Gender Pronoun Gap

One exists – and changes in it can be seen over the last century. The basic point: the ratio of male to female pronouns used to be quite high (3.5-1 before 1945; rising to 4.5-1 in the 1950s into the 60s and then slowly declining to about 2:1 as of 2005). There are charts and everything.

Being a curious sort of guy, I can’t help wondering what this says about the debate regarding inclusive language in Bible translation (or more importantly about its future). Granted, translation adds one extra complexity because there is a source document with its own gender structure. But the gender structures in Hebrew and Greek don’t map perfectly onto even older English patterns. And to the extent a translation should match current usage in the receptor language…(a debate I’ll stay out of for this post).

So I decided to do a bit of an experiment. I pulled out my trusty Logos program and looked at a bunch of English Bible translations. I searched for gender specific pronouns in each (basic search; he, his, him and himself for male; she, her, hers and herself for female). Of course, given the fact that even gender neutral translations retain masculine divine language (God is generally “He”) and the NT focus on Jesus (who is directly “he”), we should expect some male pronoun advantage. And so we find. Here are the results I came up with (apologies for the format):

Translation          Male Pronouns          Female Pronouns         Ratio

AV                         26,433                          5080                                 5.2

KJV(1900)        26,665                           5,161                                 5.2

NKJV                   25,665                           4712                                  5.4

NIV84                 22,993                           4,452                                5.2

NIV  (2011)         20,282                          4,472                               4.5

TNIV                   19,984                           4,457                               4.5

ESV                       24,941                           4,621                               5.4

NRSV                    26,003                         5,880                               4.4

NCV                       18,905                         3,621                                5.2

Technical note: I didn’t look at appearance of terms like man, which also are affected by this trend (I assume) and which are also adjusted to varying degrees by gender inclusive translations (e.g., “a certain man” becomes “a certain person” or some such change). And yes, this is a blunt instrument, but given time constraints I can at least make a guesstimate as to what is going on.

A few observations – and they are only preliminary as this is a pretty rough cut at this issue (as was the study I’m interacting with):

  1. More formal equivalence translations non-inclusive language versions have roughly 25-26 K male pronouns; there is a bit more variability on female ones as a percentage (range from around 4600-5100). The numbers for more dynamic equivalence and gender-inclusive approaches are different, as would be expected, but not always as greatly different as I might have expected.
  2. Different inclusive language strategies may be in play: using more generic pronouns (NCV?) removes both masculine and feminine pronouns, leaving the ratio relatively untouched. The NRSV, which uses the dual pronoun strategy with some regularity, actually has more female pronouns (and close to the highest male pronoun count) and a much lower ration (indeed the lowest, of these versions).
  3. From the 1984 NIV to the current, there is a significant change; the differences in pronoun ration for the current NIV (2011) is similar to that found in the TNIV. Since there was a lot of debate about some of these translations, the trend is worth noting.
  4. The worst pronoun ratios, interestingly were found in the NKJV and the ESV, partially reflecting the Greek language base (more formal equivalence) but perhaps also in some way reflecting the relative conservatism of the translators (I’m just guessing here, but it seems plausible). That both of these are more recent translations is an interesting side note to this discussion.
  5. All of these translations function at proportions of male pronouns that are at the high end of historic averages. Again, I think the nature of the biblical materials helps explain this, but it also may explain why some readers, and especially younger ones who grew up in the more recent lower ratio era, might find the current biblical translations somewhat foreign to the English they experience in other contexts.

My conclusion on the impact of the study which prompted this post for our thinking about language. I doubt those who object to inclusive language translation practices will be persuaded by the historical analysis of the shift in English usage. Still, it does provide a reminder to be sensitive to how our language might be heard. Some will continue to reject gender-neutral translations, I am sure. It seems to me, however, regardless we may have to work hard at making some adjustments in our writing and speaking if we are to avoid sounding peculiar as the English language changes.

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