Thursday, August 17, 2006
Gender in English, Ancient and Modern
Many writers have remarked on the problem of expressing or not expressing gender in Modern English. Women ask why man is the generic form, as in mankind, and why woman is derivative, as though lesser. I have heard people attempting to justify this on religious grounds, since Eve was created from Adam's rib, and is therefore derivative.
Efforts to correct the perceived male bias in the language has resulted in fireman being replaced with fire fighter, mailman being replaced by mail carrier, and so on. Although these efforts to repair our lopsided language are now a fait accompli, and occasionally strengthen the term so changed, they all miss the point. The use of man as the male form of human is a corruption of the original definition in Old English, which was balanced with respect to gender. The reason we sometimes use Man in a generic sense, as in "Man is a tool user" is because Old English Mann meant human only in the generic, gender-independent sense of a person. A male human is a mann, and a female human is a mann.
Woman is a corrupted form of wifmann, or wife-person. As Kathleen Herbert writes in Peace Weavers and Shield Maidens: Women in Early English Society, the origin of wif is a bit of a mystery, but the best guess is that it is related to wefan, to weave. Old English writing is full of references to the primary role of wife-people as Peace Weavers. This weaving role of wife-people was not restricted to physical weaving. A study of Old English social rites and rituals, legends and stories, makes the original gender role of wife-people very clear as the bearers of culture and the weavers of civilization. The whole purpose of the striving of the males, the wars, the hunting, the building, was to create a safe haven within which wife-people would create civilization. Their role originally was not to be a mere helpmeet; that is a foreign gender role introduced into Old English culture later.
The lost word in Modern English is the specific term for a male person. In Old English that was waepmann, a weapon-person. The Old English world was very dangerous, and every weapon-person carried a spear starting in boyhood. The role of a weapon-person was to place his body and weapons between wife-people and danger, to protect the hall, the village, the gardens, and the fields where the wife-people worked to create the civilization that made life worth living. The weapon-person was a living contradiction, on the one hand striving for individual prowess and excellence at any cost, on the other needing to submerge his ego for the good of society, to bond together with other weapon-people to create a reliable shield wall. Weapon-people bound themselves together by personal oaths and vows not to abstract, corruptible organizations, but to each other and to their future actions, and the cornerstone of that Old English culture was the witnessing of those oaths and vows and how they were carried out. It was not the original role of weapon-people to rule the world and dominate the wife-people; that is a foreign gender role introduced into Old English culture later.
There was a pun in the name weapon-person, one noted by Shakespeare and others, as to whether the male's weapon referred to his instrument of war or his instrument of sex, captured in the modern word tool. This pun was seriously meant, because the other role of the male was to beget children, but this latter meaning was more directly captured by a second word for a male person: wermann. This prefix is related to the modern were as in werewolf. It meant male specifically in the sense of a person capable of getting a woman with child, which after all is pretty much the core definition of male. Were also meant a husband, the companion of a wife, so a newlywed couple were pronounced were and wife, that is, man and woman.
Obviously, the noun forms are not the only ones lacking balance in Modern English. The adjectives (male and female) and pronouns (he and she) both lack the general form as an option, though English is clearly evolving toward having they become the general pronoun, and the adjectives also perpetuate the false sense of the male term as the original and the female as the derivative (curiously, the two terms male and female come from two different languages and were originally unrelated and spelled unalike).
Language permits thought in human beings, and limitations or deformations of language limit or deform thought. It is a typically Modern thing to do to let the limits and deformations of our gender terminology spread throughout the language rather than repair them even at the foundations of the language.
These ancient gender terms were not the denatured, abstracted, empty designations of sex to the Old English that man and woman are to Moderns. They carried powerful cultural meanings that went to the heart of how ancient English society was structured and why. The loss of so many unreplaced terms, and the erosion of meaning from those we have kept, has left holes in our ability to comprehend ourselves and our respective roles in the world. As those roles shifted over time, the meanings of the words could have shifted with them, but instead most such meaning has been stripped from them, leaving them empty abstractions. The many new terms borrowed from other languages or invented wholesale have not filled those gaps, but rather have expanded our language and ideas in new directions, changing the overall shape of our minds and culture, altering what we can or cannot express or even conceive of. We imagine that the changes must be improvements only because it flatters us to believe it. Rather than striving to skip past these changes with quick judgments of whether they constitute progress, we ought to look at their pattern and ask ourselves what they mean. As individual personalities and as a culture, over the last two thousand years how have we been changing? What are we becoming?
Unless we honestly examine that question, we cannot know ourselves.