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“La Négresse blonde” and even “grammaire”

August 16, 2013

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”

For example,

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.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2013 9:43 am

    Anyone who treats grammar as you have described in the last paragraph is probably simply playing a shell game with loci of authority (not to mention using it as a rhetorical bludgeon to win an argument).
    At the same time, as a grammarian and as one of the last commenters on the post you mention (so pardon if I’m reading into this), I get the feeling that your qualification that “it’s not, of course, that anything goes in language” is an anemic sop in the context of your larger discourse. Grammar is a system that we try to figure out in order to understand the patterns of typical usage. Of course there are users who employ unusual patterns, patterns at the margins, whether out of performance problems or intentionality (I always think of Lewis’ Jabberwocky). The risk they take is for the audience to fail in interpreting them. That’s why studying grammar is important — simply so we can get a decent idea of how to process language used in communication. You can play with language all you want, but like any game, if you don’t play by the rules, you’ll find yourself playing Calvinball with just you and your stuffed tiger.
    Grammarians (and I speak as one) aren’t *the* authority on meaning (at least, as you’re using it — more broadly than lexical or phrasal semantics). But the structures we identify as typical (or “grammatical”) constrain the likely meanings. Certainly an author can intend to use a rare, if not unique, structure, but this causes a couple problems — especially when it is from a non-contempory text (i.e., we can’t ask the author what s/he meant). First, grammatical processing is very difficult and so interpretation is challenged. Second, since we who work on ancient texts are always using the tools of reconstructive history, we can only use the typical patterns to identify likely meanings. Anything other than identifying a likely meaning, using the constraints of known patterns, always falls into the realm of the highly speculative. As a grammarian, I cannot stop you or anyone from choosing such an unlikely interpretation, but am bound to point out that it is, from a scholastic point of view, illogical and unscientific.

  2. August 17, 2013 12:11 pm

    That’s why studying grammar is important — simply so we can get a decent idea of how to process language used in communication. You can play with language all you want, but like any game, if you don’t play by the rules, you’ll find yourself playing Calvinball with just you and your stuffed tiger.

    Robert, Thank you for your comment after Suzanne’s post and now for your comment here. I don’t think I can easily disagree with most of what you say on grammar, especially when you define it more in “descriptive” rather than by “prescriptive” sentences, such as this one: “Grammar is a system that we try to figure out in order to understand the patterns of typical usage.”

    What I’m interested in is who gets to say what the rules are. If linguists such as Sydney Lamb with his Stratificational Linguistics and Noam Chomsky with his Transformation-Generative Grammar and then his Government and Binding and ever bound to his platonic ideal of Universal Grammar and Kenneth Pike with his Tagmemics (which he really wanted to name Gramemics) and Paul Grice and Dan Sperber with their “grammar-like” Pragmatics and “Relevance Theory” all disagree, then I think our own less sophisticated and not-nearly-so constructed notions of Grammar for Language and of particular grammars of specific languages cannot easily function as the “givens” of our logical syllogism that must conclude that “grammar is” simply because “rules are.”

    That last sentence was meant to be a bit pedantic.I intend to use stringy style. I purposely drop names. These go against conventions, human ones, social rules, that are hardly what we label “grammar.” And yet, let me try now to rephrase that same sentence. Let me do that by asking rhetorical (i.e., by using a grammatically rhetorical question):

    Won’t we do well to deconstruct what is meant by “grammar”?

    Now let me try to offer some examples. I’m midway through a course studying Comanche as an additional language. Neither the language nor the people group are familiar to me, and my own family has, as far as I know, no Comanche heritage. I’m an Anglo-Euro-American white man (yes, with some familiarity and family ties to Cherokee and to Black Foot) studying some “grammar” that functions for others. Comanche women use Comanche, in some cases, differently than men do. And the syntax is highly variable; although mostly SOV like other languages in the same Numic family, there are many sentences that shift to the linguistically rare OSV syntax, in which the Object is fronted because the Subject seems to move. Not all the universal labels to “describe” Comanche actually fit. (An aside is that I’m trying to read Elliott Canonge’s “Comanche Texts” and his translation of the gospel of Mark, to get at some of this “grammar” since next week I’ll begin teaching a semester long course in English grammar for college-level learners of that language. I’m wanting to practice being a learner of grammar before I presume to teach it.)

    The gender difference in “grammar” can be fascinating. Notice most of our constructs of Grammar, from linguistics, have been formalized by men (and in history, until relatively recently, the notions of grammar have been by men for men). For example, Aristotle taught males only. He taught them things such as to avoid ambiguities. Good Greek grammar, he observed, follows that rule. And yet this can be, maybe needs to be, deconstructed. So I attempted that in this little essay, a blogpost, once upon a time. If you read the comments following that blogpost, then you see a conversation that a U of Cal Berkeley Linguist (Richard Rhodes) started with me as he objected to the deconstruction. He claims, or claimed at first, that I was misunderstanding Aristotle. Well, my point was really yours:

    “studying grammar is important”

    Except I think, rather, that studying grammar is not only important to “get a decent idea of how to process language used in communication”; but it is also important to see who is using language to control others. A notion of grammar that is based in one’s ontology, in one’s epistemology, especially when it leaves out half of humanity or persons of different race or class, is easily suspect.

    But “grammar” hardly gets deconstructed because we all want it as “loci of authority,” and who wants to be the one who mis-treats grammar? (I’m re-reading your initial sentence, of course.)

  3. August 18, 2013 6:39 pm

    J.K.,
    I’ve had a couple good chuckles about your response. Your 2nd paragraph is a mash-up about linguistics that very few will be able to decipher and you do it to be purposefully humorous. That’s funny.
    Right or wrong and though I prize intellectual curiosity, I also have developed a reactionary streak to modern intellectual faddishness, within which I include the kind of meta conversation you’d like to have about grammar. I think I’ve run across too many people who want to have that conversation instead of doing the nitty-gritty, unglamorous work of grammatical description itself. Call me a WASP male (well, now I’ve exchanged the P for C, but that’s hardly relevant) or whatever, but I think common sense goes a long way in thinking about “grammar” (the concept itself, not the descriptive results) and any decently intelligent person with a conscience should be able to identify abusive usage. But I’m sure the response to me is that there have been enough indecently intelligent and morally insensitive people in history to justify some people (e.g., you) calling attention to the issue.
    So, while I’ll listen or watch, and occasionally chuckle, I’ll go about my unglamorous data collection and analysis and leave you to your stringy deconstruction. ;-)

  4. August 18, 2013 7:40 pm

    Thanks, Robert, for your great sense of humor. Thank you again for commenting, especially since you are reading well some of my intentions in my comment.

    We really are talking about a couple of different things related to “grammar,” or in French, “grammaire.” I don’t think feminists who pun on this word, or on any other, are trying to say that there is no grammar. They’re trying to investigate the play in the word.

    If you like, we can talk Hebrew grammar seriously here. It really is work, and it really is important work. No one is minimizing that. Where it becomes suspect, that is, where grammar does become suspicious is when it supports a particular semantic along gender or race lines. (And as funny as I was trying to be with my naming of different linguists who are grammarian, I do want to say that there’s no one model that is absolutely correct, that accounts for all of the data. Grammar grows with new discoveries of language and with new tools for discovering language and with change in language, whether the variations are diachronic, synchronic, or due to what Pikean linguists call “allos.” I studied Hebrew, and only just a bit, under Robert D. Bergen, who, at the time was teaching what Robert Longacre, tagmemicist, was calling “Discourse Grammar.” There is a dimension, beyond the sentence, they claimed, that looks and works an awful lot like Sentence grammar, which is all that Chomsky, at the time, was concerned with. Discourse grammar creeps into semantics and hermeneutics, as you know. Purists, grammar purists, don’t so appreciate it. And yet, who gets to rule on the rules? Ken Pike used to say a lot, “Person above logic,” and by that he meant that formal rules only offer so much, even in the way of “grammar.” Nobody is saying that grammar isn’t grammar, that it isn’t important, or anything like that. Rather, the grammarian is human, an observer, and language being observed is subject to the observer, rather than the other way around. In fact, as you point out, “Grammar is a system that we try to figure out in order to understand the patterns of typical usage.” The system is a human one in the first place. So that’s always where we best begin and end in the process of describing grammars and in the process of developing linguistic models / theories for doing grammar.) Shall we discuss the grammar of the passages that Suzanne posted about, the Hebrew of Genesis that have the feminine?

  5. August 18, 2013 8:02 pm

    Oh no — I get what you’re saying and I don’t want to hijack your post to talk about the specific grammar of Hebrew passages. I made my point, you made yours, and we had a bit of fun. I’ll chime in on posts that address Hebrew issues when they arise, but I’ll wait. The universe doesn’t revolve around my fascination with Hebrew grammar.

  6. August 20, 2013 7:53 am

    The universe doesn’t revolve around my fascination with Hebrew grammar.

    Thanks, Robert, for sharing some of your fascination with Hebrew and its grammar here! The wonderful thing about blogging, for many of us I gather, is that our own individual interests intersect in this universe. And as the proverb goes:

    ברזל בברזל יחד

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