Language Changes. Its Meaning Shouldn’t.

Language changes over time, across space, and through social groups. As centuries pass, words are invented or taken from other cultures, the denotations of old words change, means of pronunciation evolve, and linguistic morphology grows and diminishes. It would be erroneous and unsuitable to argue that modern English, read on Twitter or in newspapers, is the same as Shakespearean writing. But, as language changes, so too does the meaning of older texts if we try to apply our modern grammatical structures to an era that had completely different ones. This has proven to be a contemporary problem. Numerous times, modern English speakers have unfairly read old texts through a lens of our current linguistic structures and therefore what the writing means now, losing what the text meant when it was written, in a different type of English. A common example is misreading epicene singular pronoun disuse in Enlightenment Philosophy as being sexist. 

In English grammar, an epicene singular pronoun is an anaphoric linguistic unit referring to a gender-neutral or ambiguous antecedent (the noun that the pronoun replaces or refers to) mentioned earlier in a clause, sentence, or discourse. Take, for example, the following discourse: “Someone left their phone at the restaurant.” Since the antecedent “someone” has an unclear gender (“someone” could be male or female), there is no gender-specific personal possessive pronoun (like “his” or “her”) preceding the noun “phone,” but rather the traditionally plural possessive pronoun “their.” One may think that using a plural pronoun to correlate to a singular antecedent is grammatical malpractice, but in this case it is not. 

The usage of this grammatical unit has increased in recent years, becoming a common-place stylistic element of contemporary English speech and writing in both colloquial and formal tones. But this has not always been the status quo; in fact, the stylistic choice to resort to epicene singular pronouns is fairly new, having replaced the centuries-old standard of disuse. A practice peaking in the late 18th century, epicene singular pronouns were often pushed aside for gender-specific personal possessive pronouns referring to gender-neutral antecedents. Look at Enlightenment philosophy or America’s Founding Documents. Almost all of them used masculine personal possessive pronouns to refer to sexless antecedents, the most common one being humankind. John Locke’s quote from Two Treatises of Government is a pristine example: “All mankind … being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” Mankind, although prefixed by the word “man,” refers to, and always has, humankind and people of all sexes. There has never been much of a debate suggesting that the word “mankind” is inherently sexist, although it is certainly archaic. However, the use of the masculine personal possessive pronoun “his” has been fallaciously interpreted in contemporary discussions as being misogynistic, endowing only men with natural rights. But this thesis shows a complete lack of awareness for the grammatical stylistic structures of the 18th century. Just because the decision to not use epicene singular pronouns is anachronistic and out of touch with modern linguistic structures does not mean that sentences succumbing to that form are inherently sexist. In fact, this is a fairly new discussion that has, suspiciously, increased in frequency inversely to the frequency of epicene singular pronoun disuse (which peaked in the late 18th century and was almost entirely absent in most written environments by the turn of the 20th century). 

It is important to mention that women have historically not always been guaranteed with the same rights as men. Women did not get the right to vote until just over a century ago. But the claim that our Founding Documents are sexist, or that the concept of natural rights were never thought to be supplied to women at the time of the writing of Enlightenment philosophy, not only abuses history but unfairly applies our contemporary grammatical structures to a period that did not share the same ones. Plus, the meaning of text is not entirely dependent on the intent of the authors who wrote it or the political and social sentiments of the time in which it was written. The “Intentional Fallacy,” proposed by Wimsatt and Beardsley in The Verbal Icon (1954), suggests that authorial intent is unimportant, but rather how the public has responded to some work and derived its meaning. Although historical and cultural structures at the time of the writing of Enlightenment Philosophy suggest that authorial intent could have sexist motives, the pure and objective meaning of the text alone, detached from its intended meaning and derived from its impartial grammatical conventions, is not sexist. As far as quotes from Enlightenment philosophy go, common-place grammatical stylistic conventions would have concluded that masculine personal possessive pronouns really referred to all people. 

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