Gender across Languages: Some General (Universal?) Tendencies

Women and Language, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Gender across Languages: Some General (Universal?) Tendencies


Gender across languages: some general (universal?) tendencies. Marlis Hellinger, Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universitat, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Since the project was introduced to a larger audience at the 1998 Berkeley Women's Conference, the number of languages to be included in the Handbook of Gender across Languages has risen to over 30 (with 50 contributors). The editors are now able, using a wide range of examples from western and non-western languages, to provide at least tentative answers to the following questions:

First, what is the impact of the presence/absence of grammatical gender on the linguistic representation of women and men? In particular, how is the issue of female visibility affected? If a language has grammatical gender, as well as few but productive word formation patterns for the derivation of feminine personal nouns, then female visibility may be a successful strategy to achieve a more gender-fair usage (an example being German). If, however, the language has extensive agreement morphology which requires gender distinctions even in the plural forms of adjectives, pronouns, or verbs (as is the case in Slavonic languages), and if furthermore the language has a whole number of rather competing and at the same time less productive derivational patterns, then female visibility may be considered a problem rather than a step towards a more equal linguistic treatment of women and men. …

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