LINGUIST List 32.1638

Tue May 11 2021

Review: Cognitive Science; Historical Linguistics; Semantics; Typology: Di Garbo, Olsson, Wälchli (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 11-May-2021
From: Mayowa Akinlotan <>
Subject: Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity II
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Francesca Di Garbo
EDITOR: Bruno Olsson
EDITOR: Bernhard Wälchli
TITLE: Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity II
SUBTITLE: World-wide comparative studies
PUBLISHER: Language Science Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Mayowa Akinlotan, Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt


The book “Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity: World-wide comparative studies” is the Volume Two of a two-volume collection of chapters showing the relation between grammatical gender and linguistic complexity through world-wide comparative studies. In other words, this volume extends Volume One, which provides data and findings in typological studies, showing general and specific issues from gender systems and complexity in individual languages. The present review focuses specifically on Volume Two, which, unlike Volume One (10 chapters), has five chapters.

Chapter One, titled Introduction, introduces the concerns raised and discussed in the book. This introductory chapter, written by the editors of both volumes , argues for the importance of the book, including the significant contributions made in the subsequent four chapters. Among numerous contributions made by the book, this chapter shows that readers will not only know better about the complexity,difficulty, and complication of gender systems across a range of studies, but also that readers become better in the understanding of structure, meaning and linguistic variation, which almost every language demonstrates to a varying degree.

Chapter Two The evolving complexity of gender agreement systems, written by Francesca Di Garbo and Matti Miestamo, investigates complexity in gender systems across 36 languages representing Africa (e.g. Bantu, Ghana-Togo-Mountain), Australia (e.g. Gunwinggu), North-America, Papunesia (Chamorro), and Eurasia ( e.g. Basque, Greek), showing how complexity of gender system varies from one language to the other. In this excellent chapter, the authors report that complexity of gender system can vary from those languages exhibiting expansion, which can be interpreted to mean processes of complexification, while other languages exhibit patterns representing retention, lack of complexity, emergence, reduction, and loss. Such are the dynamics and dimensions of structural variation underlying gender system complexity.

This chapter certainly ranks high among those works showing the state-of-the-art in gender system complexity, not only because of such big data but also of significant findings which show that gender system is perhaps much more complex, complicated, and variable than thought. Although the distinction between simple and complex gender system remains fuzzy, the authors are able to clearly show that complexity of gender system can be understood in terms of simple/complex systems, and that complexity of gender remains “an evolving variable” which is constrained by an infinite set of internal and external linguistic factors.

Chapter Three, quite an extensive study as reflected in the title, The feminine anaphoric gender gram, incipient gender marking, maturity, and extracting anaphoric gender markers from parallel texts, examines gendered feminine anaphoric such as she/her in 816 languages, using functional definitions that allow for the study of gender without recourse to the traditionally aligned concepts of noun class, agreement and system. According to the findings presented, simplicity in gender systems is found in many languages. Such gender simplicity is found to be “representing incipient gender from a grammaticalization perspective.” As reported, there are 629 languages which do not exhibit a feminine anaphoric gender gram (i.e. prononminal such as she/her), while only 187 languages do exhibit this functionality. Meanwhile, when anaphoric function for animate nouns that are highly restricted in uses/usages, or when there is less systematic use of bound affixes on the verbs, including where there is less grammaticalisation of the pronominal, no feminine anaphoric gender gram is identified, a scenario that is a function of the automatic extraction used in the study.

Chapter Four On the distribution and complexity of gender and numeral classifiers, which is authored by Kaus Sinnemaki, comparatively examines the presence of gender and numeral classifiers across a genealogically and areally stratified sample of 360 different languages worldwide, showing the extent to which complexity trade-off between gender and numeral classifier is present in these languages. Using a generalised linear mixed method, it is shown that a strong inverse relationship exists between gender and numeral classifier, a scenario that is independent of the genealogical affiliation and geographical area of the languages. The distribution further shows that certain languages exhibit a particular tendency in which multiple patterns in the same functional contexts are often deselected. Since linguistic complexity is a universal phenomenon, then the chapter, which excellently draws on a large data sample, can rightly inform us about the nature of linguistic complexity. Hence, the chapter further provides additional support for the hypothesis that all languages are equally complex.

The last chapter, which is Chapter Five, titled the dynamics of gender complexity, and co-authored by Bernhard Walchli and Francesca Di Garbo, conceptualises grammatical gender as a grammatical variable that is suspect to change. In other words, complexity in grammatical gender can develop, grow, and dissipate over time. Hence, this chapter complements arguments in the volume by showing that the gender system is not only variable but also strongly related to change, which can be reflected in a diachronic process. Specifically, it is argued that hierarchical patterning, which is “a powerful decomplexifying mechanism”, is related to the development of (or lack of) complexity in the gender system. Another argument put forward in the chapter is that gender as a grammatical category shares origin with “referent-based gender”, which emanates from the animacy hierarchy.


This volume provides an array of data from a wide range of languages to extend the discussion on complexity of gender system started in Volume One. The book shows that complexity in grammatical gender is present in a varying degree in all the languages discussed, and that the complexity is related to a number of subtle factors. All of thechapters are very comprehensive, detailed, and thought-provoking. Although discussion of linguistic complexity is such a delicate one, all the chapters clearly show that complexity can be measured in different ways, using known and innovative metrics. For instance, Bernhard Walchi in Chapter 3 not only provides a fine-grained procedure for similar future studies to follow, the author carefully shows how fuzzy concepts such as linguistic complexity can be measured and operationalised in known and lesser-known languages.

Also, all the data presented from languages across the different regions of the world means that readers, researchers and students, are able to extrapolate a catalogue of understanding and perspectives not only on grammatical gender and linguistic complexity, but also on how languages worldwide converge and diverge in the same grammatical categories. For instance, Chapter 5, The dynamics of gender complexity clearly illustrates how diachronic understanding of gender marking advances our knowledge of gender systems in terms of what they are today, and how they might develop further. Such an understanding clearly relates to the issue of structural complexity, structural variation and meaning, all of which correlate with other grammatical categories to grow, mature, or dissipate. Except for Chapter 3, which is a little longer than other chapters, the book is a state-of-the-art research report that would greatly be useful for interested researchers and students who want to know more about how gender system and complexity operate in different languages worldwide.


Mayowa Akinlotan is currently with University of Texas at Austin and also a Humboldt Research Fellow with Alexander von Humboldt, a fellowship being hosted at Katholische Universitait Eichstatt-Ingoldstadt, Germany.

Page Updated: 11-May-2021