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Wifmen and wombyn

September 21, 2009

I am a rabid defender of inclusive language. I like the idea of the various attempts at a thirdgender or gender-neutral pronoun, though as a student of language I’m sceptical of their ever attaining general use: it’s very difficult to make a language acquire new grammatical particles, especially one like English, which has already lost two lots of pronouns (dual and second person singular) and has been steadily shedding grammar for the last thousand years. That scepticism is, however, academic: should I meet someone, online or in person, who refers to themselves or asks to be referred to as zie or hir or xe or any of the others, then it becomes a question of respecting their identity and, as such, a no-brainer: if you ask me to call you he I will call you he, if you ask me to call you Derek I will call you Derek. You’d think this would fall under the umbrella of common courtesy, before the question of gender identity even came up.

I use gender-neutral pronouns as an example of how attempts at egalitarian alteration of language can work, even if only on a small scale. Concerned people have identified a genuine problem – we have no way to refer to people who do not feel adequately identified by either he or she – and come up with a variety of solutions, some more sensible than others. What I want to talk about now is an example of the same reaction to a problem that was never really there in the first place, and one ‘solution’ that seems pernicious in itself.

As an English student, one of the things that gets my back up is the plethora of respellings of the words woman and women (womyn, wimmin and so on) to be found scattered across the feminist fringe. The only rationale I can think of for this is to erase the presence of man and men inside the words, and the only reason I can think of for that is the assumption that woman is a diminutive or derivative of man. Were that the case, it’d be a fair example of sexist language and you’d have an argument for trying to correct it. But it really isn’t.

The Anglo-Saxon word for ‘human, person’ was mann or monn and was gender-neutral, as demonstrated by the compound leofman = ‘lover, sweetheart’. (The word reached Middle English as leman, also neutral.)

The standard early AS word for ‘man, male person’ was wer or were: it survives in ‘werewolf’ = ‘man-wolf’. The standard early AS for ‘woman, female person’ was wīf, which acquired the specific meaning of ‘married woman’ somewhat later on.

At some point during the Anglo-Saxon period these were combined, with wereman becoming the standard for ‘man’ and wīfman for ‘woman’. The reason for our idiosyncratic modern-day pronunciation of women can be found in that Anglo-Saxon i.

Wereman then lost its first half, and man on its own shifted to meaning specifically ‘male person’. The key point is that this shift postdates the construction of the form we now have as woman: the two terms were originally formed from the same, gender-neutral stem meaning ‘person, human being’. One could argue, if anything, that removing the man from woman is actually erasing women’s historical personhood (though one would have to be an incredible linguistic pedant and something of a troll to do so).

Within the generalised disapproval for people who don’t do their research, specific respellings in the womyn vein annoy me more than others. Most of my problems stem from the fact that words in Modern English (you know, the language you’re reading this in) simply do not end in -yn. (The modern onomastical obsession with the letter y is inherently annoying, but that is a subject for another post.) The worst one, though, has hands down got to be wombyn. I hate this word. I have nothing against the neo-pagans who seem to generally be the ones using it – I am all in favour of people finding spiritual fulfilment in whatever way they please – but by Brigid and the Morrigan, wombyn annoys me.

The Guardian journalist Emily Wilson once pointed out, in a remark I have never been able to forget, that it looks like it’s “meant to rhyme with ‘combine’, as in ‘wombyn harvester’.” Leaving aside that singularly hilarious yet disturbing image, I don’t think the b is meant to be pronounced: it’s there because it’s also there in womb. Wombyn is a sort of unholy smoosh of womb into woman and that itself strikes me as deeply, deeply problematic, for two reasons.

First, I thought one of the major aims of feminism was to get rid of the idea that women are, by definition, childbearing creatures, the ‘two-legged wombs’ of The Handmaid’s Tale. And second, by centering the womb as the primary aspect of womanhood, you’re directly denying the identity of women who have had hysterectomies, transsexual women, and women born with intersex or other conditions which happen to result in their lack of a uterus. Newsflash: they’re still women. Womanhood is not, and should not be constructed as, dependent on either the presence of or the reproductive record of, a womb. And the word wombyn seems to have that dependence built right in.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 2:39 am

    Oh, the idea of a ‘wombyn harvester’ is going to have me giggling for HOURS. But yes, I can’t bear these pointless respellings of perfectly good words. We feminists have other, more important issues to turn our intelligence to.

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