When it is right to be impolite

Language and Gender. First edition
May 30, 2003

This book made me uncomfortable. It is not surprising that a book on language and gender written by women should have that effect on a man: this is an area where everybody has prejudices and stereotypes, and the book challenges them vigorously. My problem is to separate this kind of discomfort, which is right and proper, from doubts about the evidence, the approach and the style of writing.

Let us start with the evidence. Several decades ago, Basil Bernstein was severely criticised when he made some controversial claims about language, social class and education that were based in part on imagined conversations rather than actual data.

This book often does the same thing: "A teacher mentions to a colleague" a student's poor exam performance, we are told at one point. "The colleague says" something in reply and then "the teacher responds". The authors make some telling points about the sexist assumptions that underlie this conversation, but it is simply not good enough to invent stories this way.

The approach, meanwhile, is slow and expansive: this is not a textbook for students looking for a quick guide through a bite-sized chunk of material. The chapter titles are opaque  -"Fashioning selves", "Positioning ideas and subjects" - and the section headings are often no clearer - "Category relations" and "Genderizing processes" tell me very little. Finally, much of the writing style is dense: "Language is a communicative practice mediated by a linguistic system or systems", we are told at the beginning of chapter two. I think that I now understand this, but the point of saying it in a textbook eludes me.

The fact that both authors come from the US is also bound to be a difficulty. They describe, for instance, some typical behaviour of US teenagers, who are no doubt similar to their British counterparts but also different in various ways. Perhaps UK students could usefully compare the accounts in the book with their own experiences, but I think that a book using British exemplars would be preferable this side of the Atlantic. The authors' aim is to question our familiar assumptions about men and women, so it is important to start with what is genuinely familiar.

On the other hand, the book's unwavering claim that gender is a social construct - one that is related only tenuously to biological differences between men and women - is argued cogently. The authors make some important points about the need to look at the research critically, pointing out that scientists who claim to find a direct link between gender and behaviour often feature prominently in the media. The authors bravely challenge prejudices about homosexuals as consistently as they unmask sexism, and they deal with social class candidly where it is relevant.

This is an uncompromising book that sees no reason to be polite when it exposes discrimination and oppression. For that reason, I am more than prepared to live with any discomfort it causes.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, University of Brighton.

 

Language and Gender. First edition

Author - Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet
ISBN - 0 521 65283 9 and 65426 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £47.50 and £16.95
Pages - 366

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