Friday, March 23, 2007

Firefighters and Police Officers

"Tommy, you want to play firefighter when we get home?"
"Of course!"

Do you remember a time when firefighter seemed awkward when compared to fireman? My kids don't. They happily play firefighter, police officer, letter carrier and ambulance driver. They've never met a stewardess, only flight attendants.

Does it matter that they're growing up with different words than I did? In some ways, no. Calling someone a police officer rather than a police man doesn't make him less male, if he is a male. But, calling someone a police officer does open up the possibility that they could be female if you haven't met them yet. In this way, the titles we use do matter. I grew up in a world with policemen, firemen and mailmen. I had a paper route and had to collect money from customers. How I hated it when I heard people say "Honey, the paperboy is here!" It denied part of me. Along with the words, there was a tacit understanding that those weren't jobs for girls or women. Only after women started to join the police force or the fire department, did the job titles change. When I had my paper route, I would happily have been a paper carrier, rather than a paperboy or even papergirl.

But, oh how these changes have been decried as they've taken place. Traditionalists have claimed that the new words are grating on the ears, or even absurd. How can we talk about a committee chair convening a meeting, as if an inanimate object could do such a thing! Others comment on the awkwardness of the construction he or she (or s/he) in writing, and note that no one ever says these things. But, the spoken language has a perfectly good alternative: they used for singular if you don’t know the gender. It’s what we’ve done since Old English, and while it’s decried by logicians (a plural pronoun shouldn’t refer to a singular thing), it’s an acceptable alternative.

Furthermore, these arguments miss the point that language changes. It always has and it always will. We no longer use the Old English word gnyrn (sadness, sorrow), we've added they (from Scandinavian), niece (from French) and sheriff (from Arabic). Did the Anglo-Saxons quibble about this new pronoun they or mourn the loss of gnyrn? Did Robin Hood complain that the word sheriff grated on his ears? The person certainly offended him. The word? Probably not.

More insidious are arguments such as those made by self-appointed pundits such as Christina Hoff Summers. She suggests gender neutral language is unnecessary because many languages mark gender. She suggests that to be gender neutral, we'd have to change the whole structure of French, as all French nouns are either masculine or feminine. Or, she argues, man can be specific to males or refer to humans in general, because words can have more than one meaning. But Hoff Summers' arguments are straw arguments. She confuses grammatical gender, used in French, with natural gender, used in English French speakers happily refer to tables as she and desks as he in a way that no English speaker can do with a straight face.

Furthermore, such arguments miss the fact that words retain their multiple meanings, despite the context. While man can have more than one meaning, that doesn't make the male meaning disappear. When we read words with more than one meaning, we call up not just the meaning given by the context, but all the possible meanings. Psycholinguistic experiments have shown that if I tell you that "The diplomat was shocked by the presence of bugs in the hotel room," you will briefly call up both the meaning insect and listening device when hearing 'bug'. Thus, using man when you mean people or humans, will call up the meaning male, even when it's not intended. Why not just say people and avoid the whole issue?

Finally, using fireman or mailman gives subtle indications of our culture and beliefs. Referring to firemen suggests that this is a male job. Girls need not apply. This is no longer the state of the world. My daughter is free now to choose a career other than teacher or nurse. She's already seeing herself in roles that even I, child of the feminist revolution, never could. As she said to her brother the other night: "Tommy, you be the nurse and I'll be the doctor!"

True, some of her dreams are still impossible:

Tommy: "Do you think I could be a firefighter when I grow up?"
Mom: "If you want to."
Maria: "And I'll be a Dalmatian when I grow up!"

While reality may keep her from becoming a Dalmatian, at least her language won't keep her from becoming a firefighter.

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