Monday, December 14, 2009

Let Men Their Songs Employ

I'm sure I've complained about this before.  I find the current passion for verbal political correctness grating, if only because it produces such ugly English.  I ran up against this again last week, singing Christmas carols.

I've given up on Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, where the line "She bore to men a saviour" has been corrected to "She bore to us a saviour."  Which doesn't sound all that bad.  But this year our caroling director decided that it was just too, too politically incorrect to sing, "Let men their songs employ," in Joy to the World.  We were supposed, she said, to sing, "Let all their songs employ."

Well, I'm not a-gonna do it.  (I'm also not going to sing, "The Lord has come."  The line is, "The Lord is come," and that's what I sing.)   The beauty of this song is the line of its poetry, taken from Psalm 98 in that most politically incorrect of documents, the King James Bible; and trying to sing, "Let all their songs employ" is like biting down into a piece of fudge and cracking your tooth on a rock.  It's the right number of syllables but it feels wrong.  I am (believe it or not) a feminist; but I'm also an English major, and I refuse to disinfect my favorite Christmas carols like this.  I won't sing Good Christian People, Rejoice, either - besides, it doesn't scan.

We're missing an opportunity for some historical perspective here, and a little comparative linguistics.  One of the English language's annoying  characteristics (to a feminist, at least) is that it has no gender neutral pronoun.  You can't refer impersonally to a person or class of persons without implying gender, usually male gender.  According to Wikipedia, "most Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, and a number of Niger-Congo languages" do not have a gender-neutral pronoun (who else is there??), and use the masculine pronoun as the general.  (I thought I recalled gender neutrality of a sort in both French and German; but it's been a long time since I studied either.)  Until the French Revolution, and its call for general equality, nobody in Europe complained publicly about this; but it's now very fashionable to insist that we not use the masculine pronoun as the general, because it is sexist and promotes discrimination.  

To quote the Wikipedia article on this point:
Patriarchal societies with genderless languages, such as Chinese, demonstrate that gendered pronouns are not a prerequisite for inequality to exist.

(Oh, Chinese.  That's who else.)  According to Wikipedia again, there have been a number of attempts to produce a gender neutral pronoun (I like hir, myself - Larry Niven used it in Ringworld), none of which have ever stuck.  Our languages are wired very deeply into our brains, it seems.

In pre-industrial Europe, the general pronoun was the masculine partly because most of the actions of any significance were, in fact, taken by men.  I don't necessarily approve of this; but it was so.  And we can't really evaluate how far we've come toward the demands in Mary Wollstoncraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) unless we look back at where we were then, when women were not allowed to vote, hold property, or become educated.  

But I digress.  This isn't a defense of women's rights.  This is a plea that we should find a way to respect everyone's rights without destroying the beauty of our language and the astonishing poetry it can produce.  We need the beauty of the poetry, too.


  1. This is a curious rant, with no apparent solution. Do you mean we should invent a new word, like Niven's hir?

    The conundrum is that there is no such thing as a neuter--we're all either one thing or the other. I had a friend years ago who used to raise the issue--not wholly tongue-in-cheek--of a so-called "sex code 3" for transsexuals and the like.

    I always liked "pudenda".

  2. Oh, sometimes I rant on things that have no solution, like this. That's what blogs are for.

    I'm interested in the theory that the structure of our language controls the way we view the world. One of the references on Wikipedia, which I didn't follow up at the time, was entitled, On the creation of "She" in Japanese. What does the lack of a pronoun reference to women say about Japanese? I tried reading Benjamin Whorf at one time, unfortunately, the man can't write...

    If you've read Ringworld, you may remember that hir was not gender neutral; Niven invented it to describe the third sex in a 3-gender species!

  3. Do you remember that great scene in Darling, the Sixties British flick that starred Laurence Harvey and Julie Christie? In their first seduction scene, her character says: "Suppose it took three" -- "how do you mean?" -- "to make a baby" -- "Charming!"

    In Japan, on city streets, you still see women following their men by five steps on the sidewalk. No explaining the Japanese--they're not just another race, but another species!

  4. Chopping up the language to suit contemporary egalitarian sensibilities was one of Laurie's soapboxes. He hated changing words for such reasons and accordingly made rather a pain in the patootie of himself in choir rehearsals.

    I see his point, and yours. I also wonder how many little girls have heard or sung "...goodwill to men" and the like and wondered if God loved them, too.

    Aunt Stanbury

  5. Anyway, in "Lo How a Rose" isn't the German phrase "hat uns ein kind geboren" or words to that effect? Apparently the politically correct change is closer to the original.

  6. No, it isn't - sorry - it's "hat Sie ein kind geboren," or something like that - even more gender neutral. (My Oxford Carol Book is in Medford and I'm in Templeton, or I'd look it up. I might anyway if it wasn't such a long way to the front of this house.)

  7. Oh, that's great - I've never sung it in German as far as I can remember, so I didn't know the real original text, just the English translation. A little reference in Wikipedia (I really must donate something to Wikipedia, I use it ALL the time) reveals that the "standard" English text, "She bore to men a savior", was written by Theodore Baker, an American musicologist, in 1894.

    There is a second English text in which verse 2 reads, "Through God's great great love and might, The Blessed Babe she bare us, In a cold, cold winter's night." This was written at an unknown date by Catherine Winkworth, an English translator who died in 1878. It may be more politically correct (a lot of Victorian women were feminists, then called "bluestockings"), but I'm afraid I think Mr. Baker's version is better poetry...

  8. Boggart9:45 AM

    Ahhh, caroling - I honesty thought it had died out. I remember my family and the neighbors getting together more or less on the spur of the moment and going through the neighborhood caroling. Now and then a family would down what they were doing, throw on coats and jackets and join us. There was usually snow underfoot, although not much as this was just outside D.C. The sky was clear, and the stars brilliant. Somewhere along the line one of the adults would point out a constellation or two.

    When we lived in Hawaii, no snow, I'd take the girl scout troop caroling. We'd go to the hospital during visiting hours and carol in the corridors. The new parents in the maternity ward always came out and looked at the girls in a somewhat besotted fashion. Since then, which is a fair bit of time ago, there seems to be no caroling.

    It wasn't a religious activity nor commercially secular. It was just plain fun. The, mostly, untrained voices at the very least carried the joy of the season. Television and the mall isn't a real replacement.

  9. Hi, boggart, long time no hear! I'm not sure what we did was "caroling" in your definition, since we got together ahead of time and rehearsed a list of songs, and went to some considerable effort to make sure we had all the vocal parts covered for every gig! I think it's been at least 10 years since a bunch of our neighbors poured out of a party onto the street and went around the 'hood singing carols, with everyone singing soprano except for maybe 3 people who knew the harmony! Still, the people who stopped to listen to us seemed to like us.

    Our last gig was at the Oakland Zoo, and there was one little girl in a stroller, maybe somewhere between 10 and 15 months, who I swear was beating time with us, more or less accurately! (Get that kid an audition as soon as she can stand up!)