Gender Shifts in the History of English

By Anne Curzan | Go to book overview
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3 A history of gender, people, and
pronouns: the story of generic he

3.1 Introduction

Contemporary question

The sexist nature of generic he has been established in linguistic scholarship for at least two decades. (Martyna 1978, 1980a, 1980b are perhaps the most cited studies; see Newman 1997: 9–61 for a good summary.) As the brief survey of selected grammar books at the end of this chapter shows, modern grammarians and style guide writers have reached a consensus: generic he is sexist and should be avoided. There are, however, still grammatical pundits who hold fast to generic he as stylistically preferred; and findings about the sexist nature of generic he have certainly been contested even within linguistic circles. The Harvard “incident” in 1971 is one of the more famous instances; the head of the Linguistics department described the generic masculine as simply a feature of grammar (and a “natural” one at that) and dismissed protesting female students as having “pronoun envy” (as cited in Romaine 1999: 105–106).

Modern debate on this question has been framed as though it were a grammatical question (e.g., number agreement), and feminists have fought hard to move the debate from the rhetoric of “objective” grammar rules to a discussion of the semantic and social implications of those rules. In a natural gender system, the pronoun he can no longer be a purely grammatical form with no meaningful content about the gender of the referent. This debate has been informed by important and interesting studies of the grammatical, social, and psychological implications of the generic masculine, and occasionally scholars gesture back in time to early grammar books like Lindley Murray's English Grammar (1981 “1824”) or to examples of authors such as Jane Austen who employ generic they. To date, these debates have not been informed by a more rigorous historical linguistic examination of the relationship between personal pronouns and nouns referring to humans in the history of English, such as the study presented here, to determine how these historical details might inform our understanding of the modern debate and what is at stake.


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Gender Shifts in the History of English


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