Opinion

An Ignorant Approach to Shakespeare’s English Stifles Free Thought

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A scene from the Over the Edge theater company's performance of "Twelfth Night" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in August 2001. Ronald Rotunda writes: Poor Shakespeare. If he were in Dr. Anne Scott’s class at Northern Arizona University, she would reject his poor use of English. Horatio Zim

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

Any college-level English professor should be familiar with Shakespeare and some quotations from his writings.

There is Thermites telling us in Troilus and Cressida (Act 2, Scene 3), “The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue!”

Or, Miranda in The Tempest (Act 5, Scene 1), “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in ’t!”

Or Timon of Athens (Act 4, Scene 3), where Timon says, “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind. For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee something.”

In that one scene, Shakespeare uses the word mankind six times.

Poor Shakespeare. If he were in Dr. Anne Scott’s class at Northern Arizona University, Scott would reject poor English. After all, she did deduct points from Ms. Cailin Jefferstold’s paper. She dared use the word mankind in her English composition, and Dr. Scott thought that was verboten.

Parents sometimes wonder what their children learn in college, and why many college graduates cannot find a job commensurate with their education. Perhaps Northern Arizona University offers us one lesson, although it is hardly alone.

Yale has warned a student not to refer to Plato’s Republic in discussing why rape is wrong. An episode of The Simpsons, aired April 2, 2017, satirizes Yale’s political correctness.

Dr. Scott forbade use of mankind, because, she said, it is sexist. She insists that her students must use a gender-neutral term, like humankind, a word that has its own Facebook page.

Now, if Shakespeare or anyone else uses mankind, as in, “Climate change incidents have become global concerns for the whole of mankind,” they should know how sexist they really are.

Professor Scott says that her students must use the word humankind. She apparently prefers that to hu-person-kind. Does anyone think that when Timon says he hates mankind, he is only referring to males? Or, that when Miranda says mankind is beauteous, she intends to exclude females?

Dr. Scott told Ms. Jefferstold that the word mankind, does not refer to all people, only males.”

Any standard dictionary begs to differ. Early and modern writers agree. Ernest Hemingway, in For Whom the Bells Tolls, quotes the poet John Donne, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” Neither Donne nor Hemingway intended to say that the death of females means nothing.

Related: Neil Buchanan: The curse of conservative political correctness

The U.S. Constitution repeatedly uses the word he, as in (Art. I, §6, cl. 2), “No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected....” However, no one thinks that the Constitution intends to exclude women.

In fact, even before the 19th Amendment (1920), which gave women the right to vote, there were female representatives. If the framers mean male, they would have said male, which they use only in the 14th Amendment, Section 2,

Professor Scott apparently does not understand the etymology of the word man. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon and its origins are sex-neutral. Wifman refers to female, while werman refers to male. We get the word wife from wifman, and it’s the reason we pronounce women with the short i sound.

Werewolf is a human-wolf. Modern German still uses words like Wehrmacht, or male power—the army of Nazi Germany. Man or mann simply means human, as in the modern Jamaican phrase, “What’s up, Monn?”

Scott’s efforts to order or compel language are doomed to failure because language is living and evolving, just like humans. The Culture Ministry of France has tried to control language, such as banning words like le weekend because they are too English. Still, many French say le weekend.

English, in contrast, is very accepting of foreign words. England, for example, does not ban buffet (although some in Great Britain pronounce the t).

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There is also the problem of free speech. People have a right to use ordinary English. Perhaps because we have passed 1984 unscathed, we often ignore the significance of George Orwell’s “Newspeak.” Words both reflect and mold the way that people think, which is why they are so powerful and why the First Amendment is so important. Dr. Scott is using her power of grading as a way to control how people talk.

Benjamin Whorf, in his book, Language, Thought, and Reality, tells us, “Natural man, whether simpleton or scientist, knows no more of the linguistic forces that bear upon him than the savage knows of gravitational forces.” Dr. Scott wants to control language, which gives a lot of power to an English composition teacher who would downgrade Shakespeare for bad writing.

Today, it is common to use the term actor to refer to either a male or a female actor. For example, IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, has published the “250 list of female actors.” There really is no reason to use actress versus actor because the ability of the person to act has nothing to do with whether one has an X and Y chromosomes or not.

The modern tendency in language is to become sex-neutral and treat words like actor as sex-neutral. But Dr. Scott apparently wants to change all that and impose sex on words that are already (or have become) sex neutral, like mankind. That is a step backward for language, not a step forward.

The famous linguist, Benjamin Whorf, after studying the language patterns of Hopi (an American Indian tongue) and various modern European languages—mainly English, French and German—concluded that even very abstract concepts like “time” and “matter” are “not given in substantially the same form by experience to all men but depend on the nature of the language or languages through which they have been developed.”

Another linguist, Edward Sapir, makes essentially the same observation: “Though language is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest to the students of social science, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes.”

Genesis, 2:18-24, tells us that after the Lord “fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven,” the first order of priority was to bring them to Adam, “to see what he would call them; each one was to bear the name the man would give it. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven, and all the wild beasts.”

The Bible understands that naming things is important business. Several thousand years later, the Book of John, 1:1, tells us, “In the Beginning was the Word.”

There are limits to the power of words, but there is also a magic in them: not the magic of “abracadabra,” but magic nonetheless. Words have the ability to confuse and to clarify, to help legitimate policies, to generate loyalty, to give the appearance of action, to mold people’s perceptions of the world, to affect the way they approach a problem and to reflect their innermost thoughts.

When people argue about “mere words,” they are talking about fundamentals, about infrastructure, not superstructure.

When Dr. Scott and Northern Arizona University force students to use certain words and shun others, they are tapping into this power—a power easy to abuse. That is why we have the First Amendment. The government should not punish people for using words that our dictionary blesses.

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy and Dee Henley chair and distinguished professor of jurisprudence, Chapman University, the Dale E. Fowler School of Law.