Language evolves. Often for the better.
But we won’t be the ones to dictate it.
Recently, I completed my dissertation focused on the life and experience of a black boxer from the 1890s in the Deep South of Jim Crow America. Today, the words used to describe and define him are vile, racist terms with no place in our discourse. Yet, at that time, they were a matter of fact in describing a person as was height and weight.
I did not treat those words lightly. I often shuddered at writing them – writing many of them out for the first time in my life. But I presented them in the final product not to shock or titillate the reader, but to reveal the world my subject confronted. It was a necessary context to understand him.
But what uncomfortable keystrokes.
Admittedly, there was some humour to be found. Reading newspapers of the era, it was often difficult to pick up all the racist remarks of bygone eras. Some of the racist terms needed further explanation as they had, fortunately, fallen out of favour and instead sounded like complete gibberish to modern ears.
Who knew the cacophony of racism we have left behind?
I thought of this linguistic evolution as I read about University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who has drawn inordinate amounts of attention for his refusal to use genderless pronouns for students in his classes.
His case has become the rally point. Right-wingers use his story to warn of political correctness run amok on our university campuses; left-wingers use his story to warn against the dangers of intolerance.
These pronoun debates have become a campus cause célèbre. Those institutions addressing the concerns have options that run the gamut from ey (American University) to E (Harvard University) to Ze (Wesleyan University), and all points between.
While I doubt the pronouns he defends – he and she – will be as archaic in 125 years as those words I encountered in my work, language will evolve. It always does. But we won’t be the ones leading it.
University types are the absolute worst to demand these changes. In the eyes of the public, we are too self-satisfied, too self-congratulatory, far too insulated to dictate the language of The People. We are seen as the spoiled elite who have the luxury of time and treasure to argue about the seemingly inconsequential.
And they are somewhat correct.
We point society in a direction. But there is no requirement for society to follow.
H.L. Mencken once wrote in The American Language:
The error of … viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.
Like many, I err on the side of linguistic legitimacy and follow language that enjoys the broadest usage. That is the journalist in me. Flights of fancy cannot be followed; they result in linguistic chaos. For those whom clarity of communication is key, we will always opt for the widest usage.
That said, most people are interested in fair, respectful language. You see that reflected in changes already happening. Remember, newspapers don’t dictate language; they reflect it. And so it means something when the Associated Press and Washington Post adopt the singular ‘they’ as an option to replace he/she pronouns or The New York Times offers Mx. as a courtesy title for someone who does not want to be identified with any gendered pronoun.
The pitch in the case of gender pronouns – or any other changes – must be made to the public. They will lead any change.