What’s in a Word?

Shannon Clarkson

The unfolding drama of the inclusive language debate in church life reveals what those early linguists knew: people have deep emotional commitments to familiar language, and change is slow and painful. Grammar always matters in sexual politics.

In 1908, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes wrote a treatise on the use of “man” in British law and its deleterious effect on women’s freedom. American anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons in 1913 discussed the linguistic double standard that assumes the superiority of “man” as a pronoun for both men and women.

Their findings detailed pivotal grammatical dictates in gender enforcement stretching back centuries. In England in 1560, prescriptive grammarian Thomas Wilson had declared that the “natural” order ought to be observed in language. He illustrated: the “good man of the house should precede the woman, as the better Horse should precede the graye mare.” Grammarian Josua Poole in 1646 follows suit by declaring the masculine gender as more worthy than the feminine. The rule was cast in stone in 1850: an act of Parliament legally replaced “he or she” with “he.”

The work of feminist linguists in the twentieth century further disclosed how our grammar rules are as susceptible to personal bias as any other facet of society. But public awareness did not come quickly. An average of one article per year on the phenomenon of exclusively male language was published until the 1970s, when eighty-one appeared in the first three years, followed by a staggering 1,000 items in the ensuing ten years, as listed in the bibliography in the 1983 book Language, Gender, and Society.

Unfortunately, many of those making the case for inclusive language in the religious sphere were unaware of the linguistic research that had been tracking the debate for decades.

The Liberating Word: A Guide to Nonsexist Interpretation of the Bible, published in 1976 and conceived by the National Council of Churches’ Task Force on Sexism in the Bible, was one of the earliest attempts to introduce inclusive language issues within the church in a format accessible to local congregational groups. One recommendation was that the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Bible translation committee, constituted in 1980, be alert to linguistic sexism in the texts and produce as inclusive a translation as possible. The NCC task force also asked that more women be added to the NRSV translation team.

Praise and Scorn

A second recommendation led to the production of An Inclusive-Language Lectionary in three volumes for use in the churches. Year A appeared in 1983, and was greeted with both praise and scorn. The NCC received more than 10,000 letters of disapproval. The furor even brought death threats to committee members, reminding everyone again of the deeply embedded claims that language makes in our emotional lives. Nevertheless, the project continued. A revised edition of Year A in 1986 broadened the categories for attention, including language about persons with disabilities.

By 1991, meanwhile, the NRSV Bible translation itself was published. The NCC’s Bible Translation and Utilization Committee braced for a backlash reminiscent of the uproar following the publication of the first RSV in 1952, when one irate pastor burned his copy with a blowtorch and sent the ashes to the NCC’s New York offices. This time, the uproar never came. The reason may be this: even though feminine pronouns and nouns representing human beings were added for inclusivity and clarity of meaning, language for God was rarely altered in the NRSV.

Such breakthroughs seem to represent real steps forward, but we have to wonder how meaningful the progress has been in the culture’s emotional, moral habits. Some forty years ago, in the early days of the inclusive-language movement, advocates assumed that factual information about patriarchal distortions would carry the day and persuade hearts and minds to give up old biases. If people understood that our language reflected a clear patriarchal bias we could change that bias, correct?

What the Hearer Hears

Yet sociolinguists have long contended that our grammar and vocabulary are complicit in shaping deeply our understanding of the world. Even so, creating a more inclusive society by simply and only changing the language is unfortunately never possible. The mere act of changing one’s language so that it is “politically correct” does not mean that one’s thoughts about sexism or racism have changed. Yet we can reasonably hope for a net gain by and by. Not everyone changes; some do. And although a person may not be as inclusive as her or his language would indicate, the hearer is another part of the linguistic equation: even if the heart of the speaker remains unchanged, the listeners still feel included.1

In the last twenty years, new hymnals from mainline denominations have addressed features of inclusive language other than human gender questions. The first hymn in the revised United Methodist Hymnal of 1989, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” has an asterisk on the sixth verse noting that it may be omitted. The suspect lines include “Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ.” The fourth hymn in that volume, “Come, Thou Almighty King,” appears as “Come Now, Almighty God” in the 1995 New Century Hymnal of the United Church of Christ.

Attention to inclusive language is especially significant, and especially contentious, in the world of worship. Last fall at YDS, several people reportedly stayed away from the regular weekday worship on the morning that featured the singing of Bobby McFerrin’s Gregorian chant-like version of the Twenty- third Psalm, which uses female pronouns for God. Many of us have been singing versions of that Psalm all our lives using male pronouns; it seems not to matter that male pronouns are no more accurate an interpretation of the nature of God than female pronouns.

Endeavoring still to encourage its member communions to take a fresh look at the language used both in and out of worship, the NCC’s Justice for Women Working Group recently started a series of national dialogues on expansive language for the twenty-first century. The dialogues ask participants to focus on two questions: 1) How does our language for God, one another, and our world move us toward God’s justice? And 2) What new or other imagery is there to help us connect with God? The aim is to sensitize churches to think of God and the people of God in more expansive terms and metaphors.

We’ve seen incredible cultural changes in the last generation: cell phones, internet, gay marriage in five states and the District of Columbia. Inclusive language in society has made inroads, too. We now have flight attendants, both male and female. At the Kentucky Derby people now sing “ ’Tis summer the people are gay,” rather than Stephen Foster’s original lyrics, darkies. Little girls no longer think it’s impossible to grow up to be a minister.

My Heart Sings

My heart sang when I read, in the preface of the new Common English Bible translation, “The women and men who participated in the creation of the CEB hope that those who read and study it will find the translation to be an accurate, clear, and inspiring version of Christian scripture.” The CEB New Testament was published in 2010; this year the entire Bible with Apocrypha will follow. That 20 percent of the translators were women is at least a small step forward. That the project included 115 scholars from twenty-two faith traditions, yet was able to translate ben’adam and huios tou anthropou as “human being” instead of “son of man” indicates that serious attention continues to be paid to gender issues. Moving beyond the NRSV, the CEB renders the “Son of Man” of Matthew 25 and elsewhere in the New Testament as the “Human One.”

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” declares John’s Gospel. Language is always changing; so is our knowledge of God. Holding fast to a particular grammatical construction or to one image of God is to misunderstand the nature of both. Using words that demean others or limit God limits and demeans us all. By honoring the words we speak and write, we honor the Word. 

Shannon Clarkson ’78 M.Div. was instrumental in the production of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, serving on the Bible Translation and Utilization Committee at the National Council of Churches from 1986-96, and as committee chair from 1992-96. She is co-editor of two books, Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and Letty Russell’s Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference (Westminster John Knox, 2009). Ordained in the United Church of Christ, she is on the YDS adjunct faculty.


1 Though some will argue that man, men, and mankind still function as generic and gender- neutral nouns, the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”
we know was false from the beginning. History proves that two Amendments were required to ensure that people of color (Thirteenth) and women (Nineteenth) were also meant to share in that equality. The animated-film cartoon
Included Out, popular in churches in the 1970s, illustrated the confusion generated by the hymn “Rise Up, O Men of God.” In the film, a woman new to the English language is repeatedly reassured during the worship service that she is included in the hymn despite the masculine terminology. Moments later we see her rebuffed as she tries to enter a Men’s Room! 

SIDEBAR: When Words Matter

by Ray Waddle

   The National Council of Churches initiative “Words Matter” hopes to reverse a notable recent decline in the use of gender-inclusive language in church life.

   The Words Matter project aims to spark renewed alertness in local congregations to the power of faith language to offend and hurt and to heal and be hospitable to others.

   Despite decades of official efforts to encourage inclusive language about God and people, many churchgoers still experience offense at language that sounds prejudicial or unwelcoming.

   A downloadable Words Matter conversation guide for small groups and congregational use (see   www.wordsmatter.org) encourages grassroots dialogue and “expansive” language that is sensitive to gender, ethnicity, and disabilities too.

   The document was inspired by an NCC gathering in Chicago last August, when participants of different viewpoints shared stories of the impact of biblical and God-language on their own faith journeys.

   The Words Matter conversation guide outlines one-session workshops, small-group conversations, and other strategies to enhance empathy across ideological or cultural divides the manual includes statements from participants of the August dialogue. Here’s a sample:

• “What does it mean that this conversation goes forward? More and more, i think the church struggles to remain relevant. When we argue about such things as a Spirit’s gender, we expose ourselves to being dogmatic, limited, and chauvinistic. When we call the European manner of worship and liturgy ‘traditional’ and label anything else as alternative or contextual, we expose our Euro-centrism. What does it mean to me personally that we are doing this consultation? it means that others can be liberated, affirmed, and given hope. At least, that is my hope.”

• “(Studying it in seminary) Hebrew intimidated me. But then, one day, i experienced an explosion in my consciousness when i was doing word analysis of YHWH. i understood the word to be in the hiphil form, and i interpreted the name into ‘i will be whoever i will be.’ Some may be bothered by the nuance of indefiniteness in this name, but, for me, it was most liberating. I could LOVE God who refused to be defined by human language that is a product of patriarchal culture. it was exhilarating to meet this God whose name was YHWH. … My God is a verb, ever evolving, transgressing all human categories.”

• “Words can be so easily misinterpreted, so subjectively defined, so difficult to understand in all their complexity, historical contexts, original languages, and on and on … but over time my frustration has been balanced by the beauty and adventure of God using words to communicate with us. Suddenly faith is not a cut-and-dry dogmatism but a dynamic place of imagination and hope.”