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Review of  Communicating Gender

Reviewer: Lauren Hall-Lew
Book Title: Communicating Gender
Book Author: Suzanne Romaine
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 11.1906

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Romaine, Suzanne. (1999) Communicating Gender. Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, Inc. Mahwah NJ. 406 pages + xiv.

Reviewed by Lauren Hall-Lew, University of Arizona.

To criticize the status quo on the basis of academic research is a major
challenge. Gender research in particular is often subject to academic
scorn, and as Romaine says, "dismissed as 'unscientific' because it
appears to have clear political implications and objectives." Without
denying the inevitability of political implications, this book
successfully presents a comprehensive and decidedly scientific overview
of the relationship between language and gender.
Each chapter begins with a quote related to the chapter's topic. Most
of these quotes are not 'truths' but rather examples of the facet of
language the chapter discusses, and are very effective in sparking the
reader's interest. The chapters are then divided into approximately six
sections, each with academic references and personal anecdotes related
to the main theme. For example, the chapter, "Gendered Talk", contains
a section entitled "Why Ladies are Supposed to Talk Properly." Within
this section alone are references from twenty-six different linguists
and sociologists, as well as Romaine's own findings and analysis. The
format allows a researcher to focus on a particular subtopic of gender
research by isolating that section, and also makes it possible for the
individual chapters of the book to stand alone as supplementary or
topic-introductory texts.
Chapter One, "Doing Gender", is a solid introduction to the sensitive
issue of defining "gender", understanding the complexities of gender's
role in language and other forms of communication. It is here that
Romaine argues that "gender is thus an inherently communicative process"
(p. 2). This chapter also sets a precedent for cross-cultural
commentary, discussing, for example, topics such as Chinese foot binding
and the Hopi (Native American) concept of the world. These are examples
of how Romaine addresses the "(essential) relationship between language,
thought, and reality" (22).
Chapter Two, "Boys Will Be Boys?", discusses the nature of masculinity
and femininity from both biological and sociological positions. This
chapter is a strong text for a basic introduction into gender studies
but may be simply skimmed by a student already familiar with issues of
Chapter Three, "What's Gender Got to Do With Grammar?", has a historical
linguistic approach that I found very enjoyable. The chapter is "a
reexamination of the basis for the traditional distinction between
natural and grammatical gender," and more strongly, argues that "the
semantic space languages allocate to women is negatively charged by
beliefs about what women are like or how they ought to behave" (p. 66).
Chapter Four, "English -- A Man-Made Language?", is a bold, professional
discussion of "sexism in language," that uses analysis of particular
words with offensive connotations. The discussion exposes the
incredible negative connotations attached to words about women, even to
the point that, Romaine maintains: "Being a woman is the worst thing a
man can think of" (p. 99).
Chapter Five, "What's in a Name?", discusses the act of naming, its
power, and its relation to discrimination against women. It contains
interesting information on the nature of personal names, and also
addresses the issue of formal titles, specifically Mrs. vs. Miss. vs.
Chapter Six, "Gendered Talk: Gossip, Shop Talk, and the Sound of
Silence", discusses many false and debatable beliefs about the
differences between how men and women speak. Romaine condenses a
collection of sexist stereotypes of women's speech (what women talk
about, how much they talk, etc.) and exposes them with extensive
research analysis.
Chapter Seven, "Learning How to Talk Like a Lady", discusses "children's
socialization in which language plays a crucial part: family, peer
group, and school" (p. 190). This is a particularly useful chapter for
any general discussion of children's social development (but is perhaps
less useful from a purely linguistic perspective).
Chapter Eight, "Different Words, Different Worlds?", is the chapter that
I feel best demonstrates the need for this book and the need for the
language reform it advocates. The chapter addresses serious social
problems, particularly of sexual violence, and the theory of a breech of
communication between genders that complicates, worsens, or perhaps even
causes such violence. The chapter is well referenced and contains
excellent commentary on law and the legal system.
Chapter Nine, "Advertising Gender", addresses the topic of
discrimination in advertising. This topic is often discussed in
academic gender studies, and Romaine demonstrates full proficiency in
the arguments as well as offering a fresh and interesting linguistic
slant. This chapter contains great visuals and nice cross-cultural
Chapter Ten, "Language Reform: A Msguided Attempt to Change Herstory?",
continues with great cross-linguistic examples in an effort to address
the compelling question: "Does . . . society have to change before
language can? Or can language change bring about social reform?"
Romaine writes in a strong persuasive voice for activism at the same
time as clearly presenting the inherent difficulties in creating a
perfectly gender-friendly language.
The final chapter is entitled "Writing Feminist Futures." Here, the
analysis mainly relies on credible science fiction text, paying
particular attention to the subject of Utopian worlds, a traditional
focus for futuristic thinking. Romaine leaves much of this formulation
to the mind of the reader, and (I think wisely), offers no concrete
predictions for the future of communicating gender.

Initial impressions of Romaine's style left me feeling a bit confused
because the text was not arranged in the typical, simplified outline
format of many academic textbooks. Through the course of reading,
however, it is apparent that such a style would be inappropriate for the
topic of gender, which is complicated by its cross-disciplinary nature.
Part of the text's analysis in fact challenges the standard of
"scientific" speech and what truly constitutes credible, academic
speech. Romaine's own more casual style further challenges this notion
of a scientific norm.
As a wonderful by-product, the book is extremely user-friendly. Her
style makes points clearly, is engaging, and is academically useful. My
only minor points of criticism follow.
Romaine often directs the reader to a previous or following chapter for
further information on the topic being discussed. While this is
generally a helpful resource, occasionally there is the danger of the
reader being misled unless s/he in fact follows through with the
reference and reads it thoroughly. For example, in Chapter 5 Romaine
writes: "In the next chapter I discuss the use of hedging requests as a
feature of politeness associated with women" (p. 146), a statement that
seemingly supports a claim that women hedge more than men. Yet in
Chapter 6, Romaine clearly demonstrates the falsity of this claim, based
on work by Alice Freed (1996) and "a number of studies" from the late
1970's. However, unless the reader made the effort to read both
chapters in one sitting, s/he may finish Chapter 5 with the vague, and
false, idea that women in fact hedge more than men!
The book contains a few well-selected photographs, cartoons, and
tables. Such visual aids are extremely useful and I think that even
more would only add to the book's effectiveness.

Romaine's comfortable and non-traditionally academic writing style
creates both positives and negatives for classroom usage. The
overwhelming positive is that the text is clear and understandable to
any level of reader. The book is useful for any classroom from
pre-university up to the graduate level. It is both useful for the
casual reader who wants an introduction to gender issues and also
provides limitless references for the serious academic researcher.
Romaine's own text is a valuable resource, as are the citations included
within her text. Because of her style, the best way to make use of the
citations is with the 26-page References section at the back of the
Perhaps the best point to the book's organization is the section
entitled "Exercises and Discussion Questions" that falls at the end of
each chapter. Each section contains approximately five prompts that
both review and expand upon the material covered in the chapter. The
questions are thought-provoking and encourage outside research. The
exercises continue to reflect Romaine's extensive research by citing
sources not discussed in the main text. Utilizing this section, as well
as the following section entitled "Annotated Bibliography and
Suggestions for Further Reading," greatly enhances the book's merit as a
classroom text. The questions are appropriate both for class discussion
and for individual student contemplation.

The beauty of this book is its cross-disciplinary, cross-linguistic,
and cross-cultural foci. In Romaine's words, the book touches on
"anthropology, biology, communication, education, economics, history,
literary criticism, philosophy, psychology, and sociology." This makes
the text suitable for limitless classroom situations, although I believe
it is probably most functional for linguistics and sociology. In
considering such broad academic viewpoints, Romaine references a
comprehensive variety of world languages and cultures as well as a
variety of individuals from high academic respect to pop culture fame.
Her own book stylistically challenges academic standards and will be a
significant resource to the future of gender studies.

[About the Reviewer: Lauren Hall-Lew is a student of Linguistics and
Psychology at the University of Arizona working as a research assistant
in Sociolinguistics.]


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