A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Of Identity, Gender, And The Ever-Troubling "Is" - Part 1

            Why is it that the shortest words always seem to be the most interesting?
            Take a look at that sentence right up there. I used a form of “to be” twice, once in its original incarnation, and one in a conjugation. Even after I used the verb "to seem", it's still required that I use another copula. That little verb is one of the most essential words in the English language, and I’m just now realizing how different most people would have to speak if we were to be rid of it.
            Just as an experiment, I tried to write a simplified biography without ever using that word, or any form of it. It can work:
            “I call myself Lorre. I have two dogs, and two guinea pigs. One of those guinea pigs possesses the name Lucy. I declare my identity as an American. I possess the gender identity of a woman. I choose to follow the diet of a vegetarian. English claims the title of my native language.”
            Obviously, it’s not very convenient to write all that out. But, albeit in a roundabout way, English can work without that little verb in this case. But, let’s look at some types of sentences where it’s harder:
            “My dog is at home now.”
            My initial thought was “My dog is located at home now”, but I almost immediately realized that I’m just being more pretentious than necessary. Damn. After some thought, the best I could come up with was: “My dog currently resides at home.”
            Now, this post looks like it’s leading right into talking about E-Prime – and it is. But not in this particular part of it. I’m going to split this up into multiple posts, because I have a lot to say about this, and I’m bad about organizing my thoughts into one. Looking at this, there will probably be a total of five parts. Right now, what I want to talk about is a little more personal thought than proved linguistic forms.
            According to two of the many uses of our copula, “class” and “identity” are separate things. But what, really, do we see as the difference?
            What exactly defines us in terms of identity? Typically, we would say “I am Lore” is a case of identity – I am defining myself as the being Lore. And we would say that “I am a blonde” would be a case of class – I am a member of the class of people with blonde hair, however my blondeness does not define me as a person. But I want to look closer at the name. What if I change my name? What if I use a nickname? Names are fluid things.
            Let’s say you agree with me, and discard names from the list of what defines you as being. So what does? I would say that the only ones I can think of are “being”, “mass”, “organism”, etc. There’s one thing which I think might be a little more controversial, and which I of course want to ponder: Gender and sex.
            It’s generally understood in a society where gender is being more widely recognized as fluid that “gender” and “sex” are not the same thing. “Gender” refers to which part of the female---male continuum a person identifies themselves as. “Sex” refers to the biological arrangement of a person’s genitalia and reproductive organs. Sex does not match with gender, nor are the two terms mutually exclusive. (As the postgender community attests, a person has sex but does not need to choose a gender.)
            This leads to an interesting linguistic question: What is “woman”, and what is “man”?  One of the biggest problems transgender men and women face (remember, transgender =/= transsexual. For now I’m simply talking about gender.) is the consistent refusal of others to refer to (or even acknowledge) them  as “men” and “women”. Because, I believe, for far too long, we have only used the two terms to define sex. Rather than seeing gender as under the “identity” label, we condemn a person to whatever identity their sex belongs to. Gender, I think, we see more as a class, with members.
            I see this as a problem. Solutions, of course, are trying to be made (“biological man” vs. simply “man”). But they haven’t yet come into widespread use. Should we have separate words for “sex-oriented woman/man” and “gender-identified woman/man”?
            I’m going to break off here, but I would like to ask you to think: Next time you say “I’m a woman/man”, think – are you making your sex part of your identity?

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