Monday, June 4, 2018

“Her name is not Kurt” …Of Language, Meaning, Gender

What’s in a name?… No math today, just a digression to a little semantics and psycholinguistics….

A short while back Jim Propp tweeted out:
My kid just told me ‘I have good news and bad news for you.’ It turned out that the good news was that there was no bad news and the bad news was that there was no good news. I’m still trying to figure out how many of these assertions were true.
Without thinking much about it, I snarkily tweeted back:
Is his name Kurt…?

…and Jim responded simply with:
Her name is not Kurt.

…giving me quite a chuckle! …at my own obtuseness… after I went back to re-read his tweet and realized that indeed he had never indicated the gender of this youngun. Instead, my brain spontaneously conveyed me along a map Jim had not provided.

…Most of you know the now classic doctor/son riddle, a version of which runs like this:

A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene, while the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims "I can not operate on this boy."
A nurse asks, "Why not?"
The doctor replies, "Because he's my son." 
How is this possible?

(…the “doctor” is the boy’s mother)
Though today it is well known, I dare say when this riddle was first proposed most people fell for it.

As with “waiter”/“waitress,” “steward”/“stewardess,” “actor”/“actress,” do we need words like “doctoress” and “lawyeress” to make gender distinctions more clear? (NO, I don’t believe that, but I do confess that upon hearing a term like “doctor," "dentist," or "lawyer” my baby-boomer mind does immediately dredge up the image of a male… just as “nurse” promptly produces a female image). Mental habits die slowly.

Somewhat serendipitously, a few days after my exchange with Jim, Lera Boroditsky tweeted out a link to an article on the topic of gendered language and “linguistic relativity” (also known as the Whorfian or Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which says in essence that language shapes in part how we think about, or perceive, the world):

I’m a long-time believer in some form of “linguistic relativity” (it comes in weak and strong forms), as is Dr. Boroditsky (though several major linguists are NOT). So the effects (especially cognitive or subconscious) of language are by no means unimportant to me.

Many years ago someone wrote me to complain about the “sexist” use of the word “laymen” (instead of “laypersons”) in the subheading (above) of my blog.  I’m sensitive to some uses of the suffix “man” as in “chairman” or “postman” or "fireman," but others don’t much bother me, including “layman” — moreover I wanted the subheading to have the cadence and alliteration of “layman;” “layperson” wouldn’t cut it, so their complaint didn't resonate with me.

But I do wonder where we draw the line with such worrying over the syllable “man.” Do we need replacement words for “human,” “mankind,” “woman”… or what about “manipulate,” “mandate,” or, hey in mathematics, the term “manifold”? Seriously, I’m unsure where different people might draw the line for which terms are problematic and which are innocuous, or can we even ever escape the shackles of language, no matter how we might try.
Indeed, in many languages virtually all nouns are “gendered” and have been for 1000’s of years. Moreover, apart from just gender, words carry all sorts of deep-seated, provoking connotations and subtle meanings that may result in prejudices or irrational notions of which we are barely aware, and yet bear power over us. The failure to recognize this or educate people about it from early on has helped lead to the unconscionable demagoguery that now rules our nation, and history tells us where that leads (it also leads to the ridiculous power of advertising and marketing, by the way). [Meanwhile, today 'freedom of speech,' once seen as the bedrock of liberalism, is being challenged by the category of “hate speech” and other forms of speech/words labelled as “offensive” -- and here I'm tempted to refer readers to Professor ;) George Carlin: ]
We are repeatedly told as youngsters that 'Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,' but in reality rarely take it to heart.

Anyway, at the end of the Boroditsky article above, Lera is quoted as saying, Maybe it’s time to be able to imagine a human without categorizing them by gender, and see them as more of an individual.

I wholeheartedly agree, as we spend too much time and energy separating ourselves into conflicting, chest-thumping groups, tribes, polarized pigeonholes. I sometimes fondly describe myself as a ‘bipedal primate,’ and wish we could all simply see ourselves in no more specific category than that. But realistically, I know that seeking out group affiliations is what we all instinctively do — so I guess I’ll admit to being a liberal, progressive, democratic-socialist, anti-fascist, cake-loving layman....

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