Gender-Inclusive Language: a Christmas PSA

Ursula LeGuin opens her essay “About Myself,” by saying “I am a man….I predate the invention of women by decades.” She’s referring in part to that linguistic quirk (or difficulty) common to so many languages: that words such as ‘man’ can refer to both a male person of the human race and to any person of unspecified gender. The English language, abundant in so many ways, has also failed to provide us with any sort of pronoun that indicates the third person singular, non-gender-specific but not a neuter being. We are left with only ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’. For nine hundred years we solved this problem by lending a double meaning to ‘he’.

Perhaps part of the reason it took everyone so long to notice or care about the gender slant in our language (besides the fact that men were arguably writing more of our language down than women were) is that English certainly isn’t alone in having an apparently sexist bent toward the masculine. Further, every language is full of lacunae: when there isn’t a word for something, we make do with another one. I don’t know who first suggested that our very language might be sexist for implying that male is default and female a deviation, but in the last few decades there has been a (seismic) shift among English speakers, at least, to modify our words to emphasize that humanity is greater than the sum of her male parts.

Unfortunately, this process hasn’t been without its snags. Language doesn’t work by fiat — it grows and develops with the nebulous mass of millions who use it to interact with each other and function in society. So until someone has clout and influence enough to just make up a word that people and scholars alike will adopt (where are you, Shakespeare, when we need you? Lewis Carroll might do in a pinch), we’re stuck with the language that we have. We’ve given it our college best to rectify the centuries-old problem first by clunky “he/she” constructions, and now more commonly by simply using one of any of the other personal pronouns (I, you, we, they) wherever possible, since the third person singular is unique in being gendered. As a result the use of “they” to refer to a person whose gender is not specified is gradually becoming accepted as part of ‘correct’ English usage (to the chagrin of many a grammar Nazi). “Man”, in the sense of “human of unspecified gender”, has pretty much fallen out of common usage.

And so usage adjusts, slowly but surely. The bigger problem is what to do about older texts that we still use today, such as prayers and hymns. Shall they be edited to respect current trends? And if so, how? As I said above, there are no easy substitutes. The word “human” (our much altered version of “hominus”, introduced to English by way of the French) carries an almost scientific connotation in modern usage, and “person” can be used to refer to an individual but not to humanity, collectively, as “man” or “mankind” does. Neither word can be swapped easily for the monosyllable in songs or other metered works, resulting in many an awkward construction. These awkward constructions only multiply at Christmastime, when the topic of the day is the fact that he who is God became a man, er, human.

One song in particular that jangles uncomfortably on my ears every year is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. The original version of “Hark” was written by Charles Wesley in the 18th century with many subsequent revisions by other writers and editors. It wasn’t set to its current Mendelssohn melody until the mid-nineteenth century. Gender-inclusiveness is just the latest in a long line of updates the song has seen (many of them good ones: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” certainly improves upon “Hark how all the Welkin rings”). In this case, however, I think the work is marred rather than bettered by prevailing editors’ attempts at gender-neutral language. The offending lines are in verse two, with the lines that note that Christ was “pleased as man with men to dwell”, and three, “Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth”.Newer versions generally instead read “please as man with us to dwell” and “Born that we no more may die / Born to raise us from the earth.”

Let’s look at those changes more closely. The original “as man with men to dwell” emphasizes by its very alliteration the elevation of humanity by the incarnation of Christ. Christ came to be with us because he shared our very nature. He thereby made the earth his home. The edit maintains the allusion to John but loses this emphasis because “we” is unfortunately not specific. Who are ‘we’? Humankind? The faithful? Those who happen to be singing this song? The song still works, but clarity is lost: the original both describes the elevation of humanity by the incarnation while also communicating that it was not by any of our merit that Christ came to us. He dwelt with men because he was a man. Modern editors discard alliterative emphasis in favor of ambiguity again in the third verse with the phrase “born that we no more may die”: Christ was born to save the human race (though not all would accept his salvation), not the unspecific “we” which here could imply only the elect, or be interpreted in a broader sense to include — well, non-humans. The final edit, changing “born to raise the sons of earth” to “born to raise us from the earth”, maintains yet again the ambiguous first person plural, while marring the allusion to Genesis 3 (for you are dust, and to dust you shall return ). Calling us “sons of earth” speaks to our dusty origins while reminding us how Christ has changed our destiny by his coming. In the current version “raise us from the earth” simply invokes an image of Our Lord raising up the fallen without emphasis to our nature or death. Again, this doesn’t render the song heretical or ugly, but it changes the image and obscures the scriptural reference in doing so.

These edits are, in many ways, minor; music for worship is edited and updated all the time down the centuries, so I don’t have much standing to protest that publishers of hymn-books have committed some unholy trespass. But I can’t help but feel that in this case we’re trying to retcon our language into inclusivity. The original authors and editors of sacred music did not, as a rule, intend to exclude the female population from their statements, so I can’t bring myself to attribute sexism to them which was simply inherent in their language. These attempts to correct their language after the fact sacrifice aesthetic integrity and theological clarity for the sake of an anachronistic notion gender-neutral language. When composing new songs, by all means, respect the idiom of the day and make them inclusive: but doesn’t editing an old one in this way suggest that semantics is more important than beauty and truth?

Priorities aside, what bothers me most about our well-meaning edits is that they imply that when Wesley or Darwin (or Elliot or Austen, for that matter) talked about Man, or when numerous translators rendered the Latin “hominus” into the English “man” they meant to exclude me, a woman, from their philosophies. And so in an attempt to include me in the present such editors retroactively exclude me in countless writings from centuries past. I object to such exclusion: the language may have an inherent slant (though this is a dubious claim), but that doesn’t mean all its speakers do. I can read Shakespeare and I know that the meaning of some words has changed, and I hope that I can understand the same when singing old hymns.

The twelve days of Christmas are almost over (most of the world has already given up festive music for the season). But if you hear someone stubbornly singing off-book “hims” this Sunday, I confess: it was me.

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