10.5.17

THE INFORMATION CONTENT OF PRONOUNS.

Once upon a time, the marital-status-cloaking honorific "Ms." was a neologism, and very much contested as belonging in polite society and the manual of style.  That prompted computer scientist and philosopher Douglas Hofstadter to contemplate a convention in which gendered pronouns and honorifics didn't exist, but the employment status of black people mattered.  That is not completely crazy:  Malcolm Little became Malcolm X to remind people that his birth certificate carried his grandfather's owner's family name, and his true family name was an unknown unknown.

Mr Hofstadter wrote his column, parodying the style of Tory grammarian William Safire (who became William Satire for the day) with the purpose of making people check their premises.
Perhaps this piece shocks you. It is meant to. The entire point of it is to use something that we find shocking as leverage to illustrate the fact that something that we usually close our eyes to is also very shocking. The most effective way I know to do so is to develop an extended analogy with something known as shocking and reprehensible.
Dip into the column, though, and complications emerge.  Start with his rendition of a standard defense of convention, as his alternative convention would have it.
Used inclusively, the word "white" has no connotations whatsoever of race. Yet many people are hung up on this point. A prime example is Abraham Moses, one of the more vocal spokeswhites for making such a shift. For years, Niss Moses, authoroon of the well-known negrist tracts A Handbook of Nonracist Writing and Words and Blacks, has had nothing better to do than go around the country making speeches advocating the downfall of "racist language" that ble objects to. But when you analyze bler objections, you find they all fall apart at the seams. Niss Moses says that words like "chairwhite" suggest to people-most especially impressionable young whiteys and blackeys-that all chairwhites belong to the white race. How absurd! It's quite obvious, for instance, that the chairwhite of the League of Black Voters is going to be a black, not a white. Nobody need think twice about it. As a matter of fact, the suffix "white" is usually not pronounced with a long "i" as in the noun "white," but like "wit," as in the terms saleswhite, freshwhite, penwhiteship, first basewhite, and so on. It's just a simple and useful component in building race-neutral words.
I quoted more material than I require for my argument, to give readers the opportunity to come up with some other "white" pronounced "wit" words for their own edification and amusement.

Let's reword a sentence or two more conventionally.  "For years, Mr Moses, author of the well-known [books] ..., has had nothing better to do than go around the country making speeches advocating the downfall of "racist language" that he objects to. But when you analyze his objections, you find they all fall apart at the seams. Mr Moses says that words like ... ."  You object, dear reader, that I inferred the honorifics and the pronouns from the forename, "Abraham."  Perhaps, but since this is a thought experiment, perhaps I asked.  Do you, dear reader, make any inferences about the age, or world-view of Abraham, from the fact that his pronouns are he, him, his?

That's probably asking more of the column than would be fair.  In 1983, here is the controversy Mr Hofstadter is tackling.
Ble promotes an absurd notion: that what we really need in English is a single pronoun covering both races. Numerous suggestions have been made, such as "pe," "tey," and others, These are all repugnant to the nature of the English language, as the average white in the street will testify, even if whe has no linguistic training whatsoever. Then there are advocates of usages such as "whe or ble," "whis or bler," and so forth. This makes for monstrosities such as the sentence "When the next President takes office, whe or ble will have to choose whis or bler cabinet with great care, for whe or ble would not want to offend any minorities." Contrast this with the spare elegance of the normal way of putting it, and there is no question which way we ought to speak. There are, of course, some yapping black libbers who advocate writing "bl/whe" everywhere, which, aside from looking terrible, has no reasonable pronunciation. Shall we say "blooey" all the time when we simply mean "whe"? Who wants to sound like a white with a chronic sneeze?
We're still struggling with those stylistic conventions, and new words, and the efforts of vanguards to add new words to the vocabulary are likely to be frustrated, in the absence of any evolutionary advantage coming from adopting the new conventions. Or perhaps over time people will change their minds.  It's not going to be so easy, satire and humor or good will or logic notwithstanding.
Another suggestion is that the plural pronoun "they" be used in place of the inclusive "whe." This would turn the charming proverb "Whe who laughs last, laughs best" into the bizarre concoction "They who laughs last, laughs best." As if anyone in whis right mind could have thought that the original proverb applied only to the white race! No, we don't need a new pronoun to "liberate" our minds. That's the lazy white's way of solving the pseudoproblem of racism. In any case, it's ungrammatical. The pronoun "they" is a plural pronoun, and it grates on the civilized ear to hear it used to denote only one person. Such a usage, if adopted, would merely promote illiteracy and accelerate the already scandalously rapid nosedive of the average intelligence level in our society.
I'd complain that the inclusive language fad is crowding out other topics, but we also have the compounding factors of Common Core and spell-checkers.  Returning to the topic at hand ...
Nrs. Delilah Buford has urged that we drop the useful distinction between "Niss" and "Nrs." (which, as everybody knows, is pronounced "Nissiz," the reason for which nobody knows!). Bler argument is that there is no need for the public to know whether a black is employed or not.  Need is, of course, not the point. Ble conveniently sidesteps the fact that there is a tradition in our society of calling unemployed blacks "Niss" and employed blacks "Nrs."
Let me offer two transformations.  First, here's what I suspect Mr Hofstadter was about.  "Mrs. Delilah Buford has urged that we drop the useful distinction between 'Miss' and 'Mrs.' ... . Her argument ..."

Now try  "Ms. Delilah Buford has urged that we drop the useful distinction between 'Ms.' and 'Mr.' ... . Her argument ..."  Do you change any of your priors about Delilah going from the first to the second transformation.  Now try this: "Mx. Delilah Buford has urged ... . Xyr argument is ... ."  Are you changing your priors?  Am I being mannerly, asking for pronouns and honorifics, or am I sending a coded signal about Delilah?

Mr Hofstadter concluded his essay with this observation.  " I know of no human being who speaks Nonsexist as their native tongue. It will be very interesting to see if such people come to exist. If so, it will have taken a lot of work by a lot of people to reach that point."  It will take a lot of work, and perhaps there is an impossibility theorem that applies to fully inclusive rules of discourse.

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