Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


Style, Mediation, and Change

Edited by Janus Mortensen, Nikolas Coupland, and Jacob Thogersen

Style, Mediation, and Change "Offers a coherent view of style as a unifying concept for the sociolinguistics of talking media."

New from Cambridge University Press!


Intonation and Prosodic Structure

By Caroline Féry

Intonation and Prosodic Structure "provides a state-of-the-art survey of intonation and prosodic structure."

Review of  Gender Across Languages

Reviewer: Antje Hornscheidt
Book Title: Gender Across Languages
Book Author: Bhadumod Bussmann Marlis Hellinger
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Norwegian Bokmål
Issue Number: 13.2237

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting
Hellinger, Marlis, and Hadumod Bußmann, 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-Universität zu Berlin,

The two German linguists Hellinger and Bußmann 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/Bußmann 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

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

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

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/Bußmann 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/Bußmann 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.

Grönberg 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 Grönberg 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 Thüne 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

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

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

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

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: Überlegungen
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-Universität 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
About the reviewer: Antje Hornscheidt is a Linguist at Institute for Scandinavian Studies at Humboldt-Universität 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.