The Muddling of the English Language

Over a week ago, Alan Cumming raised a question in an article for The Times: “How much does it cost you to make the effort to refer to someone the way they want to be referred to?” In an attempt to make an association between the use of the epicene pronoun ‘they’ and racial terms that are construed as offensive in the United Kingdom, Cumming continued: “Would you think it okay to be annoyed with someone who wanted to be referred to as Black and not coloured or Negro?” On closer inspection, Cumming’s attempt to associate the two fails on several counts. 

The two terms used to denote black persons are open class words, meaning that new, replacement words can be added to the class as the need arises. In contrast, the subclass of pronouns is closed, meaning that pronouns are made up of finite sets which are never expanded. The distinction between open and closed word classes here is crucial because it considers both the impact of historical events on language and the general rules of grammar. 

At least in the English language, almost everyone adopted the term ‘black person’ because, in light of addressing anti-black racism, the need to replace ‘coloured’ and ‘Negro’ arose. Indeed, the terms were not replaced because any one black person simply wanted to be referred to differently or thought the terms incorrect. On the other hand, the grammar of closed word classes, such as pronouns, evolves through collectively understood changes in usage; for example, spelling may change over long periods of time. 

So, if the association fails and the subclass of pronouns is not one to evolve easily, what do we do? Well, first we must remind ourselves that language is a social phenomenon and pronouns are not an innate feature—we don’t have them, but other people sometimes use them when referring to us. But we all have a sex and some people claim to have a gender identity in addition to a sex. By observing the former, we guide our language. Still, each person who wishes to be referred to as neither ‘she’ nor ‘he’ should be able to ask others to do that. It is possible to have your personal wishes fulfilled without pushing for social control over language.   

And if an idea is worth defending, Cumming and others like him should try and defend it on its own merits. It costs nothing to stop making superficial associations between race and transgender categories or the gay rights movement and the trans rights movement. It also costs nothing to stop falsely claiming that feminism is all about having “equal respect, equal pay, equal rights,” as Cumming also wrote in the article. It is possible to be in favour of egalitarianism without foisting its doctrines onto feminism—the movement for women’s liberation from the system, otherwise referred to as the patriarchy, that enables and maintains control over female sexuality, work, and motherhood.

Of course, the muddling of language is not only present among actors and journalists but also researchers, politicians, as well as judges. In the Employment Tribunal  judgement of the case Maya Forstater v CGD Europe and others, for which an appeal was heard on 27 and 28 April 2021, judge James Tayler stated that he “will not use the term cis woman as the Claimant finds it offensive.” In the following sentence, he explained that he “will refer to women assigned female at birth”. There are two main points to be made about judge Tayler’s statement:

  1. The Claimant simply finding a term offensive should not be sufficient grounds for the use of an alternative term by the judge and

  2. The alternative term is imprecise. Assignment is performative and implies agency whereas observation, considered by Forstater, is descriptive. For example, we are assigned a seat on the plane but, at birth, our sex is observed and then recorded. In all but a tiny number of births, sex is recorded by the process of observing an infant’s primary sexual anatomy, a manifest developmental outcome.

To say that there are women who are ‘assigned female at birth’ and women who are ‘assigned male at birth’ is to fail at recognising that the term ‘woman’ exists in language as distinct from men but also as distinct from a mare or a Molly. In other words, woman is a word that separates us from all adult male members of our own species and all adult female members of other animal species. Put succinctly, the word woman does not exist independent of the word female.

Yet, language muddling is not exclusive to the word ‘woman’. In a recent Guardian article, a bilateral mastectomy was described as ‘top surgery’ without any mention that it was two breasts with healthy tissue that were removed. Along with that euphemism, the phrase ‘sex reassignment surgery’ which was later renamed to ‘gender reassignment surgery’ and more recently to ‘gender affirmation surgery’ is often used. In the first version, the assumption is that, in people seeking such surgical procedures, sex is assigned. In the second, that gender is assigned. And in third, that gender is denied. It remains unclear who assigns, how these labels are assigned, who denies, and what is even meant by terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’

Still, we can all agree that there is a need for a term that incorporates a set of surgeries that radically alter the appearance of person’s primary and secondary sex characteristics. Relevant fields and professionals within those fields should establish a consensus about correct and concise terminology. The surgeries will not cease to exist and be performed if we correctly describe them. Correct description, however, might bring some clarity.

The language of assignment, however, is also present in The Cass Review, the Independent Review of Gender Identity Services for children and young people commissioned by the NHS England and NHS Improvement in 2020. It remains unclear, in Dr Hilary Cass’ second journal entry, who assigns ‘gender’ and how, and what she means by that term as well as the term ‘gender identity.’ Similar to the discussion about surgeries, correct descriptions might bring some clarity, to both those directly involved with children and young people needing to access gender identity health services as well as outside observers.

Likewise, we should remind ourselves that when it comes to the language of identification, the burden of identifying is not on us but on those who observe us. For example, eyewitnesses identify. What should we think, then, when we read a postgraduate listing that states funding may be available for “those who self-identify as being from a Black, African, Black British, or Caribbean, or mixed background”? What should we think when a vacancy listing for Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project states that they are particularly keen to receive applications from “people who identify as working class or have done so in the past”? What would happen if an applicant does not identify as working class but is working class? Here, it is important to remember that, in a specific moment in time, you can either be something or not be that something. 

Muddling of language, however, did not start with pronouns and surgeries and it will not end with us having to accept phrases such as ‘preferred gender pronouns’ and ‘gender affirmation surgery’. Likewise, it will not end with us having to accept every ‘I identify as, therefore I am’ declaration. In the meantime, we should care about the principles by which linguistic changes are achieved and the consequences of achieving them. All of us should give these actions great respect by scrutinising the principles and, as a result, either strengthening the weak points or exposing a faulty structure. Because, if people ask us to let their ideas be exempt from scepticism out of respect or kindness, it is likely they are turning the concept of respect upside down.

Rose Peterson (a pseudonym) is a former NCAA student-athlete currently completing her master's degree at a university in the UK.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


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