October 15, 2006

His husband

The phrase "his husband" gets only about 127 kilohits on Google, which is not very many. Despite the various countries and states that have now made legal provision for gay marriage, I don't think I had ever noticed any phrase of this sort (husband as head noun with a masculine genitive NP determiner) turning up in national news sources before the death of ex-Congressman Gerry Studds this weekend. But the phrase Mr. Studds's husband occurs in this New York Times story, and I also heard it in one NPR radio news spot (though in another reading of the news later the same day the word "husband" had been replaced by "partner"). Not that long ago, linguists might well have referred to phrases like his husband as semantically anomalous; and I can well imagine that there might be languages (with both inalienable possession marking and obligatory gender agreement) into which it was not straightforwardly and directly translatable at all. But things can change in the legal and cultural spheres, and when they do, language use slowly changes as a result.

Notice that I do not have much time for the widely accepted notion that language determines culture / our perceptions / our concepts / our world, etc. I don't think the linguistic tail wags the cultural dog very much. The law was changed in Massachusetts, and as a result certain phrases in English that would previously have been regarded as bizarre changed their status, and were no longer legally bizarre at all. Retrospectively, and perhaps only reluctantly, language use will follow along behind.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 15, 2006 05:38 PM