“La Négresse blonde” and even “grammaire”
This post is a follow up to two by Suzanne. In the first, she addresses the question of “The gender of sin” particularly in the Hebrew of Gen. 3:16 and of Gen. 4:7, when the men-only translators and the men-only editors of the New English Translation (NET) Bible constrain it.
In her second post, Suzanne discusses the question of the gender in French (and in Greek) and in English. She writes of “grammatical gender” and of “biological sex.” For example, she says, “The word for ‘beast’ [in Madame de Villeneuve's French] is a feminine word, even though the beast is male.”
I dare say that the point of issue of these two posts, at least for me, is not the inherent immutability of the Nature of Language. Rather, the point is that we human beings decide how to use language, and we struggle over who gets to say. Can men, can Nazis, decide that language means what it must surely mean in order to silence the Other?
As soon as I used the phrase “men-only” (which Suzanne did not use) and then “men,” and then “Nazis,” my language was charged. That is my intention. I want to draw attention to who is using language, often without notice, and is getting away with it.
So first things first. The title of my post is a reference back to one of the first BLT posts, by Theophrastus. He simply was asking “How should we translate the title of the artwork?” He shows a photo of a sculpture and then notes, “The original 1926 title of this artwork is La Négresse blonde, which SFMOMA [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] translates as ‘The Blond Negress.’” Craig brought up “the n-word,” which, of course, is inappropriate in the United States. They also discussed Ἰουδαῖος, Ioudaios, a Greek word used by the writer of the gospel of John. Theophrastus stressed the importance of the question of how we should translate this Greek word, especially given how “a sophisticated Bible reader such as [the German Protestant Martin] Luther could so misread the text (and write the blueprint for the Holocaust)” of millions of Jews, by the German Nazis.
I believe we do well to ask the questions about what some believe to be the inherent Nature of language that would put them in positions over others. Sexists and racists all too often derive, without any questions, their authority for committing acts against women and minorities from the sure, unquestioned, meanings of words.
Now, let me run back to a post by Suzanne at another blog, where she is asking questions. It’s a rather playful post, “Is – sue?” The point that we might make out of it is that our language, if it’s English, is pretty meaning-fulL. And in general, I’d like to add, many other languages are so. I wrote, then, a little comment at the bottom of Suzanne’s post, saying:
Ha! How fun you also play with your name here in the title. This all reminds of the more serious word work of Hélène Cixous (with languelait, “a phonetic spelling of anglais /English/ which produces a pun combining langue /language/ and lait /milk/”), of Mary Daly (“the-rapist”), and of Luise Von Flotow-Evans (“pun-ishment”). Pun-ish is also play on the anglicized transliteration of the Hebrew for ‘man’ (ish) vs. ‘woman’ (ishshah), as Flotow suggests. (Here’s a bit of blogging on some of that.)
I was trying to show how women, feeling the sexist control by men, can use their language to re-play what these men are doing to them. And I linked to a post I’d written, where I showed also how some have read a few things that Cixous has done with French”
A play on grammaire and grand-mère with reference to the big bad wolf is given as “gramma-r wolf”
Why this is so very important, now, I think, is because the conversation after Suzanne’s first post, that one on “the gender of sin” in Hebrew, has resorted to a discussion of “grammar” as some sort of fixed Nature. It’s as if we all understand precisely the invariable Grammar of Hebrew as it impinges on the men-only NETS Bible meaning there in the text. I firmly believe language has much more play in it than that. Even grammar. Even the Hebrew grammar of the Bible.
It’s not, of course, that anything goes in language, in grammar. It is that we human beings constrain the meaningS of what we mean, and sometimes, for our very own purposes, especially when we are on top hoping to silence the Other unlike us on bottom, we will use our-only understanding and believe about Language to justify our Othering, unquestioned. I do believe it’s very good to ask questions of words and of grammar, of our language.