Sunday, August 5, 2012

Brian D. Earp on the Decline of the Masculine Generic Pronoun

This recent article from the Journal of Communication and Culture looks at the decline of the masculine generic pronoun in English. Earp examines the arguments against the masculine generic (largely as detrimental to women in that it privileges the masculine over the feminine) and efforts to change its use. He then presents some support for the declining use of the masculine generic in academic, popular, and personal discourse.

Yale University, Department of Cognitive Science 


In English, as in many other languages, male-gendered pronouns are sometimes used to refer not only to men, but to individuals whose gender is unknown or unspecified, to human beings in general (as in ―mankind‖) and sometimes even to females (as when the casual ―Hey guys‖ is spoken to a group of women). These so-called he/man or masculine generics have come under fire in recent decades for being sexist, even archaic, and positively harmful to women and girls; and advocates of gender-neutral (or nonsexist) language have put forward serious efforts to discourage their use. Have they been successful, and to what extent? In this paper, I review some of the main arguments in favor of abolishing sexist male generics. I then present three studies tracking the use of he/man terminology in academic, popular, and personal discourse over the past several decades. I show that the use of these terms has fallen dramatically in recent years, while nonsexist alternatives have gradually taken their place. We may be paying witness to the early stages of the ultimate extinction of masculine generics.

Full Citation:
Earp, BD. (2012, Spr). The extinction of masculine generic. Journal for Communication and Culture, 2:1; 4-19.

Here is Earp's overview of the argument against the masculine generic pronoun - the whole article is available at the link above.

Part 1: The Case against He/Man Language—A Very Brief Review 

The use of masculine terms to refer to persons of unknown gender, generic or hypothetical persons, people in general, or as a synonym for humankind is more than just a grammatical curiosity. As a number of commentators8 have forcefully argued, it may be legitimately harmful to women and girls. 

One way to understand this harm is to consider how masculine generics (such as mankind) seem to count being a man as the default or prototypical human status, creating what Wendy Martyna calls an "implicit equation of maleness with humanness."(9) This equation has the effect of devaluing, excluding, or making invisible female human beings – a matter of particular concern since, as Michael Newman points out, females "not only constitute half of humanity, but are also victims of other forms of marginalization."(10) Non-sexist terms such as humankind, that is, terms which embrace – both denotatively and connotatively – all genders, nimbly avoid this problem and are thus preferable to their sexist counterparts. 

What does it mean for masculine terms to make women "invisible" – and how could mere word-choice have such a dramatic-sounding effect? Simply put, there is ample psycholinguistic evidence(11) that people encountering he/man generics are more likely to think of male human beings as the referents of those terms. Thus, when a person reads or hears the word "mankind," for example, he or she is likely to reflexively conjure up mental images of men (doing such-and-so) as opposed to either women or abstract visions "the human race." This has the effect of minimizing women‘s importance and diverting attention away from their very existence.(12) The result is a sort of invisibility – in the language itself, in the individual‘s mind‘s eye, and in the broader social consciousness. 

Someone could object that metaphorical ―invisibility‖ is too gauzy a notion to merit serious concern. But sexist language has consequences in the real world as well. For example, Sandra Bem and Daryl Bem found evidence that "sex-biased wording in job advertisements ... discourage[d] ... women from applying for 'opposite-sex' jobs for which they might well be qualified."(13) And more recently, John Briere and Cheryl Lanktree found that subjects who had been exposed to various levels of sexist noun and pronoun usage rated the attractiveness of a career in psychology in "sex-role stereotypic directions as a function of degree of exposure to sexist language."(14) Far from being "gauzy" issues, job prospects and career-choice are of practical concern and paramount importance. Sexist language which may have the effect of limiting a woman's options in these domains, then, is clearly harmful.

In this very brief review, I have shown how he/man generics may be considered detrimental from the perspective of several different modes of thought: philosophical, sociological, psychological, and practical. On this view, any evidence that such language use is on the decline would be most welcome. I turn now to the second part of my paper, in which I present three studies offering an empirical evaluation of just such a decline.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Man has created spaceships and technological wonders. Writing useless papers keeps Earp employed. Women want to complain. I don't tolerate it.