Gender Neutral Language
So last night the topic of gender neutrality in the likes of policeman vs police officer came up and, unsurprisingly, I have an opinion on this and thought I may make a blog post detailing said stance.
First let's look at the etymology of the word. Man can be derived right back to a Proto-Indo European root *man-. Proto-Indo European being the reconstructed ancestral language of most of the Indian and European languages, although sadly unattested, and was spoken around 4000BC. Moving a little closer in time in Old English, c800AD, the word mann meant, as it still means in some contexts today, a member of the human race with wer (or waepmann) and wif (or wifmann) meaning a male and a female member respectively. Incidentally wer still exists in modern English in words such as Werewolf, perhaps a female werewolf should be called a *wifwolf, and the word wifmann evolved to become the modern word woman. It wasn't until about 1000AD that mann acquired the additional meaning that had previously been associated to wer and not until 1300AD that wer itself disappeared from English. Now what about man as a suffix? I was unable to track down at what point it began to be used in such a fashion, so can't comment as to whether or not it was before or after wer had disappeared from English. However, the word policeman, which I shall occasionally return to, dates back to about 1829, so well after wer had disappeared. Wikipedia states in its article on man that
The word has historically been used very generally as a suffix in combinations like "fireman", "policeman" and "mailman", because those jobs were historically only jobs that men did. Now that there is an increasing number of women in these jobs, those terms are often replaced by neutral terms like "firefighter", "police officer" and "mail carrier".
Unfortunately this passage is uncited because I'm unclear as to whether this is a better or worse interpretation compared to saying that when the terms were coined they were jobs specifically done by men, but that this didn't necessarily determine the words used.
So in this argument I think there are basically two things that need to be determined. The first is whether the language change would actually help usher in a gender neutral society. I find this unlikely. My favourite example for this is China in which my understanding is that they have gender neutral language (at the very least the pronouns are) but I think one would be hard pressed to pull them up as a good example of gender equality. The other comparison is to a word such as mathematician. The etymology of mathematician takes us back to the Greek word mathema which just meant learning, study or science. The suffix -an also has no gender overtones. However I know when I use the word mathematician to describe someone they will usually think of a male, and this isn't surprising. In general males are overrepresented in maths which brings me to the second problem: men are overrepresented in many of the jobs that make use of the suffix -man. So let's say that police officer did replace the term policeman, as long as the underlying problem (I've been told it still exists) of the police being an "old boy's club" is addressed I think it far more likely that this will constitute the first step of a euphemism treadmill such that police officer will also end up being interpreted as a male member of the police for no other reason than because they are overrepresented. 'So what happens if gender neutrality is reached in a place such as the police but the word policeman is still used?' I hear you ask. Basically, again in my opinion, this is a problem that will take care of itself. The meanings of words are not static, nor does the collection of words that make up a language remain constant. I would predict that most likely since the former meaning of policeman would have become obselete the meaning would likewise change to mean something more like what it did in Old English. Or possibly another word will be introduced to cover the new need for meaning, such as police officer, but the point I feel is often missed is that I don't think this is something that will need to be pushed for.
As a final comment to try and push my point home I was sent an article by Sequoia some months ago about a group, I think, of primary children (I may try hunt out the story later and link it here) who had been brought up using the word firefighter, however after a trip to actually meet some they all started using the word fireman. Unfortunately it was not clear from the article whether this is how the firemen were referring to each other, or whether or not there were any women on the team, however I do find it quite telling.
Edit: Sequoia says that she remembers them being all men.