Give up?

I was wondering what I would blog about now that C-38 has passed its third reading and then Alberta Premier Ralph Klein opened his mouth. I'd been focusing so much on Stephen Harper's idiocies that I forgot about Klein.

Ralph Klein has suggested that Alberta will stop solemnizing marriage. Instead, they would recognize civil unions for heterosexuals and homosexuals and leave solemnizing marriages to organized religion.

I remember suggesting this as a possible solution very early on in the debate over same-sex marriages in order to soothe the linguistically squeamish who don't understand how either a bloody dictionary or language itself works. Governments would deal in civil unions only, which is what they do anyway even though they call them "marriages," and if a couple wanted a religious certificate, then they would go to a church and get one. This would not prevent the existence of gay married couples, however. A couple of churches out there do sanction gay marriage. This Zh.-approved solution was in the early days of this debate. Now I'm not feeling so charitable. So here's some information about language for those out there who are getting their gitches in a wad over same-sex marriage.

1. Language is not static. It evolves. That means that the way a word is used today is not necessarily the way in which it will be used in a year, two years, twenty years.
2. Dictionaries do not dictate the meanings of words. Instead, they reflect certain linguistic norms that were prevalent during the period before publication.
3. Most words have multiple meanings that change from context to context, from group to group.

Why is it important for people like Klein to know these things about language? Because I think that if they did, they might stop all of this petty dickering and just get on with their lives.

Last year, the OED defined "marriage" as "The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other; matrimony." At some point in the recent past, the OED updated its definition to include the following sentence: "The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex." The definition of the word changed. Language evolved to reflect society. Similiarly, the American Heritage Dictionary has updated its definition of "marriage," which is now "1. a. The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife. b. The state of being married; wedlock. c. A common-law marriage. d. A union between two persons having the customary but usually not the legal force of marriage: a same-sex marriage." I'm sure that when the next edition of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary comes out, it will reflect the passage of C-38 by Parliament last night.

This comparison of definitions demonstrates that the English language has evolved. It has changed. It has not remained static. It also demonstrates how dictionaries are not oracles of wisdom to be taken at face value. They are the product of an editorial board. They are also not prescriptive but descriptive. They simply cannot be published quickly enough to reflect the way language changes. As soon as a dictionary comes off the presses, it's obsolete. So Klein's clinging to an antiquated definition of marriage is annoying at this point in time.

Now, my third point up there about language is the one that can hopefully offer some solace to Klein and all but three members of the Conservative caucaus. The fact that the same word often has different meanings depending on who is using it means that Klein can still say "marriage" and mean "a religiously sanctioned union between a man and a woman" and Paul Martin and I can say "marriage" and mean "a government-recognized union between two adults of any gender." Klein may run into problems, however, as fewer and fewer people define "marriage" in the same way that he does but, hey, tough luck. I'd like "awesome" to revert back to its pre-1980s meaning but that's not going to happen. But ultimately, language, like the Charters of Rights and Freedoms, is a big, big place and we can all squeeze in.


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