Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 29, 2010

Mark My Words: “Man” – What is he?

Above: a 7-minute documentary project by Sanjay Newton, on male and female images and biases in Disney films

“Ne scride nan wif hiy mid waepmannes reafe, ne waepman mid wifmannes reafe.” [Deut. 22:5, in Old English, circa 900 CE, as translated by England’s King Alfred the Great and the academics within his Anglo-Saxon court]

( “Let no woman clothe herself with man’s clothing; let no man… with women’s clothing.” )

As the above example shows–for better or worse– our values, biases and history are built right into the language we use to communicate.

King Alfred wanted his regular rank-and-file citizens to be able to read the Christian “wisdom” books (the Torah, or Pentateuch) in their own language. But language is a living, breathing, ultimately tricky thing. So we end up with bad translations, despite the best intentions of those doing the translating. There’s no avoiding it, though most of us in the West are unaware of the history and subtext of the very words we use on a daily basis.

In the Old English example above, the violent and crudely sexual nature of our paternalistic past is present even in the single word meaning “man”: waepman. Literally translated, a man (to our primitive Germanic ancestors in Europe) is a “weapon-having human”, or –even more crudely– a “penis-having human“.

In other words, the conception of the penis as a weapon –for hunting or inflicting harm– appears to be woven into the very fabric of the European masculine identity and nomenclature.

Gee… What a surprise!

Meanwhile, the main word for woman was “wif”, as in wife, or “wifman“. In contrast to the destructive or aggressive origin of “weapman”, wif was probably derived from “wifan”, meaning weaver. A woman creates, or weaves and blends …a man destroys, or cuts and hunts.

Even before the English language existed, though, there were biases and politics bound up in our words and translations.

For as long as humans have had language, rules and culture, it seems we’ve been trying to outgrow this clumsy and wrong-headed concept of male identity as having to do with violence, strength and domination (we call them hunters)… while leaving the gentler creative or weaving roles to women  (the gatherers).

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but the name we give something can hurt us, too. So from now on call me Mr. Weaver, for I have little interest in being a so-called “Real Man”.

***

The linguistic history information above is from _A History of English In Its Own Words_ by Craig M. Carver (HarperCollins, NY, 1991). However, the interpretation through a spiritual or anthropological lens is mostly my own– though I must credit Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr , along with Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, linguist Noam Chomsky and philosopher Jacques Derrida  for this style of cultural and historical analysis.

My purpose in posting this? Simple: Education. Loving correction. Reflection on my own wounds, and what it will take to heal them. This of course is a key step in healing my relationships with the women in my life, and with other men.

My prayer: That we may finally overcome these primitive concepts of identity and gender, and move toward the more diverse and nuanced belief that a man can be both weaver and hunter, both gentle and powerful.

We owe it to our wifs.


Responses

  1. Forgive me if I’m looking at this wrong, but I took a French Feminism class last year and they were talking about the opressive nature of male dominated language. Aren’t they using said male dominated language to say that male dominated language has made them mute? Is it just me or does that seem completely circular? Am I just not understanding this concept correctly, or are we inserting feminism into linguistics?

  2. Zack,

    I suppose you are at least partly being accurate. But it’s the spirit of the thing that perhaps matters more, not the literal or logical point about what language one uses to express a point-of-view. In most cases, regardless of the culture or language, communicators have no alternative *but* to use the language they were born into. It’s seldom possible to use a female-dominated social system or process (language is just one), because historically these barely exist anywhere.

    Same goes for race-neutral language. I probably cannot talk about “calling a spade a spade” without somebody, somewhere, accusing me of being racist. Because the word was once co-opted by racists, never again will it strictly mean “shovel”, or a suit in a deck of cards. And modern thinkers on race matters might actually be right, that I can’t *help* but be a little racist, even unintentionally, by remaining un-conscious about the negative bias in how I put things.

    So language does not stay static. But logic and math are supposed to, and those are the basis of philosophical constructions (and circular accusations) like you propose above. Feminism is a natural partner to linguistics, not an inserted overlay, because both fields are about social and historical systems, and who has power, and how they keep it… either subtly or brutally.

    I’m not trying to be a Word Nazi here (“No nouns for you!”) Just saying, language is always in need of reform. Plus it remakes itself anyway, without our even wanting it to. It’s a living thing that changes in step w/ the culture or counter-cultures that exert their influence.

    For instance: “dont u h8 when som1 uses txt-spk 2 make a complex pt?”

    (Can you tell I’m not a Twitter fan?) Is standard grammar oppressive, or are people getting lazier, or are we too much in a hurry to take time and use our brain while writing? Maybe all the above. But very little of it is under our direct control. It’s more a game of influence, of steadily beating certain drums.

    As for the French, they care enough about language and “correctness” (and here’s where feminism starts creeping in) that I think they even have a big department in their government dedicated to the proper education and preservation of *their version* of French in its purest form… as opposed to how Haitians would use the same words.

    And we know how much power Haitians have in today’s world. See the point?

  3. […] this week I got a good, legitimate comment/question on a post about masculine and feminine linguistics, from a couple months ago. After responding in the comments for more than three paragraphs, I […]


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