When George Orwell invented "Newspeak" in 1984, he was partly caricaturing the political abuses of language current in his time (particularly those practiced by the Communists), and partly exercising his creative fancy. At the time he wrote, the agents of totalitarianism had not yet come up with the theory that words are reality, and that both can be made and remade to fit the Party line. The sort of wholesale linguistic engineering Orwell envisioned only came about after the 1960s: for the New Left, relativism and the "social construction" of reality are fundamental articles of faith.
Today, the most ardent, vociferous, and explicit proponents of Newspeak-style language-mutilation are obvious: the perpetrators of such acts of linguistic vandalism as "Ms.," "s/he," "womyn," and "herstory." For sheer, malicious delight in mangling language, and for patently absurd rationalizations of such mindless destruction, feminists are unsurpassed.
The theory is that language (like practically everything else in the world, it seems) somehow "oppresses" women. Feminists are extremely vague about how this "oppression" works, and they have to be: if they made their claims clear and explicit, the claims would be too obviously false. Are syntax and semantics really forms of rape? Was the dictionary written by some insidious patriarchal conspiracy? Did men teach women to speak in order to enslave them?
For all their "theorizing," these ideological vandals are as ignorant as any juvenile delinquent. Take "herstory," for example, coined in reaction to "history," which they apparently think means "his [man's] story." In fact "history" and "story" are doublets, both derived separately from the Latin historia. If it did mean "his story" originally, then (since the Latin possessive pronouns are not the same as the English ones) it would have been suastoria instead. And sua means "his" or "her," anyway!
Denouncing the English language as an insidious tool of "phallocracy" is easy, as long as one assumes that English is the only language in the world. Take, for example, our "sexist" third-person singular pronouns, which cause feminists such frantic worry and indignation -- all of it completely pointless. Anyone who uses the "he or she" locution (or even worse, "they" -- as in, "a feminist is a person who doesn't know what they're talking about") should be forced to write "When a person worries about how he or she can express himself or herself in a 'non-sexist' way, instead of just saying what he or she has to say, he or she is wasting his or her time" one thousand times, and then informed that the Turkish, Chinese, and Japanese languages (for starters) are all completely innocent of gender -- with gender-free pronouns, in particular -- yet none of these peoples have been noted for their egalitarian treatment of women. If that doesn't cure him, he should be locked away in an asylum.
As for the generic use of "man" for "human being," Latin nicely distinguishes between homo and vir; furthermore, in Latin and its derivatives, "person" (Latin persona, French [la] personne, etc.) is feminine in gender. Obviously, then -- given the theory that linguistic niceties determine thought and culture -- the Latins must have been matriarchalists. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian men should now be whining about the need for more "inclusive" language. Yet, in fact, the Latins were as patriarchal as they come.
Speaking of "gender," perhaps the most pernicious and widespread example of Femspeak is to use it to mean "sex." This is wrong for two reasons. First, "gender" is a grammatical term: it is an attribute of words, not persons. Second, not all distinctions of gender pertain to sex. "Gender," in fact, simply means "type" or "kind" (from Latin genus, by way of Old French gendre). In Swedish, for example, the original masculine and feminine genders have been collapsed into a single "common" gender: the Swedes therefore distinguish between nouns which are either masculine or feminine, and those which are neither (neuter).
In Persian, the only residual distinction of gender is between the human and the non-human, as made in the third-person pronouns: all human beings, regardless of sex, are called u, while the demonstrative pronouns, in and an, are used to refer to things. Picture Ms. Grundy, her Nonsexist Word Finder clutched firmly under one arm, trotting up to an Islamic Revolutionary and congratulating him on liberating women from "oppressive" pronouns! (Of course, to be truly politically correct, the Iranians would have to dispense with the distinction between human beings and things, which is blatantly "speciesist" and unfair to whales, trees, and plague bacilli.)
Gender, like language itself, is arbitrary and conventional: some languages have it, some don't; those that do, apply it in often strange ways -- in German, for example, a girl is neuter and a turnip is feminine. Apparently, feminists believe that by calling sex "gender" they can, by a kind of linguistic voodoo, make it as arbitrary and conventional as gender. If language can make girls neuter and turnips feminine, why can't it make men women and women men? Best of all, replacing "sex" with "gender" helps obscure its connection to sexual intercourse: instead of two sexes made for each other, there are only abstract, aimless organs which can be "oriented" any which way.
But the plain fact is that language does not determine reality, nor even the way people think. It can, at most, be used to obscure reality and confuse people's thinking. Ironically, if thought and reality were determined by language, then Femspeak would be impossible: no one could conceive of any ideas not already contained in our "sexist" language. We wouldn't have the feminist Ministry of Truth rewriting the dictionary. Maybe we'd be better off.
© 1999 by Karl Jahn