Language

When my family gathers to celebrate Passover this week we will use a modern, egalitarian Haggadah written by my brother, Carl. One of the components of the Haggadah is how to tell the story of our journey out of slavery to four different children: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not have the capacity to understand.  But I still have a copy of the Maxwell House Haggadah my family used until the 1970’s, which only directed us how to tell the story to four different sons. One year I went through dozens of copies to cross out the references to “sons” and “he” and replace them with “children” and “he/she.” Most of my relatives laughed indulgently at the crazy feminist in their midst.

This will be our first Passover without my mother, who died last November. She and I used to argue about language. She insisted that nouns ending in “man” were universal. I responded that, especially for children, they were perceived as literal, preventing girls from thinking about becoming a “policeman” or “fireman.” The central tenet of Passover is to tell the story to succeeding generations.  I never saw myself in the story of the four sons and when I had two daughters, I was determined that their generation would not also feel excluded.

At the TEDx in North Adams last February one of the videos, “Why Design Should Include Everyone,” was of a little person,  Sinead Burke.  She summed up what I tried so hard to explain to my mother. “Language doesn’t name our society,” she said, “It shapes it.” I recently got my first letter from someone whose signature line specified “pronouns: she/her/hers.” Our language continues to evolve and become more inclusive. The Passover story of persecution and the struggle for freedom is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. As it says in the Haggadah, tyrants have risen in every generation. Our language does not need to be another form of oppression.

Barbara Viniar1 Comment