gender English language change and slang

She’ll be right, mate

Stan Carey’s post – Problems with pronouns – reminded us language is sometimes a blunt instrument, as in the use of they as an ungendered personal pronoun. We find it hard to think of a person without thinking of the group to which they/she/he belongs. The possessive of the neuter pronoun, its, seems to have come into prominent use in English in about 1600, before which time the masculine singular possessive his had indiscriminately colonised the non-human world.

The moment of transition seems to be graphed in Shakespeare. There is an instance of its in an early play, the Second Part of Henry VI, but most instances occur in later plays, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, Henry VIII, and The Tempest. In the Sonnets, his is still used for April, beast, beauty, desire, fire, heart, knife, nativity, rose, summer and sun. Yet do we all recognise a strong sense that gender – female/male – offers a basic binary of life that is reflected in language? So, in the Sonnets again, as elsewhere fortune and nature are female, while death and time are masculine. Language is always caught between reflecting the world as it is and reflecting the world as we see it.

One of the French anarchist journals of the late nineteenth century was called at first Le Révolté but the name was later changed to La Révolte: the activist was male, while the ideal was female.  La Liberté may be feminine, but even she has to man the barricades. In Australian English, the saying “She’ll be right, mate!” has something of the force of the Afrikaans “Alles sal regkom!” Consolatory, confident, patient, but capable of ironic nuance, of course.

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Tony Voss

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