Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Sun, 30 Nov 2008

A Travesty On The English Language?

My friend Dan recently pointed out to me an interesting opinion column which appeared in one of the local newspapers a week or so ago. The writer was identified as "an entrepreneur and a Republican Party activist" in local political circles, and his subject was "How Civil Unions Square with GOP Principles".

To Dan, the piece itself seemed to boil down to one core argument: that while the author was in favor of civil unions on a live-and-let-live basis, the idea of gay marriage was "a travesty on [sic] the English language" and should therefore be opposed, since he claimed the word "marriage" has a "very precise meaning" in the English language, namely a union between one man and one woman. Knowing my interest in words and language, Dan wanted to know what I thought of this whole line of reasoning.

I gave what I thought was a reasonably coherent response to Dan at the time, but the question stuck in my mind, and I have been thinking about it ever since. The whole notion that we should take political stances based on the meanings of words intrigued me, and this posting (such as it is) is the result.

Before we get more deeply into the political issues, let's take a look at the word "travesty" itself. According to my dictionary, the word derives from the Italian word travestire, tra- being a shortened form of the Latin trans meaning "across", plus the Latin vestire, meaning "to dress". So the literal etymology of the word would be approximated by the modern term "cross dressing" -- a somewhat ironic choice of phrase when one wants to discuss gay marriage! But knowing the word's origin makes its meaning more understandable: a caricature or parody. Typically, calling something a "travesty" is considered a much stronger way of denouncing something than using a term like "an offense", because of the exaggerated nature of a caricature. (One recalls Groucho Marx's retort when one of his suggestions was denounced as "a sham": "A sham? It's not a sham! It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham!")

So my first comment is actually a minor correction: since "travesty" is a noun, it's not really grammatically correct to speak of a travesty on something; the phrase should have been "a travesty of the English language." Substituting the word "parody" for "travesty" makes this easier to see. One can also recall the phrase "a travesty of justice" to get a better sense of how "travesty" should be used as a transitive verb.

Having dispensed with the technical niceties, let's now return to the central question: should gay marriage be opposed because the term itself is somehow offensive to the English language?

In a word, no.

One of the great strengths of the English language is that it has always been democratic (small "d") in the sense of constantly adding words and phrases that add to understanding, or adding definitions that give more finely nuanced shades of meaning. A simple example: in the beginning, there was the telephone, and that was all there was to it. But soon, there were coin-operated public pay phones. Hold buttons and multiple lines were added to office phones. Eventually, technology freed users from being wired into the network by the development of cell phones. As the technology evolved over time, the language evolved along with it to enable more exact descriptions of the devices in question.

So to say that a word like "marriage" has a "precise meaning" is short-sighted at best, and disingenuous at worst. In English, language, words, and meaning evolve and change over time. Most of the time, these changes are slow, quiet, and not controversial. But the word "marriage", with all its social and religious overtones, has become a hot-button topic these days.

One wonders about the emphasis many people are placing on the "precise meaning" of marriage as the basis for rejecting gay marriage. Appeals to the authority of the dictionary seem to be a convenient shorthand way to avoid discussion, thought, or analysis. This is particularly ironic when one looks back at how dictionaries evolved in the first place.

The word "dictionary" comes from the Latin dictionarium, meaning "a repertory of dictiones, phrases, or words." Usually they were collections of words and phrases (typically not in alphabetical order) from the Bible or works of classical literature. The French publisher Robert Estienne created Latin and French dictionaries in the 1530s in something approximating the modern form we know today. He took his vocabulary from classical authors, cited other authorities as the source of his definitions, and quoted from classical literature to show examples of usage. His use of bon autheurs françois provided the standards by which language specialists defined correctness.

English evolved, of course, in England, and England was, even up to the middle ages, a land of many languages. Official documents of the government in London were still being written in French only one hundred and fifty years before the time of Shakespeare and the age of Elizabethan literature. There were nearly as many English dialects as there were counties in England -- to a Middlesex farmer of the day, the English spoken by a London merchant was as unintelligible as Chinese.

"Standard" English grew empirically, through the actions of many individuals, in contrast with the product of other countries like France which created state-supported academies for this task. The first book to go beyond lists of words and phrases and offer explanations in English of English words did not appear until the seventeenth century: Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French &c. But a complete, comprehensive, authoritative dictionary of English did not appear until the mid-eighteenth century, with the publication of Samuel Johnson's English Dictionary, compiled primarily by Johnson with the help of a half-dozen assistants over the course of eight and a half years. Yet despite all the time and effort involved in compiling his dictionary, Johnson neither lamented nor ignored the continual growth of the English language. He felt that language was inevitably changed by conquest, migration, and commerce, and by the progress of thought and knowledge. He realized that as customs and mores changed, the words that formerly expressed them changed with them, some dying as practices fell into disuse, new words springing up as new practices became more popular: "No dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding and some falling away."

(Just as an aside, I always wondered about science fiction like Star Trek where, despite the supposed passage of many centuries, it often seems like the English language suddenly became ossified and static, without a single new turn of phrase or change of currently familiar meaning that would make it difficult for people of today to understand what was being said in the distant tomorrow. Just as we often have to concentrate and sometimes lack familiarity with the idioms of the time when we listen to Shakespeare, shouldn't the vernacular in all these futuristic stories require at least as much for us to understand?)

Johnson's dictionary served as the standard reference to the English language for over one hundred years, inspiring many others, including the American schoolmaster Noah Webster, who published the American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, and whose name became synonymous with the word "dictionary" itself. Finally, starting in the late nineteenth century, James A.H. Murray started the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and managed to complete nearly half the work before his death in 1915; his successors finally completed the work in 1925. While widely regarded as the definitive modern standard for English, the OED did not proclaim itself to be a fixed standard, instead cataloging the responsive, changing character of a living language over several centuries. Murray himself compared English vocabulary to astronomical nebulae, clear and bright in the middle, but shading off on all sides, "to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere, but to lose itself imperceptibly in the surrounding darkness."

Earlier this year, the Oxford English Dictionary updated the definitions of many gender-related words to cover their use in describing same-sex relationships, and removed or revised definitions that conflicted with this goal. This was not merely bowing to political correctness -- it was a reflection of the ongoing evolution of the language itself. There was nothing inherent in English which prevented Shakespeare from describing a romantic attachment between two men as "love". But when words like "love" were originally defined, while gay and lesbian relationships certainly existed, officially they did not, and hence these words were never defined in more gender-neutral terms.

George Orwell, in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, and in his novels, Animal Farm and 1984 pointed out the dangers of relying on relying on what words are said to mean by those in authority -- not just dictionary writers, but political leaders. Ironically but importantly, one can see this clearly when one looks at the "precise meaning" of words like freedom, democracy, or even news as they were defined by the old-line Communist and totalitarian regimes. It was not for nothing that so many of these states called themselves something like "The People's Republic of Genericstan", as if calling itself by those words would actually make it so.

And even our own leaders have been known to resort to euphemism to disguise what would otherwise be politically unpalatable topics and ideas. Terms like "extraordinary rendition", "administrative detention", and "enhanced interrogation techniques" spring immediately to mind -- but, in fairness, these are only the most recent examples of what is a long (and mildly dishonorable) tradition in American politics. One of Orwell's goals was to raise awareness of this kind of political manipulation of the language so that we will at least be aware of it when it goes on, and not accept it blindly and uncritically. At the other (pointed but harmless) extreme, comedians like Stephen Colbert turn the idea of "precise meaning" on its head by redefining old words (or occasionally inventing new ones) to make their own comedic points. George Carlin often used humor to make the point that words are just words, and that the emotional baggage that comes along with them is little more than a patina of personal opinion layered on top of things that are arguably neutral in and of themselves.

People like the op-ed writer would argue that they are simply acting to preserve the traditional meaning of the word "marriage", and attempts to invent terms like "gay marriage" are as useless and oxymoronic as calling an calling a rooster a hen and expecting it to lay eggs. First of all, I doubt that so many people are getting worked up about alleged infractions against the mother tongue. (A quick Google search this morning for "gay marriage" and "oxymoron" resulted in over 53,000 hits.) I would have thought that arguments from a moral or societal perspective would be more persuasive, but instead, like the article in question, a great many people seem to be worked up about the proprieties of English usage. The difficulty, of course, from arguing from a moral perspective is the difficulty in coming to agreement on the moral norms underlying the argument. Morality is often considered an individual matter and can be easily "refuted" by simply stating that "your morality does not jive with mine", leaving little basis for further discussion.

Frankly, it seems to me that the real underlying nature of the arguments against gay marriage are mostly economic. Getting married brings along with it a whole slew of financial and legal ramifications: preferential tax treatment, health care decision making, insurance, inheritance, and the like. My suspicion is that many of those arguing against gay marriage look on these areas as a fixed pie of benefits, and that granting these benefits to gay couples somehow dilutes the value of the benefits, much in the same way that a company announcing the issue of a million new shares of stock diminishes very slightly the value of shares already held by investors. Unarguably, the tax advantages of marriage are real, and expanding the pool of people who would potentially use this benefit must have some tangible fiscal cost. But what would happen if, assuming there are thousands or even millions of gay couples anxious to take advantage of filing tax returns as "married", there were a sudden surge of equal numbers of heterosexual marriages instead? Would arguments be made to restrict future numbers of married couples, much as some argue for sharply restricting immigration to this country? The economic cost, after all, would be exactly the same. But I doubt anyone would even notice, save for some demographers and Census Bureau officials -- nobody argues when everybody wants to do what's accepted and popular.

Even more so, the other "rights" that come with marriage have little or no impact on anyone else, and cause no one else any harm. Why should it matter to me if one partner in a gay couple is allowed to make health care decisions on behalf of their spouse, or to inherit the property of the other in the same way that many states automatically provide for the spouses of married couples, or get life insurance at "married" rates instead of "single" rates? (It would also be interesting to see if the insurance companies have any data on how the lives of gay couples might differ statistically from those of heterosexual married couples. I can think that it might be possible to look for trends like greater longevity of married couples (it helps to have someone else watching out for you) versus shorter lifespans due the additional stress associated with being openly gay in a society where straight is very much the norm.) Taking a libertarian perspective, I don't mind what other people do in the privacy of their houses or in their relationships with each other, as long as it doesn't cause me or my family any harm.

The idea of "civil unions" is often proposed as a substitute for gay marriage. The writer of the article spends much of his time suggesting just that, arguing that civil unions are entirely consistent with basic Republican principles of maximum human freedom and minimal government interference. As is the case here, I find it difficult to understand the distinction being made between a civil union and a marriage. As far as I can tell, there is essentially no difference, except for one thing: homosexuals joined in civil unions would not able to describe themselves as "married", that word being reserved for traditional heterosexual couples. One can argue from a linguistic perspective whether or not having two distinct terms for what is essentially the same thing is worthwhile or not. It's kind of rare in English for two different words to mean exactly the same thing, to be perfect synonyms for each other -- that's why they invented the thesaurus. Usually one term will tend to become more widespread than the other over time, the latter eventually falling into disuse, its dictionary entry finally being marked with a term like [archaic]. In terms of usage, "civil union" is a somewhat awkward construction, a portmanteau term which does not roll trippingly off the tongue: "Are you married?" "No, I'm civil unioned." ("Civilly unioned"?) This to me is the surest sign that the term itself is doomed to a place in the dustbin of linguistic history.

But in a larger sense, a "civil union" which is supposed to be exactly the equivalent of being "married" but is also not the same reminds me of nothing so much as the "Whites Only / Colored Only" signs so common throughout America during a large part of the last century. As the Supreme Court noted in Brown v. Board of Education, separate is often inherently unequal. Segregation rarely if ever produced equality, and, in addition to the psychology involved, the facilities provided for blacks were not as good as those provided for whites. So the choice the court had was to give up the quest for equality by allowing segregation, or to forbid segregation to achieve equality. From that perspective, the Court had little choice except to rule as it did.

Is it likely that creating a new legal classification of "civil unions" would result in something exactly equivalent to "marriage"? Given all the additional expense and bureaucracy involved, and the numerous court cases that would be required in order to establish exactly what a "civil union" actually meant, it seems unlikely. It is even less likely when one remembers that civil laws regarding things like marriage are set by the individual states, with all the differences and nuances involved in having fifty different groups trying to legislate the same thing. While there have always been differences in the marriage laws from state to state, they are generally more alike than different, and, most importantly, each state already recognizes the civil laws of other states, which is why you don't need to remarry every time you move from one state to another.

But getting back to the linguistic perspective from which we started, it would probably be a service to all concerned if the discussion of gay marriage would drop the word "traditional". Invoking tradition is a time-honored way of avoiding debate, a technique for fogging up the past so that it doesn't have to justify or explain itself. Often times "tradition" is little more than a hodgepodge of customs, laws, and rituals, condoned by society and religious leaders, a jumble which evolved over time and simply reflects the particular route by which we all happened to arrive at where we are today. Tradition tells you what you have, but not why; where you are, but not how you got there. It blends and merges past and present, until you can no longer distinguish what is essential from what is ephemeral, style from substance, the fuel from the flame.

The debate over gay marriage will obviously continue for a long time, but from a linguistic standpoint, I think it the debate will cool over time, until the time when the idea of gay marriage becomes so common that the word "marriage" will no longer need the adjective gay stuck in front of it. After all, having one word for something always is simpler than having two.