Language is powerful. In the broad sense, language as a communication tool takes many forms: behavior, expression, gesture, tone, words.
Language has power to bless or curse, inspire or deflate, heal or wound, clarify or confuse, include or exclude.
Theologian and hymn writer Brian Wren in “What Language Shall I Borrow?” says that “language has limited power ‘by itself,’ but it gains considerable power – to enable, oppress or liberate – in the hands of powerful users.”
The most obvious form of language is words. Words may be written or spoken, read or sung, whispered or shouted. Language not only puts our thoughts into words, it also shapes our very thinking.
The nuances of language evolve within cultures and subcultures: countries, regions, cities, even churches and families.
In every culture, young children absorb the basic language – including words, phrases, idioms, gestures, inflection, tone – of their parents and siblings, intuiting meaning and usage as they begin to mimic words and phrases.
Formal education then fine-tunes children’s inherent language skills, teaching them reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary and rules of grammar, all reinforced through repetition.
One’s primary language becomes second nature at a very early age.
Once language patterns are set, it then becomes difficult to make adjustments. Editing our primary language is more difficult than learning a second language because the words and idioms of our primary language come to mind so easily that adjusting the verbiage feels awkward, unnatural.
Making changes that are lasting also requires constant intentionality over long periods of time, which many regard as unnecessary and “too much work.”
Such is the difficulty when trying to establish gender-inclusive language as normative in patriarchal cultures, where gender-exclusive language has been the primary language for centuries.
Ingrained habits are extremely difficult to overcome and replace.
When someone points out another’s use of gender-exclusive language, the response is often, “Well, English grammar rules say it’s OK to use the word ‘man’ and ‘he’ to mean ‘everyone.’ Everyone knows what I mean.” (Then why not just say what you really mean? Why force people to interpret your words?)
We sometimes forget that those default grammar rules were themselves created by men who were educated and powerful.
Women, who were not allowed a formal education, had no voice in making them. It is no surprise that the rules favor men over women.
Most likely, the rule-makers didn’t intend to be “anti-women;” it’s just that no one thought to include women in the process.
That’s one of the biggest problems with women’s equality issues, anyway. It’s often not so much that women are openly rejected; it’s more likely that they are “invisible,” simply not thought of.
Then when women object to being constantly overlooked, they are quickly labeled as “aggressive” or “domineering,” both considered undesirable traits for women who are expected to be “passively pleasant” in the realm of males.
It is when women speak up that patriarchal society resists, pushing back toward the status quo.
As Wren puts it, “Power over others is usually clung to rather than surrendered.”
The more patriarchal the culture, the more its women are discounted, overlooked, rejected, considered unimportant, not worth the effort of intentional inclusion.
Patriarchal grammar rules are just one of the ways that women are kept “in their place.”
Some may argue that perpetual use of outdated grammar rules (i.e., gender-exclusive language) is but a minor problem within efforts to raise the worldwide status of women. That “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words.”
On the one hand, that is true. But consider that gender-inclusive language is foundational to the entire question of “women’s place” in church and society.
Language shapes thought; thought precedes action. Until the world speaks of women differently and thinks of women differently, women will not be treated differently in the long term.
Gender equity will never be fully achieved in church or society as long as gender-exclusive language is the norm.
Only if enough people think gender-inclusive language is important enough to sustain intentional usage long enough will any real progress be made.
The larger question is, “Are women worth it?”
Naomi K. Walker is an ordained Baptist minister. Now retired, she served as music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, from 1995 to 2017.