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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Power of Words

Written by: on November 16, 2017

Language is a funny thing, so deeply connected to a culture that it is like water to a fish—one rarely thinks of language unless and until one’s native tongue is no longer the medium in which one is navigating life. But 20th century pioneer of linguistics and semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure, recognized language as a building block of culture, and as a result, his understanding of language greatly influenced contemporary social theory.[1]

In her book Changing Signs of Truth, Crystal Downing quotes Saussure as saying, “language changes, or rather, evolves, under the influence of all the forces which can affect either sounds or meaning.”[2] And yet, there are forces at work that resist the evolution of language as well. Those in power rarely acknowledge the way language is used to dominate and control those on the margins, and can resist changes to language that might diminish their sense of power. This is clearly seen in the on-going debate about using “politically correct” language in the United States.

I believe this issue is at the heart of Barthes’s theory about “myth.” In describing Barthes’s concept of myth, Elliot writes, “there is a kind of language which is ideological because it blocks its own relative, artificial status and attempts to pass itself off as transcendent, natural, and universal.”[3] It is a way of using language in a way that makes us feel “socially ‘ordinary’ or natural.’”[4]

The French love their language. So much so, that in 1635 they created the Academie Française,* a national academy dedicated to preserving the integrity of the French language. That academy, which continues to act as the arbiter of the official French language, is so prestigious that those who belong to it are called “immortals.” (Sounds pretty mythological to me!)  Perhaps this is because the French believe that to guard the French language is to guard the French culture, the French mind-set, and the French raison d’être. In other words, the Academie Française not only believes that language can and should influence culture, they also strive to protect their language from certain cultural influences. But in so doing, are they protecting a certain “mythology” that favors social structures that ought to be dismantled?

A recent debate illustrates my point. An article published October 27th of this year in the online magazine “The Local” declares, “The immortals are furious about the rise of so-called ‘inclusive writing’ which basically puts the masculine AND feminine forms of nouns in the text.”[5] This was in response to the use of inclusive language in an elementary school history textbook.

The French language has a sexist bent built into its structure. For example, if there were a room full of women, the pronoun used to refer to the group of women would be “elles,” which is essentially a feminine form of the English pronoun “they.” But if there were one male person in the room, even if he was a tiny baby boy among a thousand women, the pronoun used to refer to the group would be “ils,” which is a male form of the English pronoun “they.” There is no gender inclusive plural pronoun in the French language, so when referring to mixed groups, the grammatically correct thing to do is to employ the masculine pronoun.

This gets even trickier because in contemporary French, most nouns that refer to professions have a male and female form. This represents a relatively recent shift in the language, which previously only had masculine forms of such words, reflecting an historical culture where there would have been no such thing as a female farmer, doctor, or teacher. Due to efforts by François Mitterrand in the 1980s, the language evolved to reflect the advancement of women in the workplace—an evolution that was also met with resistance by the Academie Française.

Where the French had previously had only the masculine form of Directeur for director, they now have directrice for a female director. Coiffeur for a male hairdresser, coiffeuse for a female hairdresser. But if there is any doubt, or if one is referring to a non-specified hairdresser, or hairdressers in general, then the masculine form is always the default form. For every profession. Always.

Those who are proponents of inclusive language are suggesting formulations such as coiffeur.euse.s, and directeur.rice.s, when making general references. Such formulations create challenges with pronunciation, and even written they are admittedly awkward—a major concern for a country that takes great pride in the beauty of its language.

And yet, is there a deeper issue at work here, beyond simply wanting to protect the elegance of the French language. Is the Academie Française seeking to perpetuate a male-dominant culture in their resistance to inclusive language?

As a woman in a profession for which there is no feminine form in French***, I applaud those who are looking for ways to make the French language more inclusive. I grew up in a time and a denomination that considered the idea of a female pastor to be an abomination, so despite the fact that I would write sermons and preach them to my dolls, I never dared to dream that I could grow up to be a pastor. The signifier of “female pastor” didn’t exist as a /parole/ in my /langue/, which meant that my imagination was, indeed limited by language. I’d like to live in a world where language doesn’t limit people, but frees them to be all that God created them to be.

*The Acadamie Française has only inducted eight women since its creation in 1635.

** Interestingly, Smith makes a similar accusation of Elliot and Turner’s Profiles in Social Theory. Observing that of the 34 scholars that are highlighted by the authors, 27 are white male theorists, Smith concludes, “Within social theory, it seems, established systems of authority and knowledge production have proven remarkably resistant to change.”[6]

*** There is no feminine form of “pastor” or “priest.” Only masculine. I’m not sure if this is reflective of the French culture or the Christian culture. I suspect the latter.

[1] Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner, eds., Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory (London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE, 2001). 78.

[2] Crystal Downing, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012). Kindle loc 1063.

[3] Elliott and Turner, Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory. 91.

[4] Elliott and Turner. 90.

[5] “The French language is in ‘mortal danger’, say its own panicked guardians,” The Local, accessed November 15, 2017, https://www.thelocal.fr/20171027/why-the-french-language-is-in-mortal-danger-according-to-its-own-guardians

[6] Philip Smith, “The Rescue Narrative in Social Theory,” Thesis Eleven 70, no. 1 (August 1, 2002): 118–26.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

7 responses to “The Power of Words”

  1. Greg says:

    Jenn. Great contexualition of the shifting of society and language as well as the fight to control the ever moving mark of what is acceptable. I appreciated the discussion of language and how egalitarianism is verbally battling those that desire a more “pure” language that sets it a part from the world. Unfortunately, language reflects the culture we live in. We probably wont see a real change in language equality until the country is ready (or pushed) to accept it. In our context, communism helped level the playing field for male and female roles. In the church, it is the concepts of role of women leaders brought from western countries that seems to have muddied the water. I would assume you have these kinds of influences as well.

    If I can make one suggestion, if you included your asterisks notes and footnotes in the same area (having a footnote for cited and other notes) it would make things sync up a little better.

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Thanks for the advice on footnoting. They were these after-thoughts that didn’t fit anywhere in the body but seemed important to sya. Yes, the aserisk point should totally be integrated into the footnotes. I’ll do that next time!

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    Wow, you opened my eyes up to the masculine use of Pastor and Priest. I always knew a female priest was a priestess, but cannot think of the feminine name for Pastor. Is there one? Or is it just like “electrician” with the word referring to either gender?

    Thanks for your insights on LANGUAGE. I would think social theorists could concentrate on this more, from the Tower of Babel all the way to today…

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Jay, I totally think that the word “pastor” is like “electrician” ”gender neutral in English. But what Saussure is getting at is that what a word signifies is dependent upon the culture and the context. So since I grew up in a denomination that did not believe women could be pastors, in my mind the word got filed as signifying a male person. That signifier has since chaged for me. Thanks for the insight!

  3. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    So interesting. Thanks Jen. Do you feel like the word “guys” in English is similar to the male form of the word “they”. I often say ‘what’s up guys’ in a mixed group and everyone seems to know that I am intending to talk to everyone despite the lack of clarity.

    When walking up to a group of only women though, I’m not sure I have a good equivalent to “hey guys”. If I say “hey girls” it sounds too young, and adult women have not really appreciated it. And if I say “hey ladies” I think that just sounds too flirtatious. Language is important, and it take significant effort to reshape language, because everyone kind of has to agree on it or else its prevents communications.

  4. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Kyle, I say “hey guys” all the time to mixed groups, too. And I don’t feel left out when someone says to my husband and me, “Do you guys want to go grab a bite to eat?” At the same time, if I am reading a book and the author only ever uses male pronouns for gender neutral references (and I don’t have the context of a person speaking to me) then it does start to feel exclusive. I guess this is where context is so important!

  5. mm M Webb says:

    Jenn,

    While Elliot is not trying to be theological, the quote you use about how language blocks its own “artificial status and attempts to pass itself off as transcendent, natural, and universal” sound just like something Satan would do. He uses language, combined with our struggle to resist him, as a means to deceive, disrupt, and distort our God wired humanity.

    I studied French, and was amazed at the contextual trials encountered while serving as a missionary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Française mixed with local indigenous languages was very exciting, confusing, and challenging to try not to do or say something to damage our Christian testimony. I’m sure God used our actions, more than our words, to shine the light of Christ. Gender bias was not intended when God “confused” the language of the whole world (Gen. 11:9). Bias in language is just another example of how the evil one uses schemes and devices to create stress and division in the world.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

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