LINGUIST List 13.2237

Sat Sep 7 2002

Review: Sociolinguistics: Hellinger/Bussmann (2002)

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  • Antje Hornscheidt, Hellinger/Bussmann (2002), Gender across Languages

    Message 1: Hellinger/Bussmann (2002), Gender across Languages

    Date: Fri, 06 Sep 2002 16:28:33 +0000
    From: Antje Hornscheidt <>
    Subject: Hellinger/Bussmann (2002), Gender across Languages

    Hellinger, Marlis, and Hadumod Bu�mann, ed. (2002) Gender across Languages. The linguistic representation of women and men. Vol. 2. John Benjamins Publishing Company, hardback ISBN 9 90 272 1842 0 (EU)/ 1 58811084 US XIII+349pp, Impact: Studies in language and society 10.

    Book Announcement on Linguist:

    Antje Hornscheidt, Nordeuropa-Institut, Humboldt-Universit�t zu Berlin, Germany

    The two German linguists Hellinger and Bu�mann have in a quite long time of intensive preparation managed to create an outstanding project gathering linguists to present research on gender representation across 30 different languages. These works have been collected in three volumes (2001, 2002, and the last forthcoming 2003). They have now presented the second volume in their series which is the focus of the review presented here. Each of the three volumes is introduced by an identical article of the editors giving some general information about the project, the topics to be discussed for the different languages in the volumes and the terminology used. The questions to be answered by all authors and sent to them in advance are:

    * "Does the language [to be analysed] have grammatical gender, and --- if so --- what are the consequences for agreement, coordination, pronominalization and word-formation, and more specifically, for the linguistic representation of women and men?

    * In the absence of grammatical gender, what are possible ways of expressing female-specific, male-specific or gender-indefinite personal reference?

    * Can asymmetries be identified in the area of human reference which may be interpreted as the result of the choice of the masculine/male as the default gender?

    * What is the empirical evidence for the claim that in neutral contexts masculine/male expressions are perceived as generic and bias-free?

    * Does the language contain idiomatic expressions, metaphors, proverbs and the like which are indicative of gender-related socio-cultural hierarchies or stereotypes?" (Hellinger/Bu�mann 2002: 2)

    Obviously, not all questions have been answered for all languages in the same way and to the same amount. Different authors have taken different routes into their linguistic material, emphasized some aspects and neglected others which seems quite natural for a project of this size. Differences can even be found in the way empirical research has been integrated into the articles. Some of the articles, esp. on those languages which have not been investigated for gender representation in a systematic way yet, take grammar and linguistic study books as well as idiomatic expressions and proverbs as their main sources, others investigate written language corpora (either where these are publicly available or making smaller own investigations, usually by using national newspapers or concentrating on job advertisments), even others perform some kind of empirical research beyond written language production, usually on language perception.

    Additionally and maybe most important, the different ways to handle the research questions reflect as well different phases of research for different languages. Some may have been discussed for gender for the first time in a systematic way in this volume, like for example Chinese and Vietnamese, others have for the first time tried to give a summarizing overview on all research done so far and tried to interpret these earlier studies in a straight forward way, like for Italian in this volume. Even others have managed to give an overview on at least a decade of feminist language planning strategies which presupposes a long standing feminist tradition for language issues, like for Dutch and Norwegian, while others give some new empirical evidence on certain aspects of gender perception influenced by language, like for Finnish and Spanish. Therefore, the volume does not only give a comparable basis for different languages but an overview on different routes that have been taken as well as different states of affairs within different linguistic communities concerning the topic.

    The three volumes are thus meant to give a broad overview over as many languages as possible concerning gender to enhance and improve typologically based contrastive studies on the topic. Each volume, however, tries to demonstrate typological and social gender differences in as many different languages as possible. Thus, each single volume is meant to give a certain overview on its own. But even if all three volumes are taken into account, a strong tendency on some language groups can still be postulated even here, whereas neither African nor Asian languages play a major role yet. Hopefully, some more volumes will be added to the series to take these language groups more thoroughly into account.

    The languages discussed in the second volume are Chinese (three articles), Dutch, Finnish, Hindi, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Welsh. Most of the authors have been doing research on the topic before for the languages in question and can thus be seen as some kind of experts in the field already. Each articles starts with a fairly short but comprehensive overview on some essential facts about the language and the number of people speaking this language as well about its historical background.

    Before I will give a short introduction to and comment on each single article and language discussed, I would like to summarize some of the main general results of the volume as a whole:

    * Grammatical gender is not the one and only systematic linguistic possibility to discriminate social/referential gender in a language. That means that grammatically genderless languages can also be systematically investigated for gender representation. It can be seen that the languages under investigation in this volume show in one way or another asymmetrical references to women and men.

    * There seems to be a quite general tendency of gender-specific male forms to be used as "false" generics in most languages.

    * Language change strategies concerning person reference forms within a language are not solely dependent on typological linguistic aspects. This result seems trivial for some linguists, for others it reframes purely typological studies. Factors like the general political situation, the public role of women in society, the interest in and public evaluation of feminism as well as the role of language within a nation and the general language policy within a certain community seem to be influential here.

    * There is a tendency of idiomatic expressions to transfer a positive male image and a negative female image --- even if male or female expression are used for the opposite gender, in all languages under investigation here.

    * Actual language use has to be differentiated for different communities of practices. It can be seen that linguistic forms can transport very different meanings in different communities and contexts.

    There is a strong emphasis in the volume as a whole on language typological questions concerning gender aspects in person reference. The grammatical category of gender plays an outstanding role here --- not only for many languages but for the structure of the whole volume as such. As quoted above, languages are first of all differentiated in gender- and genderless languages. A main disadvantage reproduced here is from my point of view the fact that the terminology for gender does not differentiate sufficiently between the grammatical category and the so called referential/social category of gender. Hellinger/Bu�mann introduce a differentiation between grammatical gender, lexical gender, referential gender, and social gender, but neither they nor the authors of the respective articles on single languages do constantly use gender with one of these attributes. This inconsequent terminological usage helps to reproduce an easy identification of grammatical and social gender which is at least reflected in taken grammatical gender as the main aspect to differentiate languages for gender representation. I would have preferred the introduction of a more clearly distinguished terminology here. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, and I expect the volumes to be not only representative for actual research on the topic but as becoming a kind of classic reference source for future research in this field of interest. Thus, a historical terminological change has maybe been missed here.

    Moreover, the discrimination between referential gender and social gender as well as lexical gender in some aspects reproduces a discrimination between "natural" sex and social gender in some ways which is, I think, quite unfortunate, at least, if you take into account the definition of social gender given here. Social gender is for the editors only linguistically specified, if "[...] the behavior of associated words can neither be explained by grammatical nor by lexical gender." (Hellinger/Bu�mann 2002: 10) It thus plays a minor role which cannot be justified if you take more recent cultural or social science analysis of gender into account. A reference to postmodern theories on gender can thus only be found in one single article (Hall on Hindi). The editors explicitly acknowledge the importance of a poststructuralist inspired discursive approach in their introductory article but do not translate this into concrete analytical consequences within their project. However, this would certainly be a very productive additional result of a project which is nevertheless extremely valuable and groundbreaking.

    In the following section, I will discuss each single article and the languages under investigation here in some more detail. The scope of the articles collected in this volume shows not only language typological differences but also different research interests within the topic of gender across languages.

    Chinese is represented by three articles in the volume. By that, the editors have chosen to represent three different perspectives on one of the most spoken languages of the world. This is the more important as gender is only beginning to be recognized as a serious linguistic issue. Chinese is not a grammatical gender language, so gender has to be represented in different ways. Some of them are discussed in the three articles.

    Ettner provides a general overview of various gender-related aspects in Mandarin Chinese and especially focuses on graphic elements with a gender specific connotation and how they are used. In the second part of his article he tries to trace some routes of Chinese language reform in a political context and with respect to gender matters. He manages to show that gender equality is a minor target in relation to class equality within Chinese politics over the last decades. This effects gender language policy to a great extent.

    Chan takes an empirical approach to the gendered use of sentence-final particles in Cantonese. Her article demonstrates the difficulty to distinguish between systematic aspects in language and gender on the level of grammar and conversational issues.

    Zhang analyses proverbs in Mandarin Chinese with respect to gender representation. She focuses on contradictions in the representations of proverbs which for her demonstrates that the dominant culture is not totally shared by the population.

    Gerritsen gives a fairly comprehensive overview on the structural properties of Dutch with respect to gender, focusing on Dutch spoken in the Netherlands. This is followed by a discussion of different language change strategies in a historical perspective. She manages to show that there is still no unified strategy for Dutch but linguists and public institutions still argue for either gender neutralization or gender specification in for example professional titles. Thus, the discussion is going on in the Netherlands and Belgium for almost 30 years now. However, Gerritsen shows in a minor study on professional titles in job advertisements that a tendency towards gender neutralization can be observed here. Analysis of job advertisements are one major source in gender and language studies interested in the interplay of grammatical gender and social gender. I think, nevertheless, that it is dangerous to generalize results from this very limited genre to a broader use of person reference forms. There are in many countries today laws for how to formulate job advertisements with respect to gender equality, so that one can assume that people are more conscious here about how to formulate person references than in other contexts. Moreover, Gerritsen argues herself that there are major differences in Dutch for spoken and written language with respect to the usage of grammatical gender as a marker for social gender which is much more used in spoken language as well.

    Finnish is a language without grammatical gender marking. However, there is some kind of systematic gender representation to be found in Finnish as well, realized in forms with lexical gender as well as by compounding and to some extent by derivation, as Engberg systematically shows. In addition to that, she investigates the perception of male generics and covert male bias by speakers of Finnish in several empirical studies and thereby shows the implicit and explicit androcentricity of Finnish in many respects, even taking into account proverbs and forms of abuse.

    Hall adds in many respects a very important perspective on the issue in her article about Hindi. She shows that it is essential to take concrete language use into account when talking about the interplay of grammatical and social gender. This includes a necessity to differentiate between different social groups using language. Thus her research is implicitly based on some kind of community of practice approach (as proposed by Eckert/Mc Connell-Ginet 1992) which in itself underlines the necessity to combine typological and discursive studies for this topic. Hall shows that in communities of hijras in India, grammatical gender usually used in Hindi for marking social gender, is an important part of their second gender socialization process. Because hirjas are considered neither men or women, they can use grammatical gender as a resource for marking social relations in an unconventional way. Hall refers to Butler (1990, 1993) in arguing that her research shows that gender works as a performative even on the level of usage of grammatical gender in marking social gender differences. But still, the hijras use of grammatical gender is constrained by a rather traditional and dichotomous understanding of gender so that in a way traditional gender concepts are reproduced here as well. Nevertheless, her research seems extremely important to widen the perspective on the issue and can probably help to initiate new research into this area.

    Gr�nberg shows in her article on Icelandic that the role feminist language strategies plays is not only dependent on whether a language has grammatical gender or not (which is true for Icelandic) and whether there is a feminist movement within a certain language group but that it depends on more general public attitudes towards language planning in a society, too. Iceland has a very strong tradition of a quite puristic oriented linguistic policy, and Gr�nberg puts forward the hypothesis that this is the main reason why feminist language change plays so far no role at all in Iceland although the linguistic representation of women and men in Icelandic seems to be quite asymmetrical as well as generic reference is quite often realized by masculine/male forms. She shows that for the reasons mentioned above feminists as well as linguists are not in favour of any systematic language changes concerning gender representation.

    Marcato and Th�ne start their investigation by describing the systematics of person reference forms and gender in Italian. They present thus a very well written overview on the possibilities of genderspecific and genderneutral person reference. To give a more elaborate picture of the different standpoints taken within the philosophical discussion on language change and gender in Italian which is only briefly mentioned in their conclusion, would have been a useful modification of their description so far. The second part of their article gives in addition to that the impression of a quite unreflected perspective on grammar and grammatical traditions. To take perceptions studies into account here, as Engberg has done it in her article on Finnish and Nissen on Spanish, would have been an advantage.

    Bull and Swan focus language changes in Norwegian within the last twenty years. They show how fast language change can occur in some cases when public attitudes have changed rapidly. They even come to the result that for example official guidelines for language change have appeared so late that they can merely be looked upon as descriptions of language usage already established in society. The very optimistic and positive picture they give stands in a more or less strong contrast to the developments in other countries even within this volume, eg. Dutch. To make comparisons even easier, systematic empirical research on actual language usage could be very helpful here. The authors give no concrete sources for their impressions concerning language change so that their results are difficult to evaluate.

    Nissen argues that it is most reasonable to describe Spanish in a system of two grammatical genders, feminine and masculine. He shows, however, that there is not a consequent and unified approach regarding gender in Spanish yet, but that accounts vary with most of them assuming a three-gender-system. His discussion thus shows the variability even of linguistic studies given on gender. He focuses in his article on the perception of masculine generics, showing that splitted forms seem to reach the highest scores for a gender-equal perception. He further discusses guidelines for non-sexist use of Spanish. He argues that opposition to language change very often takes counterexamples rarely used or arguments against forms not even mentioned in the recommendations. In addition to that, Nissen argues for the necessity for more research, esp. with respect to Spanish speaking communities outside Europe. His observation that much of the research on language and gender on Spanish is initiated outside Spanish speaking countries can be confirmed for other languages and countries as well - even with a closer look into the volume under review here. This in itself would be an interesting side-study on the topic.

    Hoa Pham manages to show in her very informative article on Vietnamese the role social status and traditional values play for person reference forms. She focuses in her study on terms women and men use in various relationships in urban settings among young and/or educated people. Her study therefore emphasizes similar to Hall's (this volume) the role concrete communicational situations play in person reference. Vietnamese as a classifier language expresses gender mainly by special morphemes used as modifiers. The role gender specific reference takes and the way it is expressed is dependent on the communicational context including the relative status und age of the people addressed, speaking and referred to. Nevertheless, social changes play an important role here as well. Terms of address, self-reference and reference have changed in the last few decades with the change of women's roles in society.

    Awbery/Jones/Morris discuss feminist language change strategies and official guidelines in the context of the role Welsh language plays in the British society. They postulate parallels between linguistic and gender inequality for Welsh, a minority language spoken by 20% of the population of Wales (British Isles) and the reinforcing effects this kind of double discrimination transports. The authors focus on the recent attention paid to non-sexist language use in Welsh within the context of Welsh language politics with its special emphasis in distancing itself from the English language.

    As can be seen from the scope of the articles presented here, the project as such has been very successfully so far in giving an incredible huge amount of new insights into the topic of linguistic representation of gender in different languages. With regard to language change and linguistic analysis of gender representation in the different languages it could be shown that (language and general) political, historical and social factors play as well a role as language typological questions for the above mentioned issues. The complexity of different factors for different language communities has been exemplified as well as the role a closer look onto different registers and concrete language usage can play.

    As with all linguistic projects, there are several future routes that could be taken from here. Many aspects could only been touched upon very shortly and for the first time for some languages and thus new insights could be gained by widening the perspective even more in the future. I would like to conclude the review by mentioning some possible perspectives and approaches which could be added in future research to a project on linguistic gender representation. These aspects are not meant as a criticism on the work done within this volume but as inspirations stemming from it for possible future research.

    As the investigations in this volume have shown, there has been a certain emphasis on at the one hand grammar books and on the other hand public written discourse as linguistic empirical resources, esp. job announcements in daily newspapers. I think it would be worthwhile for future research to include spoken language use more systematically in this kind of empirical research and to make a more thorough differentiation between written and spoken language for person reference. As Gerritsen (this vol.) has shown for Dutch for example, the differences between spoken and written discourse with respect to gender representation can be worthwhile mentioning. With respect to this, recent developments in corpus linguistics could be helpful in adding a further perspective on gender in languages by including more different registers in a systematic way. This could even contribute to a more advanced systematic account of the complexities of language change within different communities of practice - as has been touched upon by Hall's research on Hindi (this vol.). In addition to that, different registers of spoken language, including even dialects, could give a more colourful picture of gender representation in language and would probably show a higher degree of variation, thereby emphasizing the creative side of language usage which is only touched upon in some of the articles, as for example Nissen for Spanish. Thus, most of the studies under investigation here reproduce linguistic (mostly written) norms to a certain degree as well.

    The question of linguistic meaning is in most cases exclusively discussed with a more or less implicit structuralist linguistic understanding. Some more insights into ways cognition works with respect to linguistic gender representation over different languages and language groups (as for example has been shown for Finnish and Spanish in this volume) would be enhancing for a deeper understanding of the importance of linguistic gender representation in a socio-cultural context. To integrate perception studies with a pragmatic understanding of linguistic person reference could even include conversational aspects which so far have been understood as a separate field of linguistic interest only touched upon in some of the articles and mostly mentioned as a different field of interest. By integrating these different linguistic aspects the complexity of a situational and dynamic understanding of the meaning of person reference could be improved.

    Furthermore, as mentioned above, a more differentiated terminology on grammatical and referential/social/natural gender could be helpful for a more advanced perspective on the interplay of gender and language use, too. Very often, a structural linguistic perspective, understanding gender representation in a contextfree systematic and formal way, is tacitly assumed in research on gender representation in language. A more thorough pragmatic view on the issue, taking into account different contexts and utterance situations as basic and not as additional to the understanding of meaning production and perception could be eye-opening as well here.

    Last but not least, I think it could be quite meaningful to take recent research on grammatical gender not focusing on person reference forms (e.g. Unterbeck et al. (2000)) as well into account as a historical linguistic perspective, as it is realized by grammaticalization theory on gender (e.g. Claudi 1985) focusing on possible functions gender has and has had. Both perspectives could even contribute new aspects on feminist linguistic change within the last decades.

    Bibliography of cited works

    Butler, Judith (1990) Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.

    Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that matter: On the discurisve limits of "sex". Routledge.

    Claudi, Ulrike (1985) Zur Entstehung von Genussystemen: �berlegungen zu einigen theoretischen Aspekten, verbunden mit einer Fallstudie des Zande. Buske Verlag.

    Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet (1992) "Think practically and look locally: language and gender as community-based practice. Annual Reveiw of Anthropology 21: 461-90.

    Unterbeck, Barbara et al. (eds.) 2000 Gender in grammar and cognition. de Gruyter.

    About the reviewer:

    Antje Hornscheidt is a Linguist at Institute for Scandinavian Studies at Humboldt-Universit�t in Berlin/Germany. She is currently writing a monograph on a pragmatic-cognitive perspective on person reference, and is taking examples from different Scandinavian languages. Further research interests include Critical Discourse Analysis, Gender Studies, intercultural communication, language acquisition, approaches to the transdisciplinary integration of linguistics and the history of linguistics.