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Review of  Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity I

Reviewer: Mayowa Akinlotan
Book Title: Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity I
Book Author: Francesca Di Garbo Bruno Olsson Bernhard Wälchli
Publisher: Language Science Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 32.1637

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The book “Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity: general issues and specific studies” is the Volume One of a two-volume collection of chapters showing the relation between grammatical gender and linguistic complexity, in individual languages and cross-linguistically. The present review focuses specifically on the volume one, which is titled as aforementioned. The book is interesting for many reasons, especially for its operationalisation of two different linguistic concepts in completely fresh perspectives, such that new understandings of these concepts emerge. This book puts together ten relevant chapters that explicate the concept of grammatical gender in the light of linguistic complexity.

One, all of these chapters clearly illustrate and further affirm the idea that grammatical gender, regardless of languages and their varieties, is characterised and underlied with a complex system which contributes to the complexity of these languages. Hence, one way to understand the complexity of any language is perhaps to look keenly at its grammatical gender system. Although it is not clearly stated in this volume, one can assert that the degree of complexity of a gender system in a particular language can provide insights into the overall (syntactical and semantic) complexities of many language. Nevertheless, the ten excellent papers collected in this volume clearly show that we can have a meaningful insight into the origins and development of a language through a measure of the varying degree of complexity in its gender system.

As a linguist of African origin, I am well assured that the gender systems of most African languages allow for a penetration not only into their origins and developments but also into their socio-cultural identities, attitudes, ideologies, and worldviews. In addition to this reflection, the book also shows the possible alternation between a complex and a simple gender system across world languages, and how such a distinction, no matter how fuzzy it can be, helps us understand the questions of language ecology and history of speech communities. The book further makes significant contributions in terms of how to study the relation between those concepts representing gender system and language complexity.

For instance, all of the chapters employed a variety of methods, showing how this interaction can be investigated synchronically and diachronically, with evidence provided cross-linguistically. Since the question of linguistic complexity is intertwined with variation and change, this volume thus makes conscious efforts to provide some answers to the question of how the gender system of a language changes over time. Another fact which distinguishes the book is the scope of evidence provided. The different frameworks that make up the concept of gender complexity are put to the test in languages from Africa, and South Asia. The book is divided into four parts representing (I) General issues (II) Africa (III) New Guinea and (IV) South Asia. Part I has four chapters (1-4), Part II two chapters (4-6), Part III three chapters (7-9), and Part IV one chapter (10).

Chapter One, which is the introductory chapter, is co-written by the three editors of the volume. The chapter introduces all the conceptual and theoretical issues contained in the two volumes. These two volumes present us with a wide range of concepts and issues including but not limited to grammatical gender, its varying systems and complexity across languages, including how we might measure gender complexity.

Chapter Two Canonical, complex, complicated? discusses the issue of complexity of grammatical gender in relation to three ideas of canonicity, complexity, and difficulty. The author of the chapter, Jenny Audring, asserts that the question of complexity of grammatical gender, just as any other matter of linguistic complexity, can be understood in terms of different dimensions relating to (1) canonicity - standards or benchmarks with which other similar items are measured, (2) complexity - the varying degree of complexity that characterises and underlies gender systems cross-linguistically, and (3) complication - the varying degree of difficulty involved in (2) and (3) and how it is reflected in different structures, meaning processing, and discourse-pragmatic processing.

These three concepts are fuzzy, and hardly can any fine-grained description clarify these grey areas. However the author is able to shed lights on these grey areas, arguing that “while canonicity, complexity, and difficulty are related notions, …they are not identical: individual phenomena can be complex but canonical, or complex but not difficult.” The extent to which this assertion is tenable varies from one context to another. In a 32-page chapter, the author nicely illustrates the idea that a clear distinction can be made between complexity and difficulty on one hand, and then, (non)-canonicity and complexity and/or difficulty on the other hand. In doing this, Audring proposes a number of concepts that are methodically and theoretically relevant not only to the discussion of complexity of grammatical gender but also to the discussion of other subsystems of linguistic complexities.

Among many other ideas proposed in this chapter, the idea of profiling allows us to identify and classify subtle characterisations of a system, including properties projecting simplicity/complexity. This concept of profiling appears to be flexible and aims at outlining the properties of gender systems, rather than classifying them. Profiling a gender system will thus involve the identification of (a) controllers (e.g. noun, pronoun), (b) targets (e.g. adjectives, verbs, pronouns, articles), (c) domains (e.g. noun phrase, clause), (d) values (e.g. 2 or 10 gender values), and (e) assignment values (e.g. semantic, phonological). In addition to this outlining, author Audring further provides evidence from first language acquisition, showing how different dimensions and stages of acquisition reflect a varying degree of difficulty and complexity. With this evidence, the author clearly makes the point that understanding the (non)-canonicity, difficulty, and complexity of grammatical gender systems requires a careful understanding of its typologies in different domains, including those of first and second language acquisition case studies.

Chapter 3, written by Osten Dahl, is titled Gender: esoteric or exoteric? questions the distinction between esoteric and exoteric classification of gender system. By asking this question, the chapter thus extends the discussion in Chapter 2, moving beyond evidence shown in typological studies to showing how ecological factors relate to the growth, maintenance and demise of gender systems, including those of their synchronic patterns. In other words, in order to understand the nature, development, and growth of the complexity of gender system, one needs to look beyond patterns which are found in typological studies and consider insights provided in synchronic studies. Such synchronic/diachronic studies allow us to understand nuts and bolts of gender systems, and its nature of complexity through prism of conditions that underlie the rise, growth, and maturity of gender systems.

In Chapter 4, author Johanna Nichols ambitiously tries to answer the big question; why is gender so complex? Of course there cannot be an answer in absolute terms. Nevertheless, the author offers a wide range of reasonable arguments. One proposal is that, unlike other classificatory categories such as the case, nouns, numeral, and possessive categories, a gender system is non-referential and should be evaluated in more holistic terms. The author provides some typological patterns to support the argument that gender system is non-referential. As claimed in this chapter, the varying degree of complexity of a gender system is related to the overall complexity of the language within which the gender system operates.

Also, the degree to which the gender system is complex is compensated for by other subsystems, such as the case system. According to the author, “ the reason why gender systems can be so complex is then that they have no self-correcting mechanism like the hierarchical blueprint that might simplify them, and they are stable enough that complexity can build up over time without causing the whole system to be shed.” In other words, stability in the gender system is a crucial condition for developing complexity. This could not be in absolute terms as stability can as well turn out to resolve complexity and complication. Although the argument that gender system is non-referential needs more than the arguments presented in this chapter, the chapter makes significant contribution to our understanding of complexity of gender system.

Chapter 5 opens the Part II in the book, and provides evidence on gender systems from African languages, such as Swahili, Akan, Lelemi, Chumburung, and Guang languages, showing how noun classes in Niger-Congo languages conflate gender with deriflection. The author, Tom Guldermann, presents four analytical concepts representing agreement class, gender, nominal form class, and deriflection, which align the analyses of gender systems in these languages with those of other languages. Also, the author claims that these proposals are not only adequate for understanding the systems in Niger-Congo languages but also that they are of universal values to other languages.

According to the author, noun classes including that of the gender system in Bantu and more of Benue-Congo (Niger-Congo) languages have often been evaluated in terms that need re-evaluation, “for the sake of better language-specific synchronic well as historical-comparative analyses.” This will mean some sort of reanalysis framed around a cross-linguistic perspective rather than a philological profiling. Chapter 6 is related to Chapter 5, and specifically focuses on peculiarities in the gender marking system in the African language Uduk, a Koman language spoken in Ethiopia and Sudan. Uduk operates a zero marking system, and two systems of gender marking, which can be classified as class 1 and 2, and unlike some Koman languages, the operationalistion of these systems has little relation with semantics in its class assignment. It is shown that Uduk does not differentiate gender in person, and that all personal pronouns are classified to a particular group, just the same way that nouns are classified. In other words, personal and demonstrative pronouns act as controller for gender marking, which perhaps arise from the fact that the gender marking system in Uduk is not related to biological sex or any other semantic considerations common in many other languages.

Chapter 7, 8 and 9 form Part III of the book which focuses on languages related to New Guinea. Chapter 7 deals with gender system in Walman, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea. In this chapter, author Matthew Dryer clearly illustrates the conditions and constraints underlying the alternation between masculine and feminine gender marking in Walman, together with the process and operationalisation of formal realisation of gender marking in this language. According to the author, the predictability of the choice between masculine and feminine is clearly related to the animacy system, supported with evidence that “…the fact that inanimate nouns are always feminine.”

With sufficient examples (valuable linguistic evidence missing in previous chapters), the author clearly shows and operationalises two gender-like phenomena representing “pluralia tantum nouns” and “a diminutive category” characterising the realisation and working of the gender system in Walman. Chapter 8 provides further discussion on the gender system from Coastal Marind, another language from New Guinea. The author Bruno Olsson discusses the complexity of the gender marking in this language within a theoretical framework conceptualised as masterful grammar developed by Drabbe (1955). Relying on this framework, the author is able to show how complexity and consequently ambiguity develop from the different gender categories representing animacy and number agreement.

One peculiarity characterising Coastal Marind is the existence of a gender category “the 4th gender (i.e. the second inanimate gender marking), which, accroding to the author, must not be collapsed into another category. Doing so will only result in ambiguity that undermines the usefulness of such category. Chapter 9 further extends the discussion on gender system in New Guinea, showing a wide range of classification of gender systems in 20 languages spoken in New Guinea. As can be seen in the chapter, the author shows that gender in New Guinea is vast, and that many of the languages in this speech communities operate “two-gendered sex-based systems with semantic assignment.”

Four gender peculiarities are identified; (1) size and shape, which functions as conditions for gender assignments representing masculine and feminine, (2) the relation between two nominal classification systems, (3) a non-existence of gender distinction is the usages of pronouns, and (4) verbs functioning as the indexing target. Chapter 10, which is the last chapter, and the only chapter in Part IV of the book, deals with gender typology and gender instability in Hindu Kush Indo-Aryan languages, showing how gender marking operates in Hindu Kush Indo-Aryan. Henrik Liljegren, the author, clearly illustrates how two different types of gender systems operate in Hindu Kush Indo-Aryan languages. It is also noted that there is a process of entrenchment, in which there is “…a decline in pervasiveness moving from East to West.”


This first volume of the book certainly makes a great contribution to the literature, especially to the discussion of grammatical gender systems, linguistic complexity, and referential systems cross-linguistically. The book stands out for the richness of its data, especially with the provision of data from less-known languages representing Africa and South Asia. All of these chapters present findings, arguments, and concepts that do not only provide great insights into these less-represented languages but also that these languages can indeed shed light on established linguistic theories across linguistic varieties.

For instance, among many notable contributions, author Tom Guldemann shows that we can learn more about gender system and its complexity through the peculiarities identified in the gender system in Niger-Congo noun classes, and how these categories conflate gender with deriflection. Also, readers who want to learn more about the internal and external structure of African and South Asian languages should read the book. Except for Chapter Seven, most of the chapters provide only a small number of examples. Also, most of the chapters lack quantification dimension of the data provided. Although quantification of the data has not diminished the importance or clarity of arguments proposed, such perspective can appease some linguists with quantitative orientations.

For instance, Chapter Seven promises to show how factors influence choice between masculine and feminine, yet with little or no distribution on how such factors relate to the possible gender choices. Nevertheless the analysis presented does not obscure the fact that the movement between feminine and masculine gender choices in Walman is clearly a matter of meaning processing. Overall, the book represents state-of-the-art for researchers interested in gender system and complexity, including their implications on grammatical categories, meaning processing and a body of cultural ideologies underpinning languages, which in turn reflect their origins, development, and directions for their future.
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.