Differences in Vocabulary

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This was originally published August 04, 2010 on Facebook as a Note. But I publish it here, to help tell about my faith journey.

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Differences in Vocabulary
Roger W. Shuy

Most of us take the words that we use in everyday speech and writing for granted. Little do we realize what our vocabulary can reveal about each of us – our age, sex, education, occupation, and geographical and cultural origins.

Words are interesting to almost everyone. Through his vocabulary a person may reveal facts about his age, his sex, his education, his occupation, and his geographical and cultural origins. Our first reaction may be to imagine that all speakers of English use the same words. Nothing could be further from the truth; our language contains a vast number of synonyms to show different shades of meaning or reveal as much of our inner feelings as we want to. Some of these vocabulary choices are made deliberately. We use other words, however, without really knowing that our vocabulary is influenced by our audience.

My Thoughts
The above two paragraphs are not my own work. The first paragraph represents my abbreviation of the editor’s introduction to the second paragraph which began the body of Shuy’s work. The editor even provided a footnote on page 171 saying,

“Writing in 1967, Shuy could not have foreseen the many social changes that have occurred in the United States that necessitate some restriction of his generalization in this area [regarding the area of gender].”

That note is interesting because I am about to reveal a couple of additional things that have changed since their publication date, whenever that was.

While Roger W. Shuy presented information paragraphs examining: Age, Sex, Education, Occupation, and Origins, it is in his paragraph about Sex, that Shuy spoke using very “gender generalisms” or as some might say, “Shuy spoke using ‘gender bias’.” I will not insinuate Shuy has bias, instead it seems Shuy reflects the time period.

Here are some additional ways in which it seems that things have changed since 1967.

1. Some audiences prefer the use of the word gender over the word sex. I’m not sure why this is, because if you are talking about gender specifics, the word sex is just as appropriate. But I can say that from the pulpit the word gender does not raise the eyebrows of the members.

2. The use of the word his as a general reference to a person. While his was gender inclusive during Shuy’s writing, it seems that his has fallen out of favor with most Americans when referencing a person whose gender is unknown. In today’s modern audience, his specifically refers to the male gender and does not include a reference to the female gender, thus making some feel that his is not gender inclusive. Because of this, even though during Shuy’s time his was perfectly acceptable for referring to either a male, or a male or female, the need for the audience to feel gender inclusiveness begs the writer to be aware of the reader and not exclude anyone. Thus today’s writer would take Shuy’s statement:

“Through his vocabulary a person may reveal facts about his age… .”

and might phrase it like:

“Through a person’s vocabulary the individual may reveal facts about their age… “.

The italicized words reveal the updated phraseology reflecting gender inclusiveness. Even though the sentence is grammatical incorrect because “individual” is singular where as “their” is plural, the sentence works because of gender inclusiveness.

My thanks to Seth Bartley for sharing Shuy’s work with me.