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Wed, Apr 13 2005

Plural And Singular Gender-Inclusive God And Country

I recently tried to explain to someone who speaks ESL that "The United States" should be used with verbs that are singular rather than plural. Then I tried to explain that the generic term "the states" should be used with verbs that are plural rather than singular. This is not as simple to do as one might think. We have a lot of situations in English that can be confusing. We know better than to to say, "The news are interesting," but to someone who sees "news" as plural that might sound perfectly correct. If we said, "Everyone are happy," we would realize our error, but to someone learning English it might be a very logical statement.

I see that I'm not the only one who has struggled to explain such things. The whole "collective" issue has been big trouble for some time. It becomes even worse when we try to explain our origins by referring to the Creator. I don't speak Hebrew, but I'm told that the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament documents could also be confusing in translation. God is referred to as both singular and plural, depending on the context of the Creator's influence in the story being presented.

To make matters even worse, many other languages put a gender spin on almost every noun. We've all heard people refer to The United States as "she". This is a singular pronoun used for the collective term, which would be consistent with the first situation I mentioned at the beginning of this post. But while the rest of the world has been happily placing feminine and masculine articles and pronouns next to nouns the folks in our country have been trying to de-gender the English language by replacing words such as "firemen" with terms like "fire fighters". I have no idea what feminists in other countries are doing about that whole issue. There are some articles that apply to both masculine and feminine nouns, but incorporating those into everyday language may take several generations.

Modern English speakers have even attempted to make the Creator sound more politically correct to humans by sometimes referring to God as "She" (even though the New Testament usually used "He" to refer to Christ and "She" to refer to the bride, which is typically understood to be New Jerusalem and is saddle-bagged by plenty of conflicting interpretations in itself).

Most English-speaking Christians (and perhaps others) would generally believe that God can have both male and female qualities and would generally agree that Christ is part of the plurality of God while still maintaining a separate identity. But Christians rarely refer to Christ as "She". As far as English goes, those of us who choose to accept the concept of God as both singular and plural should have little trouble accepting God as both male and female, but we also realize that practicality makes it very confusing to put together a sentence such as "We love God because She have done great things." We might keep the verb singular whether we are referring to God as male, female, both male and female, plural, singular or both plural and singular. Not all English-speaking people are Christians and not all Christian people speak English, but if we're going to insist that people speak in sentences we need to at least be aware that the subject may very well come up as a source of further confusion for one who is learning English and is trying to reconcile the use of nouns, pronouns and verbs.

To take the religious aspect of plurality and gender a bit further could probably get us into trouble. There is a faction in The United States that would love to define marriage from a civil standpoint by using traditional Christian definitions. If Christians think of God as both male and female (and a whole lot more, of course), and if we think of God as both singular and collective (and a whole lot more, of course), how are we going to justify that whole "one man and one woman" thing? Folks who insist on using the precepts of a Christian God as the basis for law in America might just get swept into a corner with their own linguistic broom once the courts get hold of the whole topic. Any well-read judge or lawyer could use select Bible verses to advocate plural marriage, gay marriage and probably a whole lot of other things. Do we really want to even open a door to that kind of a Constitutional quagmire?

And If I haven't caused you enough consternation for one day, think about this: If The United States has decided feminine associations how is it that we ended up with an Uncle Sam instead of an Aunt Samantha?

posted at: 10:27 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry



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