Why 'inclusive' language adds up to bad English

Why 'inclusive' language adds up to bad English

David Frost

At its next meeting in 1995, the Anglican Church's General Synod will discuss whether to replace its existing prayer book with a new "nonsexist" version. The task of preparing a draft version was given to Dr David Frost, Professor of English Literature at the University of Newcastle. Dr Frost reported to the 10-member Liturgical Commission that the imposition of 'inclusive language' in the prayer book would add up to bad English, (and not just bad theology).

The following is an edited version of Dr Frost's report and is published with his approval. His comments have obvious relevance to similar moves within the Catholic Church.

The push for language revision originated outside the Church in the feminist movement, but has now been taken up by sympathetic churchmen who have responded to the charge that traditional Christianity has not accorded women an equal role.

It has to be said that the feminist attempt to make substantial modifications to a living language is unusual if not unique, and there are no known precedents for success. Attempts to dictate development usually achieve only a short-lived oddity: real change is evolutionary and slow.

In any human endeavour, one has to weigh the hoped-for advantages of a change against the perceived losses; and the problem with 'inclusive language' has been that its limitations only become apparent when you attempt to carry its prescriptions and proscriptions into action - as when translating the Psalms. You very soon discover that the demands of the would-be reformers have no coherent rationale, but combine the desirable with the feasible and with the frankly crackpot. It was particularly naive to imagine that you could ban certain modes of expression in a language, yet not limit the language's powers of expression. Somehow, the hope was that people like myself, forbidden certain words and syntactical forms, would come up with alternatives: the reality is that artificial prohibitions limit the accuracy, beauty and power of any translation.

As an example of a 'desirable' demand, you might take the request to eliminate the use of "men" and "a man" when human beings of both sexes are meant. There are some inconveniences for a poet trying to build an economic and rhythmic line; and some of the charming Hebraisms which are a feature of the Liturgical Psalter, such as "children of men" and "sons of Adam", would have to go. "One" is often a weak substitute for "man", and "person" is rejected by most hearers (as "How shall the young person's path be pure, unless he or she keep to your word?" (Ps.1 19.9).)

This leaves the related problem of generic "men" and "man" in the many other instances where the English language employs these words.

To seek to eliminate generic "he", "his", "him" from a Psalm translation means that all statements about individuals of both sexes have to be turned into plurals - witness, in varying degrees, the practice of the American Psalter and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV). This is not only a misrepresentation of the original and a recipe for monotony; it loses an important personal dimension, a devotional element, from the text of Scripture. For instance, take Psalm 1, verse 1:

Blessed is he who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly:
nor followed the way of sinners, nor taken his seat among the scornful.

Where the prescriptions of 'inclusive language' become crackpot is in forbidding generic "man" and its derivative "mankind." To do so is mindless prejudice, for "Man" as a term for the human race, or for an individual from that race, has never been ambiguous: the absence of an article - not "a man", or "the man" - clearly marks its special significance, and there is no convincing evidence that it is capable of misunderstanding. It is a different linguistic sign; and attempts to get away from it result in all sorts of contortions, inaccuracies and infelicities. Can the Commission really face in its Good Friday devotions Psalm 22, verse 6 (NRSV), "But I am a worm, and not human"?

Only NRSV risks "humankind" as a generic for the human race: in Psalm 107, the chorus is:

Let them thank the Lord for his goodness, for his wonderful works to humankind.

My experience is that this Americanism grates particularly on Australian ears - understandably, because it seems so pointless, adding a syllable yet obviously including that generic "man" it is intended to avoid - as, for that matter, does "woman." However, if "man", "mankind" or "humankind" are not acceptable, writers have to find substitutes - yet every substitute for the current generics tends to be inadequate or misleading. "Humanity has but a short hour to live" suggests the race may be terminated next week.

Banal effects

A popular replacement for the generic "Man", "men", or "sons of men" in both NRSV and the American Psalter is "mortals" - yet that introduces an emphasis on mortality, or a contrast with immortals, which is not the prime significance of the Hebrew and can lead to banal effects: "mortals, born of a woman, have but a short hour to live" is hardly a memorable statement.

The difficulties of an 'inclusive language' translation are increased by the need to be faithful to a text that comes from a different culture, yet which is taken in some way to be inspired Scripture. Difficulties in changing masculine pronouns are compounded by the fact that, in the original culture, the speaker, if not always King David, was certainly a male. The psalmist speaks of himself, and others speak to him, as a man (e.g. Pss. 31, 41, 71, 119.9); moreover, later liturgical tradition has used some of these psalms as if in the mouth of the Man, Christ. Even though psalms are used by both sexes, it hardly seems useful to obscure the sex of the original writer.

The Commission [should] explain to General Synod that its understandable concern for 'inclusive language' would, in the case of the Psalter, lead to something less accurate, less beautiful and less moving than what we have already. It is also the case that a revision which might please some will seriously offend others.

At the Counter-Reformation, Pope Paul IV compelled the artist Volterra to paint loincloths on the figures of Michelangelo's Last Judgement to disguise their too obvious masculinity; the Italians mocked him with the name of ilĀ Brachettone - "the Pant-Maker". You compel me to be pant-maker to my own translation.

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