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Review of  Language and Gender

Reviewer: Tyler Kimball Anderson
Book Title: Language and Gender
Book Author: Penelope Eckert Sally McConnell-Ginet
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.1289

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Date: Tue, 6 May 2003 10:45:39 -0400 (EDT)
From: Tyler Kimball Anderson
Subject: Language and Gender

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

Tyler Kimball Anderson, The Pennsylvania State University.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521654262
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