speakers of the language comfortable with the language that they use.
Of all the changes in this area, probably the most remarkable change has been in our pronoun system, where the need for a third-person gender-neutral singular pronoun has proven a thorny, but ultimately solvable, problem. When I taught the issue of gender and language in linguistics classes in the 1980s, I knew I could always provoke an engaging discussion by giving students a simple sentence such as Everybody is trying------ hardest and asking them to supply the appropriate pronoun in parentheses. Is it his? Or her? Or their? If someone chose their, I replied: "Well, their is plural, but the verb following everybody is singular. Isn't it inconsistent to choose their?" This then led to a discussion of whether it's better to be "polite" but "grammatically wrong" or whether correctness takes precedence over everything else. We'd also discuss the his/her possibility, noting the awkwardness of this construction if it has to be used repeatedly. And we discussed novel forms that people had proposed, such as ter, forms that added to the inventory of pronouns a new member that was singular and gender-neutral. But this form, and the problem in general, I noted, was rooted in the fact that languages resist adding new members to "closed" classes such as pronouns.
I knew, however, that this problem would soon be resolved when I received a memo from the president of the university where I was teaching. I don't remember the exact wording...