Vol. 4. No. 3 R-22 May 2000
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Communicating Gender

Suzanne Romaine (1999)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Pp: xi + 406
ISBN 0-8058-2926-1 (paper)
US $39.95 (also available in cloth, $89.95)

While gender seems to be a conspicuous category, it is also one that has attracted different and often controversial views, even among feminists. Still, a common distinction between sex and gender is accepted in the contexts of social and psychological sciences. Largely, sex is a category that "was ascribed by biology: anatomy, hormones, and physiology" (West & Zimmerman, p. 104). Gender, on the other hand, connotes a social status; in other words, it is constructed through cultural and social means.

Romaine's book Communicating Gender doesn't defy this collective assumption. At the same time, however, she locates her work within the framework of specific feminist theories, namely Butler's (1990) and Bem's (1993) constructivist views on gender. As she claims in the beginning and maintains throughout the book, gendered identities are actively constructed through, rather than being passive reflections of, culture and history. Thus, the author asserts, gender is "an inherently communicative process" (p. 2).

Communicating Gender is designed and reads as a textbook. This feeling is amplified by the fact that each chapter is followed by exercises, discussion questions, an annotated bibliography, and suggestions for further reading. (As Romaine acknowledges herself, parts of the book came from of a series of lectures she gave at Oxford.) This may explain why, despite the presence of Romaine's voice, the eleven chapters remain, in essence, reviews of studies on gender and language and lack in cohesion as a whole.

Chapter 1, "Doing Gender," questions the current concepts of masculinity and femininity and invites the reader to adopt a broader, politicized view of gender and sex. As do all the other chapters in the book, it consists of several sections. The first sections deal with the ways gender is manifested within society. Romaine contends that gender is not just a biological or cultural construct but also a political one. Discourses reflect power inequalities, and thus language becomes a rhetorical tool for the dominant male culture. In a following section, Romaine moves on to talk about the different ways gender is grammatically expressed in other languages (e.g., Russian and Spanish). The last section goes back to the issue of gender inequality, and how the latter intersects with class, race, and ethnicity.

Chapter 2, "Boys Will Be Boys," examines how males and females are conceptualized by society and contends that the differences between them, biological and cultural, are largely overrated. "Recognizing that gender is culturally and historically constructed goes hand in hand with my belief that the focus on difference is scientifically as well as politically misguided," Romaine contends (p. 60). Here the author refers to radical feminism, calling for eradication of all hierarchies of dominance. [-1-]

Chapter 3 explores gender as a linguistic category. Drawing on numerous examples of European and non-European languages, including Dyirbal, the writer asserts that grammatical gender is a feminist issue and not an arbitrary feature as linguists have claimed. Chapters 4 and 5 expose common sexist language practices where lexical forms reflect deeply rooted androcentrist stereotypes. In chapter 5, for instance, Romaine provides a naming analysis, pointing out that women are the marked, i.e., the deviant, category in the English language, and female naming routines typically contain negative connotations.

"Gendered Talk: Gossip, Shop Talk, and the Sound of Silence," the sixth chapter of the book, is closely related to the previous two. Here the author debunks pervasive myths about so-called women's language. Referring to Lakoff's list of features (e.g., tag questions, rising intonation in the end of statements, empty adjectives, hedges) that supposedly underlie women's language, Romaine asserts once again that "women and their speech have been measured against male standards and found to be deficient and deviant" (p. 157). The section "Is Silence Golden?" rejects another popular image, the talkative woman, as an additional example of asymmetric power relationships in our society. Special attention is given to sociolinguistic research concerning female-male differences. Citing influential studies by Trudgill and the Milroys, for instance, Romaine believes that some of their findings have misconstrued social differences as sex differences and have overlooked the sociopolitical context as a critical variable.

Chapter 7, "Learning How to Talk Like a Lady," discusses the process of socialization in the construction of gender and the influences of three major structures: family, peer groups, and school. In chapter 8, which focuses on sexual discourses, Romaine emphasizes that language is essential in the definition of female and male experiences. She exposes popular images as metaphors masking male sexual dominance and aggression.

In chapter 9, the author turns to the world of advertising and the way it represents gender. The following section titles clearly exemplify the content of the chapter: "The Sexual Sell," "Selling the Happy Homemaker," and "Declaring War on Sexist Advertising." In a nutshell, these unveil some of the most popular marketing gimmicks that exploit and reinforce cultural stereotypes about being male and female.

If the previous chapters reveal how male and female identities are expressed in language and how language itself reflects gender inequalities, the final two chapters of the book ask whether language reform is possible. To Romaine, the answer is not straightforward. While she believes language may be planned, discourse, which is a hub of political struggle, cannot be. Thus a linguistic change unquestionably involves a sociopolitical transformation.

To summarize, while Communicating Gender does not contribute anything new to gender-related research, it is a very comprehensive, ambitious overview of a topic of much current interest. Drawing on an impressive number of studies (the author index is seven pages long), the book could be a good reference or textbook for a women's studies or sociolinguistics course. For a language teachers' course, though, I would probably not choose this text over the more concise and accessible Feminism and Linguistic Theory by Cameron (1992) and Gibbon's (1999) Feminist Perspectives on Language. [-2-]


Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (1992). Feminism and linguistic theory. (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gibbon, M. (1999). Feminist perspectives on language. London: Longman.

West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1998). Doing gender. In Clinchy, B., & Norem, J. The gender and psychology reader. New York: New York University Press.

Gergana Vitanova
University of Cincinnati

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