Gender, Language, and Manholes

3 06 2011

I want to tell you a story about a debate I had with my friend Seth’s friend Alex over the use of the word manhole. Alex is a moustachioed, chain-smoking Romanian psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who has a love of opera and fine wine, a melodramatic, highly inflected accent, strong opinions on almost everything (including things he knows next to nothing about, like historical linguistics), and slight pathological hints of misogyny and imperialism. I just call him Dracula. I know, in analyses of Dracula, it is usually the title character who is viewed as the victim of imperialism, but, hey, vampires can be ungodly supercilious bitches too. Seth, Alex, and I would have these lovely wine-washed, opera-graced soirees at Alex’s apartment in Vancouver’s West End and discuss everything under the sun from music to art to philosophy to politics. (Usually it started with us talking about opera, since Seth loves that shit too, and ending with Seth falling asleep and Alex and me debating the more recondite topics.) Basically, Alex has a classical, reductionist, Western worldview, whereas I have a more Eastern, indigenous, holistic, pagan one.

Anyway, he mentioned (in a tone dripping with disdain from what could have been his fangs) that a group of feminists at UBC were complaining about the use of the word manhole because it was sexist, given that it includes man but excludes woman. The feminists, he assumed, had no understanding of the etymology of the word man, whereas he did.

“These feminists don’t know what they’re talking about!” he said with huge eyes and a magisterial wave of his cigarette. “The English word man comes from the Latin word manus, which means ‘hand’! It was a reference to physical labour using the hands. It has nothing to do with gender, thus they have no reason to complain that it is sexist. Psh.”

“Actually, Alex”, I said politely, “the word man does not come from the Latin word manus. It comes from a Proto-Germanic word meaning ‘person’.”

“But in order to prove that the word man does not come from manus“, he responded, “you must show that the word was not borrowed from the Roman conquerors. Words from the language of the conquering culture are often borrowed because they carry greater prestige.”

“I can show that”, I said. “The Romans didn’t invade Britain after it was settled by the Anglo-Saxons who spoke Old English—they invaded beforehand. The Romans invaded Britain in 43 C.E., when it was populated by native Britons (whom we now call the Welsh, a group of Brythonic Celts), and withdrew from Britain in 410 C.E. to respond to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, leaving the Romanized Britons (think King Arthur) to their own devices. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t settle the island until an alliance of Jutes invaded in 449 C.E. In other words, the whole, entire Roman rule of Britain came before the very first Anglo-Saxon invasion—by a comfortable thirty-nine years. The Anglo-Saxons could not have borrowed the word manus from a conquering Roman army, since the Romans were already gone when the Anglo-Saxons arrived.”

“In addition”, said I, “the native population does not borrow words from conquerors arbitrarily; it borrows words from them for good reason. Language interaction does not work like osmosis, like some free-flowing exchange or interaction of forces; there are certain parameters that loanwords have to meet. Loanwords must have a certain cachet or exoticism, otherwise they are not worth borrowing. For example, Anglo-Saxon peasants did not borrow the words chicken or goose from the invading French forces, because these were already such common meats. They did, however, borrow the words porc and boef from them (hence pork and beef, and not pig and cow) because the upper-class Norman invaders had the luxury of consuming the flesh of pigs and cows. So a word such as manus,  meaning hand, is not likely to be borrowed by a poor indigenous culture, since it is so normal and every-day already. In fact, it is the last word they would borrow from the privileged invaders, since it is associated with physical labour, and the privileged are ‘above’ physical labour.”

“Hm. Maybe I have my history wrong”, he said. “I learned that the Germanics and Celts belonged to the same linguistic group”.

“No”, I said. “Proto-Celtic is no more closely related to Proto-Germanic than it is to Italic (the group to which Latin belongs). In fact, Proto-Celtic is much more like Italic given some cognates. For example, the Irish word (king) resembles Latin rex, Spanish rey, and French roi (hence royal and Tyrannus Rex) much more closely than the Germanic cyning, könig, or king. Here, we see no similarity between Celts and Germanics, but we do see a relation between the conquered Celts and the conquering Romans. So, no, comparing Celtic with Germanic, but not with Italic, is like saying Melissa and Jennifer, but not Heather, are sisters. Each of the three is a product of the same mother. Therefore you cannot treat Celtic and Germanic as one lump, and Italic as another.”

“Well, let’s look at the etymology of the word man“, said Alex, modestly pulling a volume of Roget’s Dictionary from his bookshelf. There was no copy of the OED in sight. “Let’s see. I may be wrong, but let’s see. Hmm. The origin of the word man looks to be OE. That means Old English. Let’s go back further. Hm. We can’t.”

“You’ve just proven my point, Alex”, said I. “The word is traceable back to OE (a dialect of Proto-Germanic), not the Latin word manus. Hence it is not a loanword from Latin, hence it does not come from the Latin word manus, meaning ‘hand’, hence it does not refer to using hands for physical labour—it refers to a Germanic word which used to mean ‘person’ and which now means ‘male adult’—and hence the feminists are right. It is a sexist use of language.”

So, actually, Dracula was wrong, and the feminists were right. Man meant “person” in Proto-Germanic, not “hand” in Latin; there was no England to be invaded by Rome; and a word denoting hand is too perfunctory to be borrowed from a prestigious invading culture. In addition, we know that man nowadays commonly means “male adult”, as opposed to female adults. Ironically, then, the feminists are correct in declaring the word manhole sexist. This makes me wonder why somebody so perceptive and accomplished as Alex should harbour such a rich conspiracy against the feminists’ complaint. I think it is fear. There is something about admitting the possibility of a paradigm shift that utterly shatters the ice-cold ego of the traditionalist.