Skip to main content

On Gender and Bible Translation

By February 3, 2015May 19th, 2017Gender & Faith

The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Douglas Moo at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Diego last November. Title: We Still Don’t Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years after James Barr. Dr. Moo has graciously granted permission to reprint it.

Knowing that the decisions we would make about translating biblical gender forms into English would be critical, CBT [Committee on Bible translation for the NIV] commissioned Collins dictionaries to pose some key questions to its database of English—the largest in the world, with over 4.4 billion words, gathered from several English-speaking countries and including both spoken and written English.

We CBT members had our own ideas about whether, for instance, “man” was still good English for the human race or whether “he” still carried clear generic significance. But we did not agree on every point; and standard resources gave conflicting opinions. So we asked the Collins computational linguists to query their database on these points and others.

The results revealed that the most popular words to describe the human race in modern U.S. English were “humanity,” “man,” and “mankind.” CBT then used this data in the updated NIV, choosing from among these three words (and occasionally others also) depending on the context. We also asked the Collins experts to determine which singular pronouns referring to human beings were most often used in a variety of constructions.

Consider, for example, Mark 8:36, which reads in the KJV “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” The Greek, using anthrôpos, clearly refers to a human being without regard to gender. How to say that in modern English? Moving to plural forms is one option, as does the CEB. Shifting to the second person, whose pronouns are not gender specific is another: the NLT goes this route.

Another option is to retain the words “man,” “he,” and “his” of the KJV, as do the ESV and HCSB. But do these words continue to function as true generics in modern English? On CBT, we did not think they did. We were pretty sure that “man” no longer had a true generic sense, a conclusion borne out by modern style guides and indirectly attested by other modern translations: the ESV, for instance, replaces hundreds of occurrences of “man” in the RSV with other locutions.

But we were uncertain about the pronoun to use as the follow-up. We also wanted to see if there might be some way to retain the third-person singular form of the original. In brief, we needed data about the current state of English pronouns to guide our translation decisions. And so we requested the Collins linguists to search their database to determine what pronouns were being used in modern English to refer back to indefinite pronouns (such as “each,” “one,” and “someone”) and to non-gender specific nouns (such as “person”). They constructed what they call an “anaphora resolution grammar” to resolve the matter. To return to Mark 8:36, then, CBT tentatively decided to render anthrôpos as “someone.”

The Collins data revealed that over 90% of English speakers and writers were using plural or neutral pronouns to refer back to “someone”: mainly the pronoun “they.” Based on these data, then, CBT translated Mark 8:36 as “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Now at this point some of you are hearing the voice of your seventh-grade English teacher, insisting that one cannot use an apparently plural pronoun such as “their” to refer to the singular pronoun “someone.” But here is where we need to invoke again the fundamental linguistic principle of descriptiveness. What determines “correct” English is not some nineteenth or twentieth-century style manual or the English we were taught in grade school, but the English that people are actually speaking and writing today.

And the data are very clear: modern English has latched on to the so-called “singular they,” which has been part of English for a long time, as the preferred way to follow up generic nouns and pronouns.


*   *   *

Dr. Moo refers to the Collins Research Report, and the specifics in that report relating to male pronouns have profound implications for those of us who seek to lose “Christianese” in our speech. We now have solid data that tells us how unique our speech is to our subculture when it comes to male pronouns. Note references below to “Evangelical English”:

The committee initiated a relationship with Collins Dictionaries to use the Collins Bank of English, one of the world’s foremost English language research tools, to conduct a major new study of changes in gender language. The Bank of English is a database of more than 4.4 billion words drawn from text publications and spoken-word recordings from all over the world.

The study examined gender language in English concentrating on three specific areas of usage over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2009.

  1. Generic pronouns and determiners

This part of the study considered the types of pronouns and determiners that are used to refer to indefinite pronouns (such as someone, everybody and one) and non-gender specific nouns (such as a person, each child and any teacher):

  • masculine (he, his, himself, etc.);
  • feminine (she, her, herself, etc.);
  • plural/gender-neutral (they, them, one, themselves, etc.);
  • alternative forms (s/he, him or her, his/her, etc.)In all the varieties of English analyzed, plural/neutral pronouns and determiners account for the majority of usages.  Between 1990 and 2009, instances of masculine generic pronouns and determiners, expressed as a percentage of total generic pronoun usage in general written English, fell from 22% to 8%.

In all the varieties of English analyzed, plural/neutral pronouns and determiners account for the majority of usages.  Between 1990 and 2009, instances of masculine generic pronouns and determiners, expressed as a percentage of total generic pronoun usage in general written English, fell from 22% to 8%. e.g. ‘…when a person accepts unconditional responsibility, he denies himself the privilege of “complaining” and “finding faults.”’

Instances of ‘alternative’ generic pronouns and determiners fell from 12% to 8%. e.g. ‘Any citizen who wants to educate himself or herself has plenty of sources from which to do so.’

Instances of plural/neutral generic pronouns and determiners rose from 65% to 84%. e.g. ‘If you can identify an individual who metabolizes nicotine faster you can treat them more effectively.’

Figures for the other corpora analyzed in the study are broadly comparable with figures from the general written English corpus both in overall magnitude and in the general trend over time.

  1. Mankind, man and synonyms

This part of the study considered the use of the terms man, mankind, humankind, humanity, humans, human beings, the human race and people when used to refer either to all humans or to smaller subsets of humanity.  In all the corpora analyzed except Evangelical English, when all instances are considered, “people” is by far the most frequent synonym, followed by “humans.” People and humans, however, are much looser synonyms when the focus narrows to references to the human species as a whole. In these instances, man, mankind, humankind, humanity, the human race and human beings are more precise.

Of these more precise alternatives, man, humanity and mankind are the most frequent synonyms in the general written English, general spoken English, US written English and US spoken English corpora. Man accounts for between 22.8% and 30.3% of relevant citations, humanity accounts for between 21.8% and 32.7% of relevant citations, and mankind accounts for between 15.9% and 17.8% of relevant citations Humankind, Human beings and the human race are comparatively infrequent.

In Evangelical English, “man” is the synonym that occurs most frequently, accounting for more than half of all genuinely collective occurrences. Mankind accounts for 14.2% of genuinely collective occurrences and humanity accounts for 11.3% of genuinely collective occurrences. Humankind, human beings and the human race are, as in the other corpora, relatively infrequent.

In all the corpora except Evangelical English, man and mankind have become steadily less frequent (with some fluctuations) over the 20-year course of the study, tapering off to very similar levels in current usage (approximately 3 citations per million words for man, and approximately 2 citations per million words for mankind.)

In the Evangelical corpus, the frequency with which all of the synonyms tracked in this part of the study occur is markedly higher than it is in the other corpora, most likely due to the nature of the subject matter addressed in Evangelical books and sermons.

When man, mankind and their synonyms occur with follow-on pronouns (e.g. ‘Clinical ecology shows us how to restore the balance between man and his environment’, ‘When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language…’), man is almost invariably followed by the pronoun he, humanity is typically followed by the pronoun it, and mankind — on the rare occasions where it is used with a follow-on pronoun — is generally followed by the pronouns it or they.

  1. Forefather, ancestor and father

This part of the study considered the use of the terms forefather(s), ancestor(s) and father(s) in the sense ‘a person/people from whom one is descended’ or ‘the founder(s) of a movement/nation etc.’  Frequencies have fluctuated, but it is evident that ancestor is significantly more frequent than forefather in each corpus and each period. The frequency of forefather is higher in Evangelical English than in the other corpora, but still much less frequent than ancestor.


Join the discussion One Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: