How To Respond When Your Uncle Starts Bashing Inclusive Language
First, I want to say that, if it is your case, you are not alone. We are here for you, we love you, and you are worthy. If you feel alone, or need help, please ask for it. There are numerous available resources you can reach out to. You deserve to be helped.
For those of us who are lucky enough to have a family that is not blatantly homophobic, transphobic or anything ending with -phobic, family dinner can still be difficult. In particular, when your whole family assumes that you are the representative of the left wing and collectively decide to bash you, attack you and make fun of you for it. Activist children of the world unite. I know you know what I am talking about.
So, for today, I thought we could go over 4 mains tips on what to answer when your sexist, racist and homophobic uncle starts bashing inclusive language, just to get on your nerves. Here is a little guide on why the masculine generic is bullshit and why it is stupid to argue that the pronoun ‘they’ can only be used as a plural. May this help you.
NB: one important thing before we go on. Remember that sometimes people are dumb and will straight out refuse to listen to you. This can be infuriating, but there is nothing you can do about it – torture is not legal, at least not in my country. So quick tip: if it gets too much, just pretend you need to go to the toilets and once there, text your friends. Chances are, they are going through the same thing as you. And yes, your family might think you have some kind of bowel issues, but at least, you will be able to preserve your mental health.
Know your roots: Dictionaries and the cases of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Austen
This first counterpoint is a claim of authority. I personally believe that any point dismissing evolution in the language is both absurd and useless (and we will go over this later in this article), but it is not everyone’s case. So, if your family tries to tell you something along the lines of ‘using ‘they’ as a singular is just wrong, it says so in grammar books and look at these examples’, this section is for you.
Dictionaries: the OED and the Merriam-Webster dictionary
First of all, dictionaries are documenting the use of ‘they’ as a singular, as we speak. I have chosen examples from the OED and the Merriam-Webster, as both of them are considered to be good, trustworthy dictionaries.
Here is what the OED has to say. First, ‘they’ can be used with a singular antecedent to refer collectively to the members of a group. Meaning, it is grammatically correct to use ‘they’ with a singular reference.
But we all know that this is not really what people have in mind when they say that ‘they’ cannot be used as a singular. So, here is another definition, still by the OED.
Oh, why yes, there are examples as old as 1450, using ‘they’ to explicitly refer to a singular person whose gender is not specified. Look at that!
On top of that, the OED, just like the Merriam-Webster dictionary, states that ‘they’ can also be used as a singular pronoun for people who do not want to use or do not identify with ‘she’ or ‘he’ pronouns.
Famous authors: Chaucer, Shakespeare and Austen
And if your uncle still thinks he knows better than a dictionary, you can always tell him that renowned authors, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and countless others, have also used ‘they’ as a singular pronoun referring to a singular antecedent. Whoops.
Here are some interesting quote:
‘And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre a Goddés name’ (And whoso findeth him out of such blame, / They will come up and offer in God’s name)
(Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue of the Pardoner’s Tale)
‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/As if I were their well-acquainted friend’
(William Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors)
‘But every body is to judge for themselves and the Lucases are very good sort of girls, I assure you.’
(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
And, well, if your uncle still seems to think he knows better than established dictionaries and famous, recognized writers, he might be a lost cause. But you can still try something else down the list. The next section will actually come back to when the English language was changed to be more sexist, so stay tuned!
18th Century and the era of sexist grammarians – the birth of the masculine generic
Here is for all the people saying that wanting to stop using the masculine generic and using ‘they’ as a singular is wrong, artificial and denaturing the language. What if I told you we are just trying to fix some old dudes’ whim?
In 1975, Ann Bodin wrote an article published by the Cambridge University Press titled 'Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular 'They', Sex-Indefinite 'He', and 'He or She''. In it, she explores the use of singular third person pronouns in the history of the English language. And she draws several interesting conclusions.
The use of ‘they’ through time
Her first conclusion is that ‘they’ as a singular has been actually consistently and regularly used prior to the 19th century. Several researchers have actually compiled occurrences of the singular ‘they’ through several centuries of English literature.
Grammarians androcentric world view
Another interesting aspect that she points out is that the singular ‘they’ has been rejected by grammarians, who argued that, as it was only plural, it did not agree with a singular subject. However, no one pointed out that ‘he’, a masculine pronoun, did not agree with a feminine, non-gendered, agendered or anything other than masculine subject. Weird, huh? Almost seems like the issue is not pronoun agreement but sexism...
Even more interestingly, the argument in favor of using ‘he’ for generic singular pronouns (instead of ‘they’, ‘he and she’, or anything gender-inclusive, really) takes its roots in sexist statements from the 16th century. Let us quote for instance Wilson, a man who somehow felt qualified to redefine the English language to better suit his world view:
‘the worthier is preferred and set before. As a man is sette before a woman’
(Wilson, 'Androcentrism In Prescriptive Grammar')
Or, perhaps, you will like this one more:
‘let us kepe a natural order, and set the man before the woman for maners Sake’
(Wilson, 'Androcentrism In Prescriptive Grammar')
Sounds like a fun guy to hang with! Unfortunately, the same kind of claims were used in the 17th and 18th century, to justify the use of ‘he’ instead of the singular ‘they’.
Claiming back the language
So, to sum up, the singular ‘they’ was widely and consistently used in English literature up until the 19th century. It was never questioned or thought to be wrong, until grammarians decided that the English language should respect what they thought was the natural order of things – namely, that men were more important than women. This leaves us with two conclusions:
- The use of ‘they’ singular is neither new, nor a change in the language: it is simply reinforcing an old usage that people obviously felt was convenient and useful. Really, if anyone tried to change the language here it was 18th century sexist grammarians. It thus makes absolutely no sense to accuse feminist and queer people of arbitrarily changing the language, or to say that it is just a recent trend.
- None of these grammarians wanted to use the masculine as the norm because it was inclusive of all other genders. In fact, they pretty clearly stated that the masculine should be used over the feminine because it was more important. So, no, the masculine form is not more inclusive than any other forms. It is just something we pretend, in order to keep using the masculine form as a generic.
All in all, there is no objective, neutral justification to the use of the masculine generic. It just reflects men’s sexist, racist and ableist take on the world. And if you are not convinced of that yet, just wait for the next part.
Why we are still arguing about this – importance and representations
People will often tell you that the use of the masculine generic is not that important. That it is only a detail. That there are more important fights, that you should probably focus on something more important. And that it also includes other genders anyway, so really, what is the problem?
Inclusive language and representations do matter
Well, all of the above claims are wrong. Yes, it matters. People’s identities matter. And it matters so much, in fact, that we are here, at Christmas, arguing about it because you will not let it go, John. Also, it matters, because as we said before, you cannot discuss something if you lack the words for it. The masculine generic effectively erases the experience of other genders. And until we are acknowledged in the language, our issues will not be addressed. So yes, again, it matters. We all know it.
In fact, we know it so much that men in the francophone part of Switzerland are actually outraged by a law proposal asking to write down ‘parent’ instead of ‘father’. Because, mind you, they think that we are trying to erase them. Yes, even though we all know the word ‘parent’ includes ‘father’ as well. Can you imagine how they would react if they were systematically and systemically erased from the language?
The expression ‘the masculine generic’ is an oxymoron
And lastly, no, the masculine generic does not include other genders. At all. Actually, numerous linguistic studies have highlighted that, when presented with instances of the masculine generic, people only conjured a masculine image in their head. Not only that, but other studies actually point out that the use of the generic masculine actually reinforces sexist attitudes and behaviors (John Gastil, December 1990).
And here we are, still arguing that the masculine is generic, 31 years later.
A language not evolving is a dead language – or, really, learn how dictionaries work
Here is for our fourth and last point. In this section, we will see how languages and dictionaries actually work. Because, once we start talking about inclusive language, everyone suddenly seems to think they are qualified linguists or something – when, in reality, they do not have the slightest clue about how languages work.
How languages work: on evolution and borrowing
Languages evolve. That is their very nature. They evolve, because they are used to express human experience. If they did not, we could not use the words ‘airplanes’, ‘car’, ‘smartphones’ and so many more. And that would complicate exchanges a bit, I think. Like ‘I have tried to reach you on the thing that you can put in your pocket and that makes noises to deliver information, but you have not answered me back’ or ‘how was your trip in the big metal box that flies in the air across the seas?’.
Also, languages mix. About 80% of English vocabulary entries are borrowed, mainly from Latin (dictionary.com, December 2021). A large part of English's most commonly used words come from French. Some words, like the pronoun ‘they’, come from Old Norse. ‘Deck’ is a Dutch word. ‘Alcohol’, ‘zero’ and many more words are Arabic. Many languages have common roots; some of them are vernacular versions of ‘standard’ languages, like French to Latin. They evolve, they mix, they borrow words from other languages when they lack a satisfactory equivalent.
Languages always have and always will mix, borrow, and evolve. Because a language not evolving is a dead language. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. So, what about you get over it and use your time for something more useful, like bakery, art, reading or volunteering for people in need?
How dictionaries works: adding and using
The idea that changes in the language should be from top to bottom, with people of authority allowing us or not to use new words is at best optimistic and, at worst, completely dumb. People need words to reflect their reality. We all develop secret languages with friends or siblings, specifically not to be understood by others. Have you noticed how, sometimes, expressions exist but only within your family? Well, I think we can all agree that it would be incredibly dumb to say that we cannot use them because they have not been approved by a higher authority.
Also, the way dictionaries work is not from top to bottom. Actually, they work on a pretty simple principle: they monitor the apparition and use of new words, and once they reach a certain level – meaning they are used by a significant part of the population – they add them to new editions (Le Robert, November 2021). In other words, as more people use a word to describe their reality, dictionaries acknowledge the change and put them in our common words’ repertoire.
Which means that, if a word gets added, it is because it is (or has been at some point) used by enough people to be considered as a language evolution. So, based on that, we can draw two conclusions here:
- ‘They’ has been historically used in its singular form for hundreds of years.
- It is still very much used today.
In conclusion: get over it already, John
To wrap it up, ‘they’ has been and is still used today as a singular pronoun. Authorities on language have arbitrarily tried to prevent this, effectively convincing us that the masculine generic should be preferred instead, as it is grammatically more appropriate. But this has no objective justification, as it is simply based on a sexist view of the world and does not account for the reality of a majority of people. Authorities on language have also tried to enforce the idea that change in the language is a bad thing and should not be done – even if it is exactly what they did, and even if the only languages not evolving are dead languages. Languages have changed and will continue to change, no matter what you think of it.
Also, the idea behind inclusive language as advocated by feminist and queer people is that, very much like the world around us, language has been fixed and arbitrarily chosen by men, for men – if you are interested in the subject, you can check one of our late articles on how dangerous it is to evolve in a man’s world. This, by definition, actually means impoverishing the language and artificially changing it. The very thing we accuse inclusive language of. But I guess, it is easier not to inform yourself on the subject, and to just be an intolerant, prejudiced sorry excuse for a human being – I do not have a lot of patience left for these people, I must confess. And I find it sad that, with all the injustice and discriminations taking place in the world right now, you chose this as a fight; preventing people from using an existing word. You do not have anything more interesting to do?
Make them read the article directly if the ‘debate’ – or, as I like to call it, ‘people’s attacks on your identity and beliefs, just for the sake of giving their opinion on a matter that does not touch them or that they are not qualified to talk about, just for the sake of it’, but that is a bit longer – is too much for you. Know your limits. Sometimes, some people are too dumb to change their minds. Sometimes, you do not have the energy. It is ok. Sometimes, it can be very draining to stand alone. And if they are still not listening, then maybe these are not people you actually need in your life?
Also, maybe we should start asking ourselves, who makes the grammar? Who decides on norms and rules? Based on what values? Because people have also decided to make a difference between ‘standard English’ and ‘vernacular English’. And when you look into it, it is hard to find an explanation other than full-on racism: what is white, educated, middle-class is considered ‘standard’ and all else is just incorrect variations. Also, did you know that French grammarians decided to purposefully make French harder to write, with all its rules and exceptions, in order to make the distinction between intellectuals and common people? Yeah.
It is also hard not to see that the experiences of people of color, women, non-binary people, trans people, and everyone who is not white, cis, male, hetero, dyadic, middle-class and able-bodied are never reflected in the language. Words and expressions often lack to voice our experiences. How many new terms have been coined recently to describe our realities – like pronouns, ‘misogynoir’, ‘femicide’, ‘heteronormativity’, ‘intersectionality’? The lack of words to describe our experiences and oppressions effectively prevents us from discussing them and implementing changes. Who does that profit to?
Maybe it is time we push past that and accept that languages are a fantastic tool for communication and drawing us closer, sharing a common human experience, voicing our realities and working for a common, more equalitarian world, rather than try to manipulate it to fit a one-sided reality. Let us revolutionize language.
A little bonus
Psst... If you want to see your uncle lose it, you can also show him one of our amazing projects by and for non-binary people – we do not want to watch the world burn, but maybe just the living-room:
Habibitch Said Habibye To Racism On The Dancefloor
Here Is To The Late Bloomers: Semler’s Message Of Love
The D Cut: The Webserie Inside The Coolest Queer Hair Salon
Ache Magazine: A Publication By And For Women, Trans People And Non-Binary People
Tzef Montana Is Crushing Gender Norms One Picture At A Time
Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts on this on our Instagram – we would love to hear your best comebacks for when people start bashing inclusive language.
Take care of yourself and do not forget to reach out for help if you need it!
Header credits: Johann Walter Bantz / Unsplash