lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, August 24, 2006

E loves Em only for Eir body

"It's not the end of the world, Lali." Said K.

"But it is an indication that the end is nigh," I said gloomily.

I was moaning about yet another butchering of English as she is spoke, as I read the morning papers. K was trying to console me.

Language evolves. But when you consider what prompts the evolution, it makes you wonder.

Prejudices are funny things. Bias-free language will require gymnastics like calling a manhole a 'utility access aperture' and referring to blind people as being 'visually challenged'.

There was a time when moron and cretin were definitions of mental acuity rather than derogatory terms, and then they became politically incorrect in respect of the subnormal intelligence. But this is going to absurd lengths.

I was outraged when I found that the vintage first edition of Doctor Spock I had been gifted as motherhood present had been reissued with emendations and substitutions of 'she' randomly for the universal pronoun 'he'.

Whether in baby books or loftier works, it had always been a convention to use the pronoun 'he' to encompass both genders. To find Doctor Spock revised to satisfy feminist sentiments and political correctness was something of a rude shock.

Good grief. 'He' is just conventional usage, after all. Does calling it personslaughter or womanslaughter make manslaughter any better? Manicure, manufacture or manacle- all have etymological roots in Latin, no gender bias.

Do we really want gamestership when we mean gamesmanship? Do we want to assign a piece of furniture a different nomenclature and call it a tallperson rather than a tallboy? Do we want terminological inexactitudes and euphemisms rather than clear words that mean what they mean?

"You are being a Bong, honey." I teased K when he mixed up 'he' and 'she' yet again. I don't blame him. Bengali is quirky. 'He', 'she' and 'it' are all the same in Bengali. Yesterday and tomorrow are the same too. Very philosophical, I am sure.

I ought not to be casting stones, though. My mother tongue equates women with things in speech. Masculine gender is one thing but feminine and neuter are the same. It is a quirk of Telugu. Hindi is more generous: nouns have genders, and you can be gender specific in speech. But then Hindi is the language where it is possible to confuse yesterday with tomorrow, too. They needn't preen. Tamil has gender specific usage, too.

"I suppose I ought to convert to Spivak's grammar." K said. "Huh? Is this one of your tall tales?" I asked, rather suspiciously, I must admit. K then proceeded to educate me.

Michael Spivak (a hotshot mathematician apparently) wrote a textbook/manual for TeX, way back when it was a new thing and needed to be explained. He called it the "Joy of TeX ".

Mathematicians love their puns and worse, and I do mean worse.

Spivak decided, I was told, that since TeX was an entirely new approach to typesetting, to evolve a revolutionary approach to non SeXist terminology. He assigned E as the third person singular, regardless of gender, just like 'I' is the first person singular, regardless of gender. He then went on to assign 'Em' for 'them' and 'Eir' for 'their', and actually used the title of my post as an example of all three forms.

"Since Tex is a rather revolutionary approach to typesetting, I decided that a rather revolutionary approach to non SeXist terminology would be appropriate in this manual. I am myself completely unprejudiced, of course. As Mark Twain said, or should have said: All I care to know is that a man or woman is a human being- that is enough for me; he or she can't be any worse. But I hated having to say "he or she" or "his or her" or use awkward circumlocutions. Numerous approaches to this problem have been suggested, but one strikes me as particularly simple and sensible. Just as 'I' is the first person singular pronoun, regardless of gender, so "E' will be used in this book as the third person singular pronoun for both genders. Thus, 'E' is the singular of 'they'. Accordingly, 'Eir' (pronounced to rhyme with 'their') will be the possessive, and 'Em' (rhyming with 'them') will stand for either 'him' or 'her'. Here is an example that illustrates all three forms:

E loves Em only for Eir body."

He further set an exercise, like mathematicians do: How many possible meanings does this sentence have?

The mind boggles, I tell you.



Blogger karthik durvasula said...

Warning: overly pedantic note. Reading it should be avoided at all costs.

Masculine gender is one thing but feminine and neuter are the same. It is a quirk of Telugu.

Not completely accurate. There are some pronoun forms (/declensions ??) where you do see a difference:

leave those things alone - vaatini vodiley.
leave those ladies/men alone - vallani vodiley.

note: masc. and fem merge above.

many more such sub-cases. you just gotta think about them.

those (things are mine) - avi naavi.
those (men/women/people) - whatever u wanna say (but crucially, not 'avi').

hindi has many such sub cases, where neutral this get gender too. why is aasman masc. (at least, i think so), and other things fem.

dunno why i felt like writing this up. i mean, it wasn't even the point of your post. lol. for whatever it is worth...

4:02 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Karthik- Atanu (vaadu) nadichaadu.
Aame (aape, adi) nadichindi.
Pilli, kukka, railubandi nadichindi.

I rest my case. :D

It was fun reading your take.

7:41 am  
Anonymous Rajesh said...


1:41 pm  
Blogger karthik durvasula said...

@ rajesh: I second ur motion.

3:53 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- :D

Karthik- Ditto. ;-)

5:06 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

Ooh, goody! We want more mathematician tales but. Pretty please?

And you're NOT dragging me in to the tallperson-debate, Lali. No ma'amee, you're not ;-)

7:57 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rimi- But he loves me for my mind only.

9:10 pm  
Blogger Priya said...

I have the "new and improved" version of Dr Spock and I noticed that gender change too as I'd read the original version which my Mom has. The funniest part is nothing much else in the book has changed and hence at times observations seem pretty outdated. That no one can gauge intelligence of kids these days, is another matter altogether. A futile effort:P
The evolution of languages boggles my mind. And till date I haven't got the genders right for sundry things in Hindi;) Much joy comes on reading this.
We luv u fr yr posts only:)

12:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second Priya. We love you for your posts only.


Secret admirer.

1:32 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Priya- Spock might seem dated, but was a life-line when I was a young mother in a nuclear family. I needed that advice and that avuncular assuring. Doctor Spock was my personal god in those days. :D

Sigh, don't tell me about Hindi. I mangle my genders all the time, and nowadays I mangle it further with a generous dose of Bengali influenced usages.

1:57 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Charming. I love you for your posts, too. But now post something serious, please

4:02 pm  
Anonymous Non Sequitur Man said...

The answer is eight. Allowing for bisexuality, that is (See volume 2 about moresomes).

8:54 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ash- *salutes* Right away. Getting on with it. :-)

NSM- Really? Moresomes? The mind boggles.

2:21 pm  
Blogger Speech is Golden said...

I understand what E meant. It is so easy to use eir manual.

6:25 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ram- *grin* I agree with Em.

9:25 am  
Anonymous fuzzygargoyle said...

I completely agree that we need gender neutral pronouns.
Also, while it is common usage to say "he" in cases on indeterminate gender, this is not inclusive. It would only be inclusive if the female-specific pronouns were done away with, and everyone could use the "he" set without gender distinctions.

7:56 am  

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