LINGUIST List 14.1289

Tue May 6 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics:Eckert & McConnell-Ginet(2003)

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  1. Tyler Kimball Anderson, Language and Gender

Message 1: Language and Gender

Date: Tue, 06 May 2003 13:36:51 +0000
From: Tyler Kimball Anderson <tka106psu.edu>
Subject: Language and Gender

Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet (2003) Language and Gender,
Cambridge University Press.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-161.html


Tyler Kimball Anderson, The Pennsylvania State University. 

OVERVIEW

Though this introductory book includes ample information as to
interest a reader familiar with the field of linguistics and gender,
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (EMG) specifically gear down the content so
as to make it accessible to the non-linguist. The introduction is
well written and concise. It starts out by giving an introduction
into the study of gender and language, containing a clear discussion
on the predominating theories in the field of gender and linguistics,
namely the difference and the dominance approaches. Nevertheless,
they show how these two views are so intrinsically linked as to
disallow the exclusion of the one in a discussion on the other. They
also help the reader understand the complexity of the whole issue of
gender and language. Included in this introduction is a brief
description of how gender is not a static property, but as we continue
to change as human beings the way we portray ourselves--along with our
gender--also changes. It is pointed out that the use of Male and
Female is a troublesome dichotomy based on the fact that there are
many who do not fit into one of these categories at all times
(i.e. transgendered individuals).

Chapter 1 emphasizes the difference between gender and biological sex.
Though biological sex can (usually) be physically determined, the
gendering process is something that is performed. They point out how
from birth a child is gendered when parents decide to dress the girl
(female physiological sex) in a pink, frilly dress while a boy is
placed in a baseball outfit. They point out how many researchers
refer to physiological differences to stress the distinctions in the
way the individual does gender. EMG nevertheless note that this
desire to attribute gender differences to biological bases contributes
to the blurring of the similarities in the way the two sexes
communicate, leading to the exaggeration of the differences that exist
in the speech of the two sexes. The rest of the chapter focuses on
the ways in which we learn gender, with examples of what societal
pressures influence us to say things in a gendered manner, and what
pressures there are in maintaining these differences.

The second chapter deals with the language aspect of Language and
Gender. It gives a highly accessible discussion on intrinsically
linguistics topics like phonology and morphology as well as more
localized sociolinguistic topics such as speech communities and
communities of practice. Included in this section is an excellent
discussion on Goffman's facework ideology. The chapter concludes by
touching on the various problems with adhering to a particular
framework. This is explained by making use of Wareing's ''hall of
mirrors''. It is argued that when someone does linguistic research
from one angle, all the results are distorted: one sees what one
wishes to see. To view the full picture, one needs to consider that
there are other ways of looking into the mirror.

Chapter 3 focuses on who gets the opportunity to speak and when, along
with what happens to that information once it has been presented? EMG
proceed to give examples of how gender, as well as a myriad of other
factors, affects the entrance into discourse. The discussion then
turns to specific types of speech acts, and how some activities are
defined in particular ways depending on whether spoken by a woman or a
man. The prime example is that of gossiping. The authors postulate
that while a critical evaluation or commentary on absent individuals
is seen as gossip when spoken by a woman, the same comment would be
seen as a bonding experience when uttered by a man. The remainder of
the chapter deals more specifically on how a speaker is impeded or
assisted in entering information into the world of conversation.

In chapter 4 we are presented with a more in-depth look at the speech
acts mentioned in chapter 3, with a specific interest in demonstrating
how these accomplish gender, as well as what social relations are
involved, and how all utterances are a part of larger, socially
accomplished plans of action. They utilize Goffman's ''facework'' in
showing how all utterances are constructed to posit either a positive
or negative face, and then interface this definition with others such
as Holmes's affective and instrumental talk.

The fifth chapter continues with the idea of how viewpoints are
positioned in a conversation. The situating of our opinions differs
depending on what role we take (i.e. teacher or student, judge or
plaintiff, etc.), and the ability to enter these viewpoints into the
conversation is also facilitated or hindered depending on the role we
have. Throughout the remainder of the chapter, EMG break down the
1970s work by Robin Lakoff, going through how they consider a woman's
language to hinder the way she is allowed to participate in
conversation, or at least the credibility given to her speech.

Chapter 6 takes on the issue of how what we say implies much more than
the information that is embedded in the words we use. They point out
that what is included in this encoding process is a vast history of
common experience. They show that in order to understand the full
meaning of an utterance, one has to take what is encoded in a string
of words in addition to what is implied. It is posited that
presupposing based on gender (or any other trait) is not in and of
itself a bad thing; in fact it is necessary in order to facilitate
communication. If it were obligatory to always reconstruct
conversation, we would be forever strangers with our interlocutor.
The chapter concludes with a lengthy discussion on metaphors. They
indicate how when we communicate we utilize information from one field
(i.e. sports) and project it onto another field (i.e. sexual
relations).

The seventh chapter deals with how we as speakers segregate our
experiences into categories (i.e. male/female, glass/cup). They
continue the chapter by positing areas in which there has been a
history of label disputes, mainly focusing on the feminist movement.
They show how differing cultures dissect and label items differently,
and how categories narrow or expand in order to incorporate new items
or experiences into them. It is shown how these categories are set up
in order to contrast and highlight the differences between items. The
authors then enter into an extended discussion on the types of
contrasts that are involved in the creation of categories

Chapter 8 focuses on how we go about changing the ways in which we
speak in order to portray a certain persona. EMG indicate that the
way we speak caries with it a large amount of baggage, good and bad.
We can indicate who we are and what attitudes we have toward a
particular society based on the dialect we choose to utilize. The
authors provide various examples of studies that illustrate how
speakers communicate who they are, making specific reference to
gender.

The final chapter continues on with the idea that who we become
depends on the ideals we embrace. Gender forms part of this ideology.
The style of speech that we use fashions the person we want to become
(or think we want to become), and we can use a particular style to
hide who we really are. The chapter ends with a provocative section
inquiring as to where language and gender is headed. EMG specify that
the past fifty years have been an era of change in gender relations,
and that linguistic changes have been implicit in effectuating those
changes.

SUMMARY AND CRITICAL EVALUATION

Eckert and McConnell-Ginet provide the non-linguist with a highly
accessible resource to the issues surrounding the interface of
language and gender. Although the terminology used in the book is
straightforward and easily understood by the non-linguist, there is
one particular area that does deserve some clarification from EMG. In
chapter 5, the term ''epistemic modals'' is given, however the authors
fail to explain what it is that this refers to. An explanation is in
order if they are desirous to make this section available to the
non-linguist.

The organization of this book is excellent and generally keeps the
reader engaged. However, in one particular location, the reader may
become lost. In discussing the distinction between gender and
biological sex, EMG decide to initiate the discussion with the former
concept. I believe that most English speakers would not make the
distinction between these two concepts, and therefore it seems
practical to begin the discussion with the more widely accepted
definition of biological sex. This will allow the reader to make the
distinction between sex and gender without having their established
understanding challenged.

EMG also provide numerous synopses of studies that have been done
regarding how we utilize language to perform gender. The references
are excellent for illustrating the topics at hand; nevertheless, some
of the examples are controversial in and of themselves. I wonder
whether it is necessary to utilize sexual relations in order to
illustrate how we create metaphors. Are there not other, less
offensive examples of ways we take from one field to communicate in
another? The authors' constant reference to sexual relations leaves
the reader with the impression that they are obsessed with the topic.
If the book is to reach a wide audience, it seems appropriate to
minimize offensive references.

The same can be said of the use of profanity. At one point in time
the authors indicate that ''one more girl who swears is one more drop
in the gender bucket ...'', leaving the reader with the idea that EMG
are promoting the use of profanity. It seems to me that we have the
ethical responsibility to promote positive values in our society. Why
not reverse the focus to endorsing males' lack of swearing. Would
this not add a drop to the gender bucket? Could it possibly be more
desirable to narrow the gender gap in favor of the female, than toward
the deviance of the so-called male characteristics? (See Davies,
1999, p. 120-121 and Pennycook, 2001, p. 136). As Kimball (1981)
states, ''We wonder why those of coarse and profane conversation
... are so stunted mentally that they let their capacity to
communicate grow more and more narrow'' (p. 4). Why does the feminist
movement see degradation as the solution to the gap in gender
relations, as if this will elevate women to some higher plain? Would
it be detrimental to have the housewife/homemaker/household engineer
(see Lakoff, 1975, p. 20) receive greater status than the CEO of a
large corporation? Is her job less important than the CEO? Just
because society does not reward these ''traditionally female jobs'' as
much as the CEO, does that mean she not have a large impact on the
lives of those around her? Maybe it is time to help society see the
impact that these jobs have on society, instead of trying to convince
the women that these jobs are useless.

Finally, the discussion on the Japanese language and gendered
particles was overused. I find this topic highly interesting, but the
authors utilize the same information throughout the book to illustrate
several topics. It became very tedious reading through the same
information every other chapter. Though the information might be
illustrative of the topic at hand, I wonder if there might be other
examples that could be employed.

In conclusion, this book will be highly useful as a text for an
introductory class in the topic of gender and language. The
information provided is well written, very informative, and highly
accessible to the reader.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Davies, Alan (1999). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kimball, Spencer W. (1981). ''Kimball speaks out on profanity'',
Ensign, February, p. 3-8.

Lakoff, Robin (1975). Language and Women's Place. New York: Harper &
Row.

Pennycook, Alastair (2001). Critical Applied Linguistics. Mahwah,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Tyler Anderson is a doctoral candidate at The Pennsylvania State
University where he is studying Spanish sociolinguistics, with an
emphasis in language attitudes and gender perception. He is
especially interested in how gender stereotypes affect the perception
of author's gender of written texts.
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