Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

New from Cambridge University Press!


Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

New from Wiley!


We Have a New Site!

With the help of your donations we have been making good progress on designing and launching our new website! Check it out at!
***We are still in our beta stages for the new site--if you have any feedback, be sure to let us know at***

Review of  How Gender Shapes the World

Reviewer: Menglin Wang
Book Title: How Gender Shapes the World
Book Author: Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 30.3582

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting

The connection between language and gender is not new in gender studies or sociolinguistics. As its name suggests, the monograph How Gender Shapes the World written by Alexandra Aikhenvald contributes to the field by illustrating how gender is expressed in languages, and further exploring how linguistic gender reflects and shapes natural gender, social gender and even the world we live in. With her extensive experience in New Guinea and Amazonia, the author draws a considerable number of examples from minority languages and cultures from these places, as well as from familiar Indo-European languages.

The book is composed of 12 themed chapters. Serving as a brief introduction, Chapter 1 “The multifaceted gender” starts from clarifying three faces of gender: linguistic gender, natural gender and social gender with their definitions, differences and interactions, and highlights the central position of linguistic gender. The chapter also states explicitly the theme of the book, raises a series of research questions such as “What makes it (linguistic gender) a useful linguistic resource rather than an encumbrance for poor language learners”? (p. 6), and outlines the organization of the book.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 focus on linguistic genders and their significance. The overall gender system in language is introduced in Chapter 2 “Linguistic gender and its expression”. Aikhenvald first sums up the general properties of linguistic genders, and explains how gender can be marked overtly (e.g., in Portuguese), covertly (e.g., in German) or with anaphoric gender (e.g., in English). The author then looks at gender agreement in anaphoric gender and the interaction between linguistic gender and other linguistic categories such as numbers and definiteness, and also takes Romanian and Gaaguju as examples to point out that a language may have a different set of gender forms used in different contexts. She discusses principles of linguistic gender choice in many languages by meaning and (or) by form, and concludes that the choice of linguistic gender may be transparent only to a limited extent. In the last section of the chapter the author raises the issue of markedness in linguistic gender: masculine gender (especially anaphoric forms) is the functionally unmarked choice in many languages.

Chapter 3 “Round women and long men: physical properties in linguistic gender” continues the discussion on the choice of linguistic gender. Aikhenvald explicitly illustrates the principles of gender assignment in Manambu (a language from New Guinea) as an example, where the linguistic gender of non-humans is based on their sizes and shapes – the long and large take the masculine while the small and round take the feminine. Though a similar principle goes beyond New Guinea to many African languages as well, the author also found the correlation of large size with feminine gender in some languages (e.g., Cantabrian Spanish). She summarizes that size as gendering parameter can offer contradictory results but the shape rule is more consistent: narrow, elongated and vertical things are always associated with masculine gender while feminine includes the opposite, projecting typical biological features of male and female natural gender to words. Meanwhile, the author suggests that assignment of linguistic gender also reflects attitudes, cultural importance and value, mirroring the stereotypes of social gender.

As would be expected, readers are presented the functions of linguistic gender in Chapter 4 “What are linguistic genders good for”. Aikhenvald argues that along with other noun categorization devices, linguistic genders help underline different meanings of the same noun, create new lexical items (and create elaborate metaphors by manipulating the existing ones), disambiguate referents in discourse, transfer properties of natural gender to inanimate objects, and reflect social and cultural changes. The author discusses some of the functions in detail in the following chapters.

Chapter 5 “Gender meanings in grammar and lexicon” introduces a variety of other means that can also express animacy, humanness and sex – meaning associated with gender systems, and how gender meanings are expressed in so-called “gender-less” languages. Working definitions of numeral classifiers, noun classfiers and verbal classifiers are provided, followed by thorough explanation of how these devices refer to sex, animacy or even social status. The author also shows that other noun categories–number, case and declension type--can articulate the above parameters. She ends with examples of gender expression in gender-less languages, for example gender expressed by using different affixes, showing that with or without linguistic gender the reference to sexes remains largely male-biased.

The evolution of linguistic gender is the theme of Chapter 6 “The rise and fall of linguistic genders”. Aikhenvald analyses five pathways of linguistic gender development, such as “from generic nouns to noun classifiers and then to linguistic gender” (p. 79). To illustrate how gender can be reshaped, readers are presented the story of English, and can see the clear process of gender impoverishment from Old English (with three agreement genders) to modern English (with only anaphoric genders). Then the author switches focus to external reasons of gender evolution: when languages are in contact, linguistic genders can be lost, evolved or readjusted. She concludes that sexist language can be targeted in language reforms as societies move forward.

With a dozen of examples, Chapter 7 discusses the effects of linguistic gender reversal – referring to a man as if he were a woman and to a woman as if she were a man, and the reflection of social gender and stereotypes in these cases. She found effects vary in languages and contexts: it can create jocular effects in some cultures, while in other languages it can be viewed as an offence (dragging a man down to a “woman’s level”) or a praise (“promoting” women to a higher status); it is also a way to show endearment and solidarity. The rest of the chapter concerns the exploration of social attitudes and values in linguistic genders, by investigating the negative overtone of femininity, the invisibility of women under the masculine generics, and social status and power in linguistic markedness. The author reminds us that having the feminine gender as the unmarked form does not guarantee women a privileged place in the society.

In chapter 8 “The images of gender”, Aikhenvald dives into a bigger world: gender as a treasure chest of metaphors – often seen in myths, poetry and images. She first illustrates that the choice of linguistic genders is based on legends and myths in the language, with examples of “moon” and “sun” in many languages. In turn, inanimate items are given male or female natural genders in beliefs, superstitions and poetic metaphors in accordance to their linguistic gender. The famous German poem Fichtenbaum exemplifies the fact that partial meaning may be lost when translating into languages with a different gender system. The author then cites several experiments to answer the question whether linguistic gender influences people’s perception of the world (Konishi 1993; Sera, Berge, and del Castillo 1994; Boroditsky, Schmidt and Phillips 2003), noting “linguistic gender…may reflect the roles and images with social genders – but do not have to” (p.132).

Chapter 9 focuses on social genders in speech practices, inspecting in gender-exclusive languages, gender-variable languages and languages used by the other genders. Male and female dialects may differ phonologically or morphologically in gender-exclusive languages, and the specific dialect is chosen depending on speaker and/or addressees. It also hints at the construction of social gender; for example, Japanese women’s dialect requires more honorific forms than men, automatically putting women in a subordinate position. Though more difficult to capture, men and women speak differently in gender-variable languages. Aikhenvald reviews research on the differences and the reasons, supplementing with evidence she collected in minority languages. These features can be manipulated to establish identities of gays, lesbians and transgendered persons.

Chapter 10 “The rituals of gender” reveals the role social genders play in distinctions in speech genres and practices, as mentioned in previous chapters. Looking at labor division of traditional societies, the author found in general public speeches and important ceremonies are men’s domain while women are restricted to domestic life. Some secret languages and language registers are used in male-only rituals; both the language and the ritual are forbidden to women. However, there is not any evidence suggesting the existence of women- only registers. Aikhenvald also explores women’s role in language maintenance: they can be viewed either as language keepers who promote traditional languages or language killers who abandon the language to embrace modernity and change, but she also argues that the scapegoating of women removes men’s responsibilities and does not acknowledge the vulnerability of women.

Chapter 11 “Gender in grammar and society” responds to the research question “how does linguistic gender reflect social changes and improvement of women’s place?”. Aikhenvald begins with reviewing the expression of social gender in linguistic gender, and the reflection of social inequality through linguistic gender asymmetries with more examples. The author then tracks some changes in linguistic gender after women’s gaining more access to the public sphere, such as the phasing out of genderlects in Japanese. With the rise of the feminist movement, “sexist languages” are under attack and have gradually changed to some extent. We can see some positive outcomes: the generic use of “he” is being replaced with “gender-neutral” languages (e.g., he/she); more inclusive vocabulary (e.g., chair or chairperson) are promoted to fight against “general masculine”; the title “Ms.” has been adopted to avoid marking women’s marital status. Chapter 12 “the heart of the matter: envoi” reemphasizes the most important points discussed in the book, and offers directions for future research.


Alexandra Aikhenvald’s How Gender Shapes the World is indeed an interesting book to read. With her proficiency in dozens of languages and her field work in minority groups, Aikhenvald provides readers with a vast number of language samples– from almost every continent with human society- in every chapter, echoing “the world” in the book title. The language samples and ethnographical observations of traditional tribes are the greatest merits of the book. They undoubtedly serve as solid foundation for the author’s analysis and discussion, but they also broaden readers’ knowledge of languages and cultures. Personally, I learnt many interesting facts about linguistic gender, such as the fact that one word (e.g., ‘house’ in Manambu) can be assigned to different genders based on its size.

The book answers all of the research questions explicitly and clearly. It draws on classic theories and research in the field, such as Lakoff (1975) and Holmes (1986) but with the prominence given to minority languages and cultures, it tries to avoid the bias from western stereotypes. Written from a linguistic perspective, the book targets undergraduate/postgraduate students or professionals with sufficient knowledge in linguistics, especially if the language they speak has a simple gender system. Educators can also use some chapters from the book as readings in courses such as Sociolinguistics or Language and Gender. Though the book has a grammar focus and contains lots of samples from minority groups, it is written and organized with great clarity. Each phrase or sentence is not only accompanied with English translation (of the whole phrase or sentence), but also English translation of each word and their grammatical properties, to facilitate comprehension.

One minor criticism of the book is the problem with the title of Chapter 7 section 5 “Attitudes to social genders through linguistic gender reversals”. It is a bit misleading as the section shifts focus from linguistic gender reversals to attitudes behind linguistic genders, such as negative overtones of femininity, so I would suggest to delete the word “reversals” in the section title. However, this minor item does not in any way affect the overall quality of this excellent monograph.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2016. How Gender Shapes the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boroditsky, Lera, Lauren A. Schmidt, and Webb Phillips. 2003. ‘Sex, syntax and semantics’, pp. 61–80 of Language in mind: advances in the study of language and cognition, edited by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Holmes, Janet. 1986. ‘Functions of you know in women’s and men’s speech’. Language in Society 15: 1–21.

Konishi, T. 1993. ‘The semantics of grammatical gender: a cross-cultural study’. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 22: 519–34.

Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. 1975. Language and woman’s place. New York: Harper and Row.

Sera, M., C. Berge, and J. del Castillo. 1994. ‘Grammatical and conceptual forces in the attribution of gender by English and Spanish speakers’. Cognitive Development 9: 261–92.
Menglin Wang is a lecturer in English as a foreign language at Beijing Technology and Business University. She also has taught English in primary and secondary school in China. Her teaching and research interests include sociolinguistics, computer-assisted language learning and second language acquisition.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780198826156
Pages: 288
Prices: U.S. $ 35.00