According to Greville G. Corbett, gender is an infinitely fascinating category. Only ¼ of the world’s languages have grammatical genders or some sort of classification for that category. Gender may refer to the complex of social, cultural and psychological phenomena associated to sex, a usual use in the social and behavioral sciences. The word gender also has a well-established technical meaning in linguistic discussions. As a technical notion in linguistics, it can be analyzed at least from its grammatical, lexical, referential and sociocultural behavior.
Gender is an infinitely fascinating category.
The traditional debate on gender and language uses the term grammatical as an inherent feature of the name that participates in the collocation agreements established between elements that accompany, complement or recover the name in the sentence.
The traditional discussion on gender and language generally uses the term lexical to relate gender to extra linguistic features, being thus an important parameter in the structure of kinship terminologies, titles, and a good deal of common personal names. On the other hand, referential gender relates linguistic expressions to non-linguistic reality, that is, it identifies a referent as female, maleor gender-independent in the real world.
Sociocultural gender is a category that refers to the socially imposed dichotomy of masculine and feminine roles, and their respective characteristic features. Personal pronouns will be specified for sociocultural gender if the behavior of the associated words cannot be explained by grammatical or lexical gender. An illustration of the sociocultural gender in English comes from the fact that many terms for higher occupational status, such as lawyer, surgeonor scientist, often acquire the male pronoun in contexts where the referential gender is not known or is irrelevant. By the same token, lower occupational statustitles, such as secretary, nurse or teacher, usually acquire the female pronoun. However, even for human names in general, such as pedestrian, client or patient, the traditional practice prescribes the choice of the male pronoun in neutral contexts. Since most of the personal pronouns present themselves biasedly masculine, it seems plausible to suggest that – regardless of whether a language has a grammatical gender or not – the masculine “principle” is the underlying norm.
On the other hand, gender as a representation of a complex sociocultural and psychological phenomenon is not a matter of sexual division of people into women/female and men/male, which people understand as natural gender, but the meaning associated to this division, with institutions and ideologies, with prescribed and claimed identities, and with the variety of social practices that sustain these institutions, ideologies, and identities.
That perspective appears in language studies as a consequence of reflections generated in social sciences with the feminist movement of the 1960s. At the beginning of that perspective, the field of gender and language studies used to be restricted to describe the way women used language in a deviant way or to identify specific linguistic varieties for each gender.
These academic practices can be seen as a reflection of a moment when sexism was practically unquestionable.
These academic practices can be seen as a reflection of a moment when sexism was practically unquestionable, and researchers used to be almost exclusively men. As of the 1970s, the linguistic discussion about gender and language reached a more sophisticated level of academic treatment. Robin Lakoff, in her book Language and Woman’s Place, released in 1975, had an important awareness-raising effect, exposing the systematic bias against women in both how language is used, and how languages are structured.
The field of language and gender has been broadened to include discussions on sexual desire and/or sexual identity – an aspect that earlier research had only implicitly dealt with.
More recent theories have tried to mitigate the general claims about women and men proposed by the most traditional linguistic theories, as William Labov’s Variationist Sociolinguistics; by considering gender as a linguistic construction to be studied locally and in real practices, as proposed by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet; by trying to find ways of going above that strictly binary thought of linguistic gender construction, as per Victoria L. Bergvall and Janet M. Bing thinking; or by providing critical analyzes of normative discourses of gender, as proposed by Mary Bucholtz. All of these discussions together with the influential work on the discursive construction of normative gender binarism by Judith Butler have paved the way towards an approach to gender and language studies that can be termed poststructuralist, to the extent that it does no longer practice an unquestionable use of the notions of a woman and a man as two self-explanatory, biologically based macro-categories. At the same time, the field of language and gender has been broadened to include discussions on sexual desire and/or sexual identity – an aspect that earlier research had only implicitly dealt with.
Therefore, the study of the relationship between gender and language is a diversified and blooming field, which has both academic and popular appeal. The linguistic turn in the human and social sciences, and the impact of critical and formal linguistic development, as well as of discourse analysis contributed to a reformulation of gender and language matters.