Monday, September 12, 2011

Woma/i/o/u/yn Power?

As a rule, I like to be controversial and cause a stir, especially when it involves feminism. After all, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich had it right when she said well-behaved women seldom make history. About a year ago, I even went through a phase when I called God She instead of He. (At this point, I realize that God has no gender, and avoid using pronouns when referring to the Holy One.) Despite this, I never got into the whole womyn thing.

In the 1970s, a number of feminists felt that because the word woman contains man, it defines femininity as a diminutive of masculinity. As a result, they began to spell woman and women differently. (The most popular variant spellings are woman as womyn and women as wimmin, or woman as womon and women as womyn.) In theory, I absolutely love this, and would totally begin using the alternate spellings, especially on tests and papers to freak my teachers out.

However, I’m just not buying it. In Old English, the word man was gender-neutral, like person today. A woman was a wifman, a female person, and a man was a werman, a male person. Throughout time, werman was shortened to man and wifman was changed to woman. So in reality, the word woman is not in any way a diminutive of the word man; they both mean person, just specifying the gender. So I’ll be using woman for the foreseeable future.

The word person, while sounding like it comes from a masculine root (per son), also has an innocuous origin; it comes from the Latin word persona, meaning mask. So I’m also not into spelling it persyn. (For the record, I’ve never actually seen persyn - I’m just nipping the issue in the bud.)

Human, however, is problematic for a feminist. It comes from Latin for Homo sapiens, which means wise man. No, not wise person - wise MAN. So essentially, when you say “I’m a human,” you’re saying “I’m a dude.” I think I’ll be spelling it humyn from now. (Look for an update on how freaked out my teachers are when I write it on tests!)

When I first discovered Women of the Wall, an organization of women that want to be able to pray at the Kotel HaMa’aravi (Western Wall), I saw that they call themselves Nashot HaKotel in Hebrew. It never occurred to me that the correct plural for women in Hebrew is nashim, not nashot. Usually, -im is the masculine plural of a masculine word, and -ot is the feminine plural of a feminine word. Nashim, which is a plural of a feminine word (the one for woman) is an exception to the rule. (There are many.) “It is a pro-female assertion that seeks to remove the linguistic dependency of the word woman or women on the word man or men,” the WOW website says.

I totally understand that motivation, and I completely stand by it. I’ve started to use the word nashot in my own personal notes in Judaic classes, and I plan on continuing to do that. (Just not in Hebrew language classes. The teacher would probably think I’m an absolute idiot for pluralizing a word as simple as woman wrong, and take off points.)

So, fellow women, people, humyns, and nashot - let's band together and fight for feminism!


  1. Talia, thanks for the linguistics lesson. As the holder of a BA in French, I get irritated when people play with language to make it more woman-friendly when there's no reason to do so. My pet peeve: The word "history" is *not* derived from the words "his story," and the next person who uses the so-called word "herstory" in my presence is gonna get snacked upside the head with a wet noodle. On the other hand, I didn't know that "human" was a problematic word.

    1. THIS

  2. Thanks for appreciating it - I've been wanting to write something like this for a while, but I was afraid the topic was too boring (I mean, it is grammar...) to be entertaining.

    I'm also not into using "herstory" (although it doesn't incense me enough to smack people who use it upside the head with a wet noodle [that's one of my favorite phrases, btw]).

    I've heard the concept of spelling "human" as "humyn," so I looked into it and decided that as a feminist I prefer humyn.

  3. If, "In Old English, the word man was gender-neutral, like person today" and you said, "the word woman is not in any way a diminutive of the word man; they both mean person, just specifying the gender" How can Human be problamatic? Human=Homo Sapiens=wise man(man being gender-neutral and "like person today" as stated above)

    So you're not saying "I'm a dude" you're simply saying "I'm human."

  4. However, "wise man" is today's translation of the term "Homo sapiens," and today, "man" means "dude."

  5. "wise man" is in no way a current translation of "Homo sapiens." If you look further you will find it means "earthly being" which is in no way gender specific.

  6. When you put it into Google translate, you get "wise man," and that's what Wikipedia says too.

  7. I'm not clear on how using "nashot" rather than "nashim" works as a "pro-female assertion". "Nashim HaKotel" would not be correct Hebrew usage in any case. Nashim and Nashot are correct in different situations.
    Nashim is used בנפרד, while Nashot is used בסמיכות .
    Smichut/סמיכות being the construct state:
    Other Hebrew words have this as well. "Milim" is "words", but if I want to say "the words of the song" I would say "milot ha-shir" not "milim ha-shir".

  8. "Nashot" isn't used b'semikhut, "nIshot" is used b'semikhut. I even asked my Hebrew language teacher about this, so I'm positive this is correct.

  9. I went back and checked as well, and it turns out that you're correct (about nashot not being used b'semikhut) and I was incorrect.
    So first, I apologize.
    I'm curious about the b'semikhut form that your teacher mentioned. Would it not be neshei/nshei or neshot/nshot (with a shva)
    as opposed to nishot (with a chirik)?

  10. No problem.

    I would have to assume it would be with a shva, not a chirik, but I'm no Hebrew language scholar.