Elevate Difference

Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning: Linguistic Practice and Politics

Showcasing twelve articles by noted linguist Sally McConnell-Ginet, Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning weaves together some of her most provocative and influential work on language, gender, and sexual meaning-making from the last three decades. In her many fruitful collaborations with colleagues, students, and friends, McConnell-Ginet argues that language is not a passive craft, but rather, an active process of meaning-making that has its roots in the social identities, contexts, and statuses of the speakers and listeners.

Insisting upon a gendered reading of a host of subjects—among them high school cliques, name changes following marriage, assumptions in the phrase cleaning lady, presumptions of heterosexuality, and speech in cross-sex friendships—McConnell-Ginet’s writings have laid the groundwork for seeing gender in seemingly benign moments of communication, and in extending such gendered readings into the realm of other often-unnoticed power dynamics present within language. Language is never politically neutral or merely a string of words, but rather, deeply rooted in systems of inequality.

As a wonderful addition to the Oxford University Press series on language and gender, Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning serves both as a historical consideration of McConnell-Ginet’s impact on the field of linguistics, and as a collection of ideas that remain highly relevant. Beginning with a review essay that tackles the difference between intended and received meanings, the impossibility of “authentic selves,” and the role of gender in shaping content and social meaning, McConnell-Ginet establishes herself as accessible, clear, grounded in research, and persistently feminist.

From the seemingly mundane act of reading the Harry Potter series to the politicized language of phone sex workers, she traces the social and stylistic meanings of language across a broad range of modern scenarios. She then establishes the basis for a feminist linguistics by erasing the possibility of “mere linguistics” (Chapters 1 and 2) followed by clear arguments for gender within linguistics (Chapter 3) and linguistics within feminism (Chapter 4). The book delves into “communities of practice” like high schools and political organizations (Chapter 5) and returns to her groundbreaking Signs piece on gendered intonation (Chapter 6), along with her early work on gendered pronouns and assumptions of default masculinity (Chapter 9). The collection concludes with chapters on motives and actions in speaking (Chapter 8), naming and labeling as gendered (Chapter 10), and queer semantics (including a particularly astute critical analysis of the word lesbian) (Chapter 11).

While the book occasionally veers towards the more dry and technical aspects of sociolinguistics (for example, it helps to have a working knowledge of illocutionary and perlocutionary speech, lexical semantics, prosody, rules of phonology, and variationist sociolinguistics), she nevertheless offers access points both to those solidly within the field of linguistics and to those approaching it from the outside.

Reading Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning provokes questions about the basic assumptions present in everyday occurrences and commonplace linguistic practices. Readers will undoubtedly have many “aha!” moments when excavating their own communication habits, phrases, and ways of making meaning through words. The volume happily skips from subject to subject in order to expertly reinforce her conclusions: all language is tainted with assumptions about gender, and all forms of communication are inseparable from power. Collectively, McConnell-Ginet’s work provides a timely, convincing, insightful, and engaging basis for linking together the limitations, surprises, and possibilities of language.

Written by: Breanne Fahs, April 30th 2011