Thursday, November 10, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender

From James Taranto’s column at the Wall Street Journal on October 27, 2011:
“One of the things we most loathe about feminism is its effect on the language. Self-appointed feminist language cops make a pretense of aiming for "gender neutrality," but in fact their aim is to make language ugly and unnatural so that you constantly have to think about their ideology. When the traditional terms are gender-neutral, such as "chairman," they insist on changing them ("chairwoman" or "chair"). Only when the traditional terms are gendered do they want to neutralize them, such as calling actresses "actors."”
This move toward forcing general English usage into “gender neutrality” has been going on for nearly half a century. It is rampant in colleges and universities and other centers of higher education. Academic publishing is replete with it. In many cases, academic journals or book publishers indicate that submitted manuscripts must be written in gender-neutral language. “Man” is not acceptable unless you are referring specifically to a human male. “Mankind” is not acceptable under any condition. You must use “humankind” instead. And this is simply the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, this movement has profoundly affected the Bible translation business. Even the translators (or perhaps editors) of the ESV, which is not a gender-neutral translation, felt compelled to add a footnote saying “Or brothers and sisters” everywhere the Greek New Testament reads adelphoi (traditionally translated “brothers” or “brethren”), just to make sure no one felt left out.
From my perspective, there are two fundamental problems with this enforced move to “gender neutrality” of “gender inclusiveness.” First, it is a politically motivated corruption of language. I will not go into that here, but I suggest you find a copy of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and read it carefully. Then reread 1984. Then ask yourself if this is the kind of world you really want to live in. The second problem is that it also corrupts the biblical languages, and makes it more difficult for the reader to actually hear what the Bible is saying.
For those who don’t know anything about New Testament Greek or Old Testament Hebrew, I want to give you a little background, starting with English. First, gender is a grammatical category, not a sex category, though that distinction has been corrupted over the last half-century. English nouns, adjectives, and verbs do not have gender. In practical terms that means that you do not use a different form of “say” with “Susie said” than you do with “John said.” It also means that you don’t use a different form of “green” when you say “Susie was green with envy” than you do when you say “John was green with envy.”
In New Testament Greek, any noun belongs to one of three genders (again, remember this is a matter of grammar, not of sex): masculine, feminine, or neuter. Adjectives may appear in any of the three genders, but they have to correspond to (grammarians usually speak of “being in agreement with”) the gender of the noun they modify. So if you want to say “green tree” you have to use a neuter form of the adjective “green” because the noun dendrov (tree) is neuter. On the other hand, if you wanted to say “a little green man” you would have to use masculine forms of “little” and “green” because the two nouns in Greek usually translated “man” are both masculine in gender. Greek verbs, like English verbs, do not have gender.
Next time we will talk about Hebrew and then move on to how these things affect the way we read our English Bibles and how we are to understand them.

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