God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Man is Everywhere (And So is Woman)

In a comment on A. Admin’s post about Bill Mounce, Mark Baker-Wright takes Dr. Mounce to task for writing (originally here):

Have you noticed the new advertisement for the Prius: “Harmony Between Man, Nature And Machine.” I’ll bet Toyota would be glad to sell to women.

Dr. Mounce is using the point to support his claim that:

[T]hankfully “humankind” never occurs in the NIV/TNIV. What an ugly word! But “mankind” continues to be used as a generic term in English, as does “man.” I know there are people who disagree with this point, but the fact that it is used generically over and over again cannot truly be debated; the evidence is everywhere.

What we have here is confusion on at least two levels:

1. Different people have different dialects. This should be obvious — particularly in light of the heated debate people have about this very issue in their own language — but it seems that this point is frequently forgotten or ignored. It’s perfectly possible (and seems to be true) that one person would hear “man” or “men” and think “people,” while another person would hear “male adult people.”

So even when “there are people who disagree,” both sides can be right for their own dialects.

2. Words mean different things in different contexts. It’s perfectly possoble — and, again, seems to be true — that in English “man versus nature” has more of a general feel than “man versus woman.”

Mounce even gives us an example from his own dialect. He writes, “I know there are people who disagree.” Why didn’t he write, “I know there are men who disagree”? Because in that situation, it would seem, “men” doesn’t mean “people.”


October 16, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , ,


  1. (I think) What Mounce says is true at the level of spoken English. It is not so true at the level of published English (unless what is published is a record of spoken English). I guess my question is which of these are we trying to achieve in a Bible translation? Is it better to have a translation that sounds like spoken English? Or is would it be better to follow the norms of published works? And then, within the publishing world, should we follow the norms of popular publishing (loose) or academic publishing (tighter)?
    Maybe I am off point here, but it seems that part of the problem here is what we mean by English in the phrase ‘Good English Translation.’
    Maybe Not?

    Comment by Ryan | October 16, 2009

    • I agree with you on the distinction between spoken and published English, though that difference is diminishing in this case. It is important to note that this objection to “man” as a generic for human beings wasn’t an issue until the mid 20th Century, when it became an issue due to political reasons. This background to the objection is the elephant (I don’t know whether a male or female elephant) in the room when this issue is discussed; that is, a large number of folks have staked their position on this based on political factors before anything else. This was not a natural, gradual shift in language usage; we’re talking about a theoretically-based and politically motivated war on gendered speech that has (remarkably) had real impact on the way language is used today, a generation later. And that’s why the debate won’t go away: since its roots are in what really amounts to a cultural war, it’s likely to remain a passionate debate for many.

      I do find it mildly amusing that this concern with gendered language is a non-issue in virtually every other language in the world; I know my Hispanic friends find the whole thing a bit silly.

      Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 14, 2009

      • Jason:

        I think you’re right that the shift away from “man” was, at first, in part the artificial result of a politically motivated group with an agenda that including stirring up resentment. But I’m not sure how important, or even relevant, it is to note that historical fact now. And I think, at least for translation purposes, that it’s more important to recognize the language as it is, whether one likes it or not.

        (The same movement away from “man” created Hebrew liturgy in this country that replaced avot with avot v’imahot. I have always argued against that change — in vain — on the linguistic grounds that avot is already inclusive. But the politics beat the science in this case.)

        Comment by Joel H. | December 15, 2009

  2. I hope it’s clear enough in my original comments (which are linked above, but not explicitly mentioned), but my main issue was that the example Mounce used to demonstrate that modern examples of “man” intended to include women exist fails to make the important point. He uses it as if it demonstrates that folks who argue that “man” is an exclusive term are incorrect. But I don’t think anyone would actually argue that “man” never includes women in modern usage. We argue (those of us who do, at least) that such a usage is in decline, and that it can be confusing (which Joel seems to agree with by his discussion of “dialects”).

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright | October 16, 2009

  3. But I don’t think anyone would actually argue that “man” never includes women in modern usage. We argue (those of us who do, at least) that such a usage is in decline, and that it can be confusing (which Joel seems to agree with by his discussion of “dialects”).

    I think there are probably dialects in which “man” is never inclusive. Most speakers, though, can do just fine in several dialects, so I would venture to guess that there are no speakers for whom “man” cannot ever include women. (It’s a little difficult to judge accurately because in many circles speakers are condemned for thinking that “man” can include women, so they won’t admit it.)

    But really, how speakers use English is answer through field work, not sitting at home and guessing/hoping/demanding/etc. (And by “field work” I don’t mean just a Google search or simple observation.)

    Comment by Joel H. | October 16, 2009

  4. I don’t accept, as Mounce seems to assume, that “Man” is intended to be gender generic in the Toyota ad. This is what I wrote in a comment at Aberration Blog, partly in response to Mark Baker-Wright:

    Mark, surely car manufacturers deliberately target men rather than women for their advertising, at least for some models. I haven’t seen the new Prius ad (I guess it is North American only) but does it by any chance show a male driver and emphasise, if only subtly, the car’s masculine characteristics? I guess the advertising agency knew exactly what they were doing in choosing the word “man”, and it wasn’t to be gender generic.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | October 17, 2009

  5. […] Yes, Bill, this “fact” can be debated, as I do below. (Joel Hoffman also blogged about this.) […]

    Pingback by Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Mounce Misunderstands “Man” | November 26, 2009

  6. […] offend even more. The issue (which has been addressed frequently — recently by me here and here, by Clayboy, Bill Mounce, and many others) is whether (orwhen) the English word “men” […]

    Pingback by Do All Men Experience Pain in Childbirth? « God Didn't Say That | December 7, 2009

  7. Apparently I can’t reply to a reply…

    I think it’s important to note that fact now because it’s still not “historical” (as in “over”) in terms of the debate. Like I said, that the whole debate largely started due to political reasons (I won’t call them “artificial,” because politics has always played a part in shaping language) still has dramatic influence on the debate and even continues to influence which words are used.

    Case in point: go to a rural, largely conservative Evangelical community in the Midwest, and you’ll find that the vast majority still use “man” and other masculine forms generically. Those who are aware of the debate in those communities use it intentionally as a way of showing their disdain towards those who are “changing” it. But in Los Angeles (or in scholarly writing), it doesn’t work that way, being so very nearly the opposite that it could negatively influence one’s social or professional status.

    The fact is that we can’t ignore the origins of the shift, because a large percentage of those on the ground don’t ignore it. I’ve heard too people insist on “man” or other masculine forms with, “you can be politically correct all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that it includes women too,” to think that ignoring the political origins of the debate is in any way productive. And like I said, I don’t know if this debate will ever cease to be a debate; both sides are simply too entrenched.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 15, 2009

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