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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2013

3 - Linguistic resources



A language is a highly structured system of signs, or combinations of form and meaning. Gender is embedded in these signs and in their use in communicative practice in a variety of ways. Gender can be the actual content of a linguistic sign. For example, English third-person singular pronouns distinguish so-called neuter (it) from masculine and feminine (she/her/her; he/him/his). The neuter pronoun is mainly used for inanimates, but we will see later that it is occasionally used for animals and even people. Perhaps more surprisingly, the masculine and feminine forms are sometimes used for inanimates (Curzan 2003) and sometimes masculine is used for a female person or animal, feminine for a male (see McConnell-Ginet [forthcoming]). The suffix -ess transforms a male or generic noun into a female one (heir; heiress). Lexical items, as well, refer directly to male and female (as in the case of male and female; girl and boy). In other cases, the relation between a linguistic sign and social gender can be secondary. For example, the adjectives pretty and handsome both mean something like ‘good-looking,’ but have background meanings corresponding to cultural ideals of good looks for females and males respectively, and are generally used gender-specifically, or to invoke male- or female-associated properties. Consider, for example, what pretty and handsome suggest when used with objects such as houses or flowers. And although it is positive to describe someone as a handsome woman (it seems to accord her a little extra class) the description a pretty boy is generally not considered a compliment. There are many means by which we color topics with gender – by which we invoke gender and discourses of gender even when we are ostensibly talking about something else. At the same time, the resources that the language offers constrain us to some extent in how gender figures in our talk. English obliges us to specify whether a person is male or female when we use a third person singular pronoun (he, she, it), whereas Chinese does not.