Livia, Anna (2001) Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender, Oxford
University Press, hardback, 237pp (includes Notes and Index).
Reviewed by: Mantoa Rose Smouse, University of Florida, Gainesville
Pronoun Envy is an analysis of the role of the treatment of Gender in
English and French texts published over the last 20 years. In particular,
it is an evaluation of linguistic complexities of these texts and their
effect on 'character development and moral ideological purpose' (2001:9).
The central theme of the book is an attempt to show to what extent the
pronominal gender system in French and English can be said to be in the
process of reanalysis. In addition, the author addresses the question of
whether the gender markers are being 'jettisoned as junk'.
This book could be used in Language and Gender classes because of the
in-depth explanation and review of works done in language and gender
studies. It offers a simple yet informative introduction to pronominal
studies in French and English. The translation of French into English is
very useful as it allows readers without knowledge a French an insight into
French language system.
Chapter 1 introduces the terminology that is used through out the book. It
also makes useful distinctions between different kinds of linguistic
analysis and the distinction between sex and gender.
Chapter 2 is an analysis of Anne Garreta's novel, Sphinx that is treated as
a lesbian novel. The analysis involves the examination of the extent to
which gender is marked in French. This chapter focuses on the techniques
available in French for gender avoidance. In addition, Livia examines the
use of these strategies and how they affect other devices such as cohesion
and empathy. She concludes that the gender system is so entrenched in
French such that it cannot be avoided without causing problems.
Chapter 3 is an examination of how ineffective strategies such as
repetition of proper name (to avoid gender marking), lexical substitution
and ellipsis are in English. Livia argues that in English texts, where the
narrator is first person, the amount of disturbance is not the same as that
of third person.
Chapter 4, unlike the other two chapters, examines lexical innovations in
literary experiments where attempts are made to highlight the feminine.
This is done through literature review of Monique Wittig's works. This
chapter serves to answer the question of whether the use of non-gendered
pronoun (by Wittig) in French is a 'reanalysis' or whether it is 'an
ephemeral and momentary resuscitation'2001:85). Livia claims that although
critics of Wittig suggested that there are no animate masculine referents
in Le Corps Lesbien, her analysis of this text revealed that they do exist.
She argues however, that the presence of animate masculine referents is not
a failure rather an indication that Wittig was successful in making
'feminine generic' since the readers assumed that all referents were
feminine. She concludes that linguistic change must go hand in hand with
Chapter 5 is an analysis of Wittig's L'Opponex, which is told in third
person singular. This chapter opens with a definition of the functions of
the non-gendered French pronoun 'on'. The author does this by drawing from
different French texts. Livia claims that since the use of 'on' imply
indirectness or indefiniteness, it obliges the reader to examine context in
order to identify the correct referent. Having considered many aspects of
the text such as deictics, tense, episode etc., Livia concludes that the
use of 'on' in Wittig's works disturbed textual cohesion, focalization and
In Chapter 6 Livia studies the writings of American novelist such as Ursula
K Le Gruin, Dorothy Briant, June Arnold and Marge Piercey. These novels,
which are science fiction, involve invented pronouns and draw from the
traditional pronominal paradigm. Livia also examines whether the use of
'one' in English texts has the same effects as the French 'on'. She
concludes that experiments with different pronouns in English indicate
inadequacies in the existing language system.
Chapter 7 discusses the role of people who find themselves, 'not on the
losing side of gender binary but invisible to it'. The analysis is done by
examining the pronouns used by narrators who have undergone a 'sex change '
or 'sex reassignment'. These narrators are transsexuals, hermaphrodites and
gays. Livia argues that these individuals propose a larger problem for
theories of gender fluidity. Unlike the other chapters, this chapter deals
with how gender markings cannot be used without some modification when
referring to such people. She also discusses language change in referring
to people who undergo sex change. Livia concludes that both English and
French have complex morphological tense and aspect system that could
distinguish 'anteriority, simultaneity and posteriority ... whereas gender
is encoded morphologically as binary' (2001:166). This binary coding is
seen as a gap in the common perception of gender.
Chapter 8 is a concluding chapter. It addresses the question of whether the
current state of gender system (i.e. their redundancy) in French and
English are treated as excess baggage or reanalyzed as performing new
functions. It is argued that these systems may not be termed 'reanalysis'
due to the fact that they may also convey focalization, empathy and
cohesive text. Livia concludes that the various procedures discussed in the
book do not crash the language system (of French and English) as the texts
are readable, they rather insert a question mark.
The book has been successful in indicating similarities between English and
French gender systems and to what extent innovations affect the readers'
perceptions of gender markings. The discussion of literary experiments that
focus on creating feminine, unmarked generic pronouns emphasize the growing
interest in linguistic gender.
Mantoa Rose Smouse is a Linguistics graduate student at the University of