Tradition gets a Vote. Inclusivity gets the Veto.
"All words are made up." - Thor
Vicky Teplitsky Ben-Saadon, left, the coordinator of terminology at the Hebrew Language Academy’s Scientific Secretariat, with Ronit Gadish, right, the head of the secretariat. Credit...Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times
From time and increasingly we see articles featuring efforts to make gender-biased languages more inclusive. This one focuses on Hebrew.
Here are a few excerpts from the article:
1. "But in recent years, many Israelis have been pushing to modify Hebrew and even its
alphabet to deal with what they see as inherent biases in a language whose modern
form retained the grammatical norms of biblical times."
2. “Research has shown that using the ‘standard’ masculine form has a negative impact on
girls and women and their chance to succeed in modern society,” she added.
3. The lack of gender-neutral pronouns and constructs in Hebrew means that the
masculine plural form of verbs and pronouns has long been used as the standard form
when referring to, or addressing, a mixed crowd, for example.
Now, when addressing or referring to a mixed or general group of people, Israelis are
increasingly using both the masculine and feminine forms of each verb and pronoun,
along with corresponding adjectives, or are mixing them up in an effort to create a
more inclusive Hebrew.
4. Critics complain that the constant doubling up of genders turns each phrase into a
potential tongue twister and stymies the natural flow of speech and prose.
“To repeat that more than once is awful, the text becomes one big annoyance, you don’t
want to hear it anymore!” grumbled Ruvik Rosenthal, a language maven who in his latest
book, “My Life, My Language,” titled a chapter about gender and Israel’s lingua franca
“In praise of sex-maniac Hebrew,” borrowing a phrase from Yona Wallach, a feminist
Dr. Rosenthal said he supports the push for more inclusive language, but also pointed out
what he views as some of its limitations. Referring to what he called “engineered” writing
— the use of slash signs and dots in a belabored effort to incorporate both gender endings
that has become more common in Israel in recent years — Dr. Rosenthal added, “It’s not
grammatical. It’s ugly, it’s complicated and in practical terms it’s not suited to speech.”
We commit the is/ought fallacy when we insist that what is presently the case (the status quo), likely grounded in custom and sometimes enshrined in doctrine, MUST be the right and eternal way for things to be. This account of the dynamics of efforts to change language illustrates the is/ought trap in several ways.
The first excerpt makes it look as if inherent gender bias in Hebrew is a matter of opinion ("what they see as..."). The second excerpt makes it clear that inherent bias is factual ("Research has shown...").
The third excerpt highlights the power and privilege we bestow on custom, tradition, and the status quo ("...has long been used as the standard..."). We do this too much and it causes great harm. Think of offensive team mascots, discriminatory policies, and insisting that we have turkey at Thanksgiving when no one in the family even likes turkey. And, of course, think of Thanksgiving.
The fourth excerpt. I mean, yikes. To refer to Dr. Rosenthal (and those who share his disposition) as a "critic" (as in the case of the first excerpt) gives the impression that he has an opinion worth considering. Bigotry is not worth considering. (Bigot: one who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.) What a privilege it is to be able to safely vituperatively castigate and dismiss the work of folks who are trying to improve inclusivity (as challenging a process as that is) as awful, annoying, engineered, belabored, not grammatical, and ugly! I mean, yikes.
There's nothing wrong with being careful when established ways of thinking, believing, and behaving come under scrutiny. It's very wrong and too often harmful to privilege the pre-established on no better basis than prior-ity.