Interlude: A good were is hard to find

Aaaaaaaagh so tired of people.  I have serious posts underway about empathy, racism, and unusual music, but I really am in no mood to talk about grim matters, so for starters – let’s talk about gender in language That always cheers me up.

I’ve gone on in the past about how ‘man’ used to be neutral, ‘wif’ indicated female, and ‘vir’ indicated male.  And what continues to bug me is that while ‘man’ became male-specific, language did not shift to maintain common use of a neutral term, so that now we end up with a modern English whose euphony still likes to be able to refer to all people with a single syllable but whose supposedly-neutral term is blatantly gender-referential.  Let’s be very clear: this is not a woman-only issue (oh look I just realised what the next short post will be about).  This is a legitimately egalitarian thing – treating ‘man’ as generic both exoticises/marginalises women and it generifies men, contributing to the idea that men are not special, not important, et cetera.

So, if the formerly-neutral term is now male-specific, I think it’s time we dust off the formerly-male term and declare it the new neutral.  In its older form, this would be ‘vir’, but the direct modern descendant is ‘were’*.  Plural weres.  Fireweres, fisherweres, congressweres, policeweres, salesweres.  Imagine a stereotypical surfer dude thoughtfully addressing a stranger whose gender identity is not clear to him: “Were, that was a sick wave you just rode, were!  Weeerrrreee that was awesome.  Waves like that separate the weres from the kids, were.”  Imagine Aragorn rallying the army in front of the gates to Mordor: “By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Weres of the West!”

Eventually it stops sounding ridiculous, like most words.  (I think I once said ‘blogosphere’ with a straight face: a shame I may never overcome.)

Since we’re already redefining the word (just as has happened to ‘man’, I remind you) its parameters can be whatever we want.  It doesn’t have to be age-specific (though it was in the surfer example); it doesn’t even have to be  species-specific.  ‘Were’ could refer to any sapient life.  That dinner conversation in Star Trek VI could have been made a lot less awkward if they could have smoothly referred to ‘were rights’ instead of talking about ‘human rights’ to a bunch of Klingons.

The only people I could imagine complaining about this might be particular fans of therianthropic fantasy, but they should probably already know that the ‘were’ part of ‘werewolf’ is referring to being part-human, not animal transformation.  Linguistic rigour is important in your hobbies.  But possibly there are other flaws I’m overlooking, which people are invited to detail in the comments.

I’m just sayin’, y’know, we have the option, were.

[Edit] *I think ‘were’ is probably the best spelling to use, but alternatives could include ‘wer’ for simplicity or ‘wair’ if that made it more phonetically sensible.

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5 comments on “Interlude: A good were is hard to find

  1. Amaryllis says:

    I like it, were.

    Hey, it could work.

    As for linguistic rigor, I just read a fantasy by a highly-respected author which kept referring to a horned cat as a “unicat.” Annoyed the heck out of me every time: of course it’s a unicat! It’s a single cat!

  2. Ben says:

    I think I prefer “wer” to “were”, because of the homograph issue. “Were you there?” vs “Were, you there?” I don’t think we can allow homographs to exist in this age of text. (I now declare retroactively that the Age of Text began with the development of SMS). But yeah, the idea is good.

    @Amaryllis: Now I want some excuse to call something a “monocat”.

  3. Coming soon to the SeeFee Channel, Unicat vs. Monocat: Bad Kitties. Starring people who can’t act, produced by an effects department that’s worse than hoaxers on youtube, written by someone who can’t tell stories, and produced by the people who brought you Zombie Sharktopus vs Cyborg Gatorsaurus.

    I should probably dust off my guide to making bad movies (mostly a list of things not to do) as bad movies are clearly on my mind and maybe if I return to it there will be enough written to actually justify sharing it.

    Regarding the main topic, I know that a one syllable world is wanted and I know that there’s a sense of poetic justice in generifying the male term in response to there specialization of the generic, but it still seems to me that for the purposes in question anthropos would be a better choice than vir (Ancient Greek for person instead of Latin for adult male.) So why not start with that and just cut it down to one syllable: “anth”?

    Plural anths. Fireanths, fisheranths, congressanths, policeanths, saleanths. Imagine a stereotypical surfer dude thoughtfully addressing a stranger whose gender identity is not clear to him: “Anth, that was a sick wave you just rode, anth! Aaaaanth that was awesome.”

    Actually, on writing that, I think I like the way man pluralizes by vowelshift. So maybe the plural of “anth” could be “enth”. Fireenth, fisherenth, congressenth, policeenth, saleenth. (The “ee”s are annoying looking though, so perhaps hyphens might be introduced? I’m not sure.)

    “She was a good anth. We need more enth like her.”

  4. Gravel says:

    Anth makes my mental tongue all tired. I think it’s the “th” ending. I think we need something crisper. Thro? Hee, then we could have a plural “throng”.

  5. Will Wildman says:

    Yeah, anth/enth seems a bit more poetic, but the ‘th’ sound is finicky and starting with a vowel leads to dipthong confusion – either we repopularise the diaeresis (actually I would like us to do that anyway) or we end up with people pronouncing fire-enth as fi-REENth.

    One of my ongoing grudges against English is that the syllable is used as a common unit of word construction even though it’s nigh-useless in determining the length or complexity of a sound. Japanese syllable are nice and regular (one consonant sound and one vowel sound, maybe slightly modulated) whereas English sees nothing wrong with ‘go’ and ‘crunch’ both being a single unit. The latter has three additional consonant sounds attached, like someone who’s invited to bring a +1 to a party and shows up with their entire bowling team.

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