One Man in Two is a Woman

Linguistic: Approaches to Gender in Literary Texts


1 Introduction

The question of gender in literary texts has been approached by linguists in

two different ways. The first involves a comparison of the fiction created by

male and female authors and is typified by the search for «the female sentence»

or a specifically female style of writing. The second involves a study of the

uses to which the linguistic gender system of different languages has been put

in literary works. In the former, gender is seen as a cultural property of the

author, in the latter, a morphological property of the text. A third perspective

on language and gender in literary texts is provided by translators and translation theorists. Translation theorists typically view a text as expressive of a particular time and place as well as being expressed in a particular language

The differences between source and target language may be accompanied

by differences in culture and period, thus translators often work with both

morphological gender and cultural gender. In this chapter, I will discuss men’s

and women’s style in literature as well as literary uses of linguistic gender.

I will also survey material on translation theory and what it offers to students

of gender.

2 Male and Female Literary Styles

The most prominent modern thinker to discuss the differences between male

and female literary styles is Virginia Woolf, writing at the beginning of the

twentieth century. In a review of Dorothy Richardson’s novel Revolving Lights

(1923), she describes the female sentence as «of a more elastic fibre than the

Linguistic Approaches to Gender 143

old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of

enveloping the vaguest shapes» (Woolf 1990b: 72). Assuming the traditional

literary sentence to be masculine, she argues that it simply does not fit women,

who need something less pompous and more elastic which they can bend in

different ways to suit their purpose. However, descriptions such as «more

elastic,» «too loose, too heavy, too pompous» are annoyingly vague and impossible

to quantify.

Woolf comes closest to giving a more specific evaluation of the female sentence

in a review of Dorothy Richardson’s The Tunnel (1919). Here she quotes

a passage of interior monologue as triumphantly escaping «the him and her»

and embedding the reader in the consciousness of the character: «It is like

dropping everything and walking backward to something you know is there.

However far you go out, you come back. I am back now» (Woolf 1990b: 71).

The exact relationship between the pronouns «you» and «I» in this passage is

unclear. They seem to refer to the same person, the self, but also to include the

reader. Because we do not know who «I» is, we have no referent for the

temporal or spatial indicators «now» or «come back» either. This slipperiness

of the referent seems to be what Woolf means by «elasticity.»

It is significant that Woolf chose the writings of Dorothy Richardson to

illustrate the female sentence, and specifically, a passage of interior monologue.

Interior monologue has the property of breaking down the boundaries between

character and narrator, so that the angle of focalization (who sees the action)

coincides with the narration of that action (who tells about the action). More

traditional methods of storytelling present a narrator, who recounts, but is

separate from the character whose point of view is related. It was one of the

projects of modernism (and both Richardson and Woolf are considered modernist)

to render the depths of modern experience in an appropriate form,

which meant breaking away from what they considered a smug, self-satisfied

Edwardian frame of social realism and an omniscient narrator. Although we

cannot speak of a «modernist sentence» as such, nevertheless, the other authors

usually included in the modernist canon such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, D. H.

Lawrence, Ezra Pound, as well as Woolf and Richardson, have all experimented

with sentence fragments, elimination of predicates, meandering syntax with

many clauses in apposition. These are the very elements which tend also to

typify interior monologue.

We would do best, therefore, to take Woolf’s description of the female sentence

as a literary rather than a linguistic commentary. As the stuffy Edwardian

era gave way to greater freedom for women, especially in the inter-war period,

so women novelists felt freer to express themselves in new ways. The literary

movement of modernism coincided with (and was also itself a product of) the

new social developments consequent upon the horror and paradoxical liberty

of the post-First World War period. Woolf’s unremitting self-consciousness is

shared by her contemporaries. Indeed her precursor, Henry James, writes of

his own awareness of a fragmented consciousness in a discussion of his novel

Portrait of a Lady (quoted in Millett 1951: v): «‹Place the centre of the subject in

144 Anna Livia

the woman’s own consciousness,› I said to myself, ‹and you get as interesting

and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish›.» The challenge of this «beautiful

difficulty» may be taken up by men or women authors.

Although Woolf’s discussion of feminine style is impressionistic and essentialist,

modern theorists have looked at more subtle differences in men’s and

women’s writing. Sara Mills examines features such as descriptions of characters

and self-descriptions in personal ads. In an analysis of a romance novel by

best-selling author Barbara Taylor Bradford, Mills demonstrates that the

actions performed by the female character are of a different quality from those

performed by the male (1995: 147-9). Parts of the woman’s body move without

her volition and she is represented as the passive recipient of the male’s

actions. The male acts while the female feels.

That male and female characters in fiction receive very different treatment is

not particularly controversial, but the claim that women’s writing differs in

some essential way from that of men is more tendentious. Quoting Woolf’s

categorization of the female sentence as loose and accretive. Mills proceeds to

look at some concrete examples to see what proof there may be of these differences.

She concludes that the concept of a female-authored sentence stems

from overgeneralization on the part of the literary critic rather than from any

inherent quality in the writing, but she demonstrates that a female (or male)

affiliation may be a motivating factor in certain texts (1995: 47-8). Comparing

descriptions of a landscape taken from two well-known novels, Anita Brookner’s

Hotel du Lac and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, she shows that the first is

conventionally feminine while the second is conventionally masculine (1995:

58-60). The features which mark the first as feminine include: abundant use of

epistemic modality («it was supposed,» «it could be seen»); grammatically

complex, meandering sentences with many clauses in apposition; and an impressionistic,

subjective vocabulary such as «stiffish,» «skimming,» and «area

of grey.» In contrast, the second landscape is masculine in style, featuring the

absence of an obvious authorial voice; an impersonal, objective tone; the

description of amenities rather than people: «Overlooking one of these valleys,

which is dominated by two volcanoes, lies, six thousand feet above sea-level,

the town of Quauhnahuac» (1995: 60).

Female affiliation, or a distinctly feminist style, is a third possibility, in which

the tone may be ironic or detached; female characters are presented as assertive

and self-confident, and the reader is addressed directly and drawn into the

text to share the narrator’s point of view. Mills quotes a passage from Ellen

Galford’s Moll Cutpurse to illustrate her point: «She had a voice like a bellowing

ox and a laugh like a love-sick lion» (1995: 60-1). This heroine is clearly very

different from the passive female, mere object of the male’s attention. The oxymoronic

(apparently contradictory) quality of the comparison between Moll

and a «love-sick lion» demonstrates the playful, almost parodic nature of the

description. A lion is usually a symbol of masculine strength, but this lion is in

love and therefore emotional. Moll thus combines a traditionally masculine

quality (strength) with a traditionally feminine quality (deep feeling).

Linguistic Approaches to Gender 145

For contemporary critics, it is possible to identify certain features such as

complex sentences with many subordinate clauses and a vocabulary that is

vague and impressionistic as typifying the «female sentence,» but there is no

essential link between the fact of being a woman and this type of writing. It is

a style which may be deliberately chosen by either sex. Indeed, if one considers

Marcel Proust’s sometimes page-length sentences, and his deliberations about

the exact quality of colors and smells, one is obliged to classify his style as

distinctly feminine:

Jamais je ne m’etais avise qu’elle pouvait avoir une figure rouge, une cravate mauve

comme Mme Sazerat, et I’ovale de ses joues me fit tellement souvenir de personnes que

j’avais vues a la maison que le soupqon m’effleura, pour se dissiper aussitot, que cette

dame, en son principe generateur, en toutes ses molecules n’etait peut-etre pas suhstantiellement

la duchesse de Guermantes, mais que son corps, ignorant du nom qu’on

lui appliquait, appartenait a un certain type feminin qui comprenait aussi des femmes de

medecins et de commerqants.

(I had never imagined that she could have a red face, a mauve scarf like Madame

Sazerat, and her oval cheeks reminded me so much of people I had seen at home

that I had the fleeting suspicion, a suspicion which evaporated immediately

afterwards, that this lady, in her generative principle, in each one of her molecules

was perhaps not in substance the Duchess of Guermantes but that her

body, ignorant of the name she had been given, belonged to a certain feminine

type which also included the wives of doctors and tradespeople.) (Proust 1954:


Proust’s sentence in the above extract is indisputably long, complex and

meandering, convoluted and concerned with female apparel and appearance –

all traits which have been classified «feminine.»

It is equally possible for a woman author to deliberately flout this convention

and write in a recognizably feminist style, or indeed a traditionally masculine

one. The writer James Tiptree Junior was declared by the science fiction author

Robert Silverberg to be a man in the introduction to one of her short story


For me there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t

think that a woman could have written the short stories of Hemingway, just as I

don’t think a man could have written the novels of Jane Austen, and in this way

I think that Tiptree is male. (Silverberg 1975: xii)

Tiptree was invited to participate in a symposium organized by the science

fiction magazine Khatru, the ensuing discussion being published in issues 3

and 4, but «his» style was felt to be so rebarbative that «he» was asked to

withdraw (Lefanu 1988: 105-6). At this point «he» revealed that «he» was

none other than Alice Sheldon, a renowned, and definitely female, author.

The ensuing discussion of each participant’s perceptions and misconceptions

turned out to be the most fruitful part of the forum.

146 Anna Livia

Novels may be identified as the work of a woman purely because of their

content. The British feminist publishing company Virago was about to publish

a novel by a young Indian woman, when they learned that the book had in

fact been written by a middle-aged English vicar. Upon hearing this. Virago

stopped publication. As a company that was set up specifically to publish

books by women, they were angry at being hoodwinked into accepting a

manuscript written by a man. Critics of Virago’s actions argued that it was the

submissive, downtrodden status of the heroine which had at first convinced

the editors that the novel was written by an Indian woman. This, they said,

was a form of racism as the editors assumed that a victim status was typical of

Asian women. Dinty Moore, a male author, was assumed to be female when

he published a short story in an anthology of reminiscences of a Catholic girls›

school. This also caused hot debate, though the anthology was not withdrawn

(Rubin 1975).

In a study on the micro-level of text-making (looking at the immediate

linguistic environment rather than the whole novel), Susan Ehrlich (1990) has

analyzed the use of reported speech and thought in canonical texts, particularly

the novels of Virginia Woolf. She compares Woolf’s style with that of

Henry James and Ernest Hemingway with regard to the types of cohesive

devices each uses (1990: 101-3). James depends heavily on what is known

as grammatical cohesion, or anaphora. This means he introduces a character,

and as soon as the reader has had the chance to form a mental image of this

character, he replaces the character’s name with a pronoun (this is, of course,

a very traditional strategy). Hemingway relies instead on lexical cohesion, or

a simple repetition of the character’s name. Woolf, in contrast, uses a much

greater variety of cohesive devices including grammatical and lexical cohesion

as well as semantic connectors, temporal linking, and progressive aspect. A

semantic connector tells the reader explicitly to connect two pieces of information

in a particular way: at the same time; in this way; in addition. Temporal

linking gives two clauses the same time reference and is a feature that often

involves hypothetical clauses which have no time reference of their own:

Edith would be sure to know; I would have arrived before the others. Progressive

aspect also links two propositions where one clause provides an anchor for

the other.

The advantage of research like Ehrlich’s is that it provides a concrete set of

criteria by which to distinguish different literary styles. We cannot assume

that all women will write like Woolf and all men like James or Hemingway,

but if we know that a researcher has based his or her claims entirely on a

study of canonical texts by male authors, we can predict that certain types of

data will be missing.

Studies of gender in literary texts have not been confined to stylistic analysis

but also include investigations into the representation of men and women and

what these literary models can tell us about conversational expectations in the

real world. In an insightful analysis of the preferred conversational strategies of

a husband and wife at loggerheads with each other, Robin Lakoff and Deborah

Linguistic Approaches to Gender 147

Tannen (1994) propose a new methodology for interpreting communication

between the sexes. They analyze the contrasting conversational strategies of

Johan and Marianne in Ingmar Bergman’s film. Scenes from a Marriage.

In this study, they introduce the concepts of pragmatic identity, pragmatic

synonymy, and pragmatic homonymy, which, as they demonstrate, replicate

the semantic relations of synonymy (having the same meaning but a different

form), homonymy (having the same form but a different meaning), and identity

(having the same form and the same meaning) (1994: 148-9). The analysis

shows that the two partners often use similar strategies to very different ends

and, an even more significant finding, that they also achieve the same end

(avoiding conflict) by very different strategies: excessive verbiage on Marianne’s

part and pompous pontification on Johan’s. Marianne prattles: «Here already!

You weren’t coming until tomorrow. What a lovely surprise. Are you hungry?

And me with my hair in curlers» (1994: 152); Johann drones: «I’d been out all

day at the institute with the zombie from the ministry. You wonder sometimes

who those idiots are who sit on the state moneybags» (1994: 154-5). Marianne’s

contribution is characterized by short sentences, abrupt changes of topic, and

a homely, domestic tone. Johan’s style is more cohesive and elaborate; it concerns

the world of work and is distanced from the current situation. Although

their styles are very different, they share the same goal: each is trying to avoid

a confrontation about their deteriorating marriage.

Justifying their choice of the constructed, non-spontaneous dialogue of a

film script, Lakoff and Tannen explain that «artificial dialog may represent an

internalized model. . . for the production of conversation – a competence model

that speakers have access to» (1994: 137). They later define this type of competence

as «the knowledge a speaker has at his/her disposal to determine what

s/he is reasonably expected to contribute, in terms of the implicitly internalized

assumptions made in her/his speech community» (1994: 139). Although

this type of analysis has not been widely imitated, it demonstrates the utility

of looking at constructed dialogue precisely because such pre-planned scripts

allow us to see what pragmatic roles have been internalized and what expectations

speakers have of patterns of speech appropriate for each sex.

In the French tradition, the ecriture feminine school, made famous by such

writers as Helene Cixous, Chantal Chawaf, and Annie Leclerc in the 1970s,

defines women’s writing as corporeal, tied to the workings of the body, and at

the same time multivalent and polysemic, defying syntactic norms. Chawaf

challenges the reader with the rhetorical question «I’aboutissement de Vecriture

n’est-il pas de prononcer le corps?» (1976: 18) («is not the aim of writing to

articulate the body?»), while Cixous exhorts, «Ecris! L’Ecriture est pour toi, tu es

pour toi, ton corps est toi, prends-le. [ .. . ] Les femmes sont corps. Plus corps done

plus ecriture» (Cixous and Clement 1975: 40, 48) («Write! Writing is for you, you

are for you, your body is yours, take it. [. . . ] Women are bodies. More body

so more writing»). The assertion that women are bodies is a little puzzling.

Are women, according to Cixous, more corporeal than men? How can writing

be corporeal except in a pen and ink sense?

148 Anna Livia

Ecriture feminine came out of the women’s liberation movement as a response

to the complaint that men’s writing was increasingly abstract and distanced

from material concerns. Where the prevailing ideology, which dominates most

text forms from highbrow novels to the language of advertising, tended to see

the female body as dirty, messy, shameful, and generally problematic, ecriture

feminine set out to celebrate this body in all its wet, bloody, sticky functions

and by-products from menarche to pregnancy and childbirth to menopause.

Where the subliminal message of mainstream, misogynist discourse was that

women were mired in their own physicality and therefore constitutionally

unable to produce great works of fiction, ecriture feminine saw men as cut off

from their own bodies, decentered and more interested in the play of signifiers

than in their real-world referents.

When we encounter sentences like the following from Cixous’s La Jeune nee

(The Newly Born Woman), «Alors elle, immobile et apparemment passive, livree aux

regards, qu’elle appelle, qu’elle prend» («Then she, immobile and apparently passive,

prey to glances, that she calls, that she takes») (Cixous and Clement 1975:

237), which has no main verb and two subordinate clauses, we may feel lost,

confused, or simply impatient. In order to appreciate the innovatory quality of

this style, which provides no object for usually transitive verbs (who does she

call? what does she take?), we need to feel the weight of the well-formed French

sentence and the desire of the feminist writer to wriggle out from under it at

all costs. For the French, their language is «la langue de Moliere» (the language

of Moliere), while English is «la langue de Shakespeare» (the language of

Shakespeare). The apex of literary achievement was apparently achieved many

centuries ago, and perfected by male writers. Ecriture feminine is a reaction to

this assumption of perfection and its attribution to men.

3 Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender

In my own work on the literary uses of linguistic gender, I have examined the

role of gender concord in the creation of particular stylistic effects such as

focalization (or point of view), empathy, and textual cohesion (what makes

everything fit together) (Livia 2000). Insofar as gender concord may be considered

a choice in a given language, and not a morphological or syntactic necessity,

it can be used as a stylistic device to express some aspect of character or

personality. While Judith Butler’s research on the performativity of gender

emphasizes the iterative and citational aspects of speech, greatly reducing the

role of speaker agency, my own work on the gender performances of characters

such as drag queens, transsexuals, and hermaphrodites, and those whose gender

is never given, demonstrates that observing (or ignoring) the requirements of

gender concord allows authors to express a wide range of positions.

In her pioneering work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that speakers, or

in her words «culturally intelligible subjects,» are the results, rather than the

Linguistic Approaches to Gender 149

creators, «of a rule-bound discourse that inserts itself into the pervasive and

mundane signifying acts of linguistic life» (1990: 145). Although her prose is a

little dense, what this means in simple terms is that she sees individual speakers

as being formed by the discourse they use. This discourse is «performative»

because it is by uttering (or performing) it that speakers, obligatorily, gender

themselves. They are compelled by the syntactic structure and vocabulary

available to position themselves only in certain restricted ways with regard to

gender, that is, the traditional roles of «men» and «women.» They are not free

to take up any gender stance they like, for this would not be «culturally intelligible.»

Although she does suggest three linguistic strategies by which a speaker

can undermine the system (parody, subversion, and fragmentation), on the

whole Butler sees agency as severely curtailed, limited merely to «variations

on repetition.» For her, it is the gender norms themselves which provide the

lynchpins keeping «man» and «woman» in their place. She argues that «the loss

of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations,

destabilizing substantive identity, depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory

heterosexuality of their cultural protagonists» (1990: 146). Once these

stabilizing norms have been lost, other possibilities become available, moving

beyond the heteronormative lynchpins «man» and «woman.»

This view of gender as performative has become a key tenet of queer theory,

which investigates and analyzes «the naturalizing narratives of compulsory

heterosexuality» and the various sexually liminal figures who do not fit into this

traditional framework. Arguing against the linguistic determinism of Butler’s

stance, I refute the claim that gender, and particularly linguistic gender, is rigidly

confining and explore the different messages it can convey. My research on a

corpus of literary texts in both English and French, presented in Pronoun Envy

(2000), shows that the realm of what is «culturally intelligible» is much wider

and more diverse than queer theorists have supposed and that the traditional

gender norms are often used as a foil against which more experimental positions

are understood.

Anne Garreta, writing in French, and Maureen Duffy, Sarah Caudwell, and

Jeanette Winterson, writing in English, have each created characters without

gender in at least one of their works. Nowhere in these novels is there any

grammatical clue as to whether the main protagonists are male or female. In

French this is a particularly difficult feat, for gender is usually conveyed not

only by the third-person pronouns il/elle, ils/elles (like the English he/she and

unlike English they) but also in adjectives and past participles. Thus in a sentence

of five words like la vieille femme est assise («the old woman sat down»),

the gender of the person sitting is conveyed four times: in the definite determiner

la, in the form of the adjective vieille, in the lexical item femme, and in the

form of the adjective assise. In English, the difficulty is decreased by the fact

that morphological (or linguistic) gender is limited to the distinction between

he/she, his/her, his/hers.

Garreta’s novel Sphinx features both a genderless narrator and his or her

genderless beloved. The novel is written in the first-person singular je («I»),

150 Anna Livia

which is gender-neutral. Thus when the narrator describes his or her own

actions, the author can avoid giving gender information by using only genderneutral

adjectives and tenses, like the passe simple rather than the passe compose.

However, gender-neutral adjectives and expressions tend to be less frequently

used than those which agree with the gender of the noun. The use of the passe

simple rather than the more common passe compose also introduces a literary,

almost anachronistic element to the text. Since the novel recounts how a White

Parisian theology student becomes a disc jockey in a seedy bar and falls in

love with a Black American disco dancer, the use of markedly literary tenses

and descriptive expressions seems somewhat out of place. It is as though the

theology student never really left the seminary.

When the narrator describes the actions and attributes of the beloved, the

situation becomes even more complex and the language somewhat convoluted,

for here the use of pronouns must be avoided as well. The beloved can

never simply be referred to as il (he) or elle (she) and various techniques are

introduced to avoid this. Often the proper name. A***, is repeated. This repetition

makes it appear that a new character is being introduced, so that A***

(already confined to an initial and a string of asterisks) never becomes a familiar

figure, but always seems a little strange and distant.

Another technique used by the author to avoid conveying A***’s gender is

to describe A***’s body parts rather than the person himself/herself. Instead of

the more straightforward «Elle az^ait les hanches musculeuses, les cheveux rases

et le visage ainsi rendu a sa pure nudite» («she had muscular hips, a shaven head

and her face was thus returned to its pure, bare state»), for example, the

author is obliged to avoid mention of gender by describing A***’s body in the

following, far more distanced and depersonalized way: «Le modele musculeux

de ses hanches . . .ses cheveux rases . . . le visage ainsi rendu a sa pure nudite» («the

muscular moulding of her/his hips . . . her/his shaven hair . . . the face thus

restored to its naked purity») (1986: 27). Because A*** is systematically referred

to by a proper name, or in terms of parts of the body rather than the whole,

this character seems fragmented and static.

Clearly, a text which avoids gender agreement produces a very different

effect from one which follows a more orthodox pattern of reference. But it is

perfectly possible to create a whole novel on this basis, as Garreta’s achievement

has shown. One could argue that the style of Sphinx, whether or not it

was initially imposed by the decision to avoid gender, suits the plot of the

novel admirably. Given the different worlds the narrator and the beloved

inhabited prior to their meeting, and the enormous social distance between

them, one a White Parisian intellectual, the other a Black dancer from Harlem,

the presentation of A*** as strange, constantly unfamiliar, and composed of a

series of bodily fragments, creates an exoticism which well suits the story of

infatuation, incomprehension, and loss.

Maureen Duffy’s novel Love Child tells the story of the adolescent Kit and

his/her murderous jealousy for Ajax, his/her father’s secretary whom he/she

believes to be his/her mother’s lover. (In the third person, gender-neutral

Linguistic Approaches to Gender 151

pronominal reference can become extremely clumsy.) While the mother and

father are clearly gendered, Duffy gives no clue as to Kit or Ajax’s gender. The

effect of this is rather different for each character since Kit, as first-person

narrator, can use the pronoun «I,» while Ajax is never referred to by pronoun.

In this Love Child resembles Sphinx. A character referred to without pronouns

is simultaneously less empathic and less of a coherent whole. Empathy for a

character may be gauged by the types of reference used for that character.

Repetition of the proper name and the use of different lexical items such as

«my father’s secretary,» «my mother’s lover» create the least empathy, while

pronouns and ellipsis create the most. Use of pronouns and ellipsis presuppose

that the reader is already familiar with the referent and can readily access it,

given minimal or zero prompts. In a similar pattern, the linguistic device which

creates the strongest cohesive link is ellipsis followed by pronominalization. If

the proper name is simply repeated, there is no necessary link forged between

each of its appearances. In contrast, in the following sentence: «Ajax spieled,

pattered, manipulated unseen puppets, drew scenes and characters» (1994: 50),

in order to understand that Ajax is the subject not only of «spieled,» but also

of «pattered,» «manipulated,» and «drew,» the reader must connect the four

verbs, and this connection creates a strongly cohesive text.

While Kit comes across as a lonely, angry, jealous teenager who causes the

death of his/her mother’s lover, Ajax (like A***) seems not quite real, a mere

collection of qualities and attributes, not someone who acts on his/her own

behalf. We never find out if Kit is an adolescent girl witnessing a lesbian affair;

a boy jealous of his mother’s male suitor; a boy watching his mother flirt with

another woman; or a girl who is aware of her mother’s heterosexual conquests.

Each interpretation gives very different readings to the text. Nevertheless,

Kit is a character for whom the reader can feel some emotional connection

while Ajax is not. It is the presence or absence of pronouns which creates this

contrast, not information about gender, since neither character is gendered.

Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body and Sarah Caudwell’s mysteries

revolve around a genderless narrator, but all third-person characters are

assigned traditional gender markers; these novels do not, therefore, offer

the same degree of complexity as Duffy’s or Garreta’s.

Science fiction authors, like Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy, have used

the possibilities offered by new worlds and new biologies to invent imaginary

communities whose gender positions are very different from those of twentiethcentury

Earth. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin introduces the ambisexual

Gethenians whose gender status changes at different phases of their life-cycle.

During most of the year their bodies are asexual, but when they enter their

mating phase (called kemmer) they develop either male or female reproductive

organs. They never know in advance which organs will develop and their

gender may change from one period of kemmer to another. For her part, Piercy

has experimented with Utopian worlds in which gender is so insignificant

that it is no longer encoded in the grammar. In the futuristic community of

Mattapoisett, described in Woman on the Edge of Time, people are anatomically

152 Anna Livia

male or female, but this distinction is almost entirely irrelevant in determining

their social roles. To demonstrate the effect this egalitarianism has on the

language they speak, Piercy has invented the pronouns person and per in place

of he/she and his/her/hers. These neologisms are used to describe the futuristic

characters, in contrast with the twentieth-century characters.

Monique Wittig, writing in French, has experimented with a different aspect

of the linguistic gender system in each one of her works. In her first novel,

VOpoponax (1966), she uses on as the voice of the narrator, recounting the daily

lives and relationships among a group of young schoolchildren in a small

village in eastern France. Traditional literary texts in French are narrated

either in the first-person je or in the third-person il or elle. On is grammatically

a third-person singular pronoun which, unlike il/elle, is not marked for gender.

Furthermore, it may be used with the meaning of I, we (inclusive, i.e. I and

you, or exclusive, i.e. I and a third party); «you» (singular or plural); «he» or

«she» or «they» (masculine or feminine). This means that on is both remarkably

flexible to manipulate and remarkably slippery in meaning. Wittig chose

it because it did not encode gender information, but its effect is to neutralize

other oppositions as well.

On refers most often to the narrator, a little girl called Catherine Legrand,

but it is not always clear from the immediate context when it refers exclusively

to Catherine, when it also refers to the other children who are all participating

in the same actions and share the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, and when

it includes not only other children but adults as well. In one particularly memorable

scene, a new child arrives at school and is instantly separated from the

other children, sitting on a bench by herself. Subsequently, in a sequence of

increasing violence, she is searched for lice, then beaten on the head by hand

and then with rulers. Who performs each of these acts? It must be the teacher

who seats the girl apart from the others, but does she also participate in, or

even instigate, searching for lice? Wittig states that she uses on to «universalize»

a very specific and somewhat unusual point of view: that of a group of young

children. In fact on does far more than this. Because of its many possible

meanings, it forces the reader to pay close attention not only to assumptions

about gender, but also to assumptions about age appropriateness and common


In Les Guerilleres (1969), Wittig uses the feminine plural elles to tell the story

of a group of women warriors who live a separatist lifestyle away from men.

This feminine plural is less common than the feminine singular elle, the masculine

plural ils, and the masculine singular il, for the following grammatical

reasons. II can refer either to an animate entity such as a person (Eric arrive, il

aime le chocolat, «Eric is coming, he likes chocolate»); to an inanimate object (le

clou ma gri^, il m’afait de la peine, «the nail scratched me, it hurt me»); or to an

abstract idea (le theoreme est trop abstrait, il est mat explique, «the theorem is too

abstract, it is ill-explained»). II is also used as a «dummy morpheme» or verb

marker in meteorological and modal expressions such as il faut venir («it is

necessary to come,» i.e. you must come); il pleut («it is raining»). Elle, in contrast.

Linguistic Approaches to Gender 153

refers to a person, inanimate object, or abstract idea, but is never used in

modal or meteorological expressions. The plural ils refers to people, inanimate

objects, abstract ideas, or a combination of these, as does elles. However, ils is

also used for a combination of grammatically masculine and feminine items,

while elles is restricted to feminine items only.

As well as these grammatical reasons for the more limited use of elles, the

French psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray (1987: 81-123) has found that people talk

more rarely about groups of women than about men, mixed groups, or singular

subjects. When asked to finish sample sentences, her respondents were far

more likely to speak of singular, masculine referents than of anyone else.

Although il/elle and ils/elles appear to have contrasting but equal functions in

the pronominal system, their frequency of use is actually steeply graded from

il to ils to elle to elles. A novel in which the least favored pronoun among the

third-person set, elles, is used as the main reference point of narration is a

radical innovation.

For the narrator of Le Corps lesbien («The Lesbian Body,» 1973), Wittig has

invented the pronoun J/e, a divided I who describes and interacts with another

woman. This «barred» spelling is repeated throughout the first-person possessive

paradigm: me is spelled m/e, ma; m/a, mon; m/on, and moi; m/oi. Although,

as we have seen, je is non-gendered, it is clear in The Lesbian Body that the

narrator is a woman since there are frequent, lyrical descriptions of specifically

female body parts such as clitoris, labia, vagina.

As for exactly what this divided J/e represents, Wittig herself has provided

two, rather different explanations. In the «Author’s Note» to the English translation

of 1975, Wittig states thatJe, as a feminine subject, is obliged to force her

way into language since what is human is, grammatically, masculine, as elle

and elles are subsumed under il and ils. The female writer must use a language

which is structured to erase her (as elle is erased in il). Wittig explains that the

bar through the J/e is intended as a visual reminder of women’s alienation

from (by and within) language. Ten years later, however, Wittig claims: «the

bar in the J/e of the Lesbian Body is a sign of excess. A sign that helps to

imagine an excess of I, an I exalted.» This new explanation suggests that, far

from signaling the difficulty for women of taking up the subject position in a

linguistic structure in which the masculine is both the unmarked and the

universal term, the bar through the j/e has the positive value of an exuberance

so powerful it is «like a lava flow that nothing can stop» (ibid.). Within ten

years, J/e has evolved from a mark of alienation to a mark of exuberance.

Members of liminal communities, such as hermaphrodites, transsexuals, drag

queens and drag kings, who do not fit easily into the existing bipartite gender

positions, often use the linguistic gender system to rather different effect from

its traditional function. Drag queens (gay men who wear stereotypically feminine

clothing and use hyper-feminine mannerisms) and drag kings (lesbians who

wear stereotypically masculine clothing and use hyper-masculine mannerisms)

often cross-express, using the pronouns which traditionally refer to the opposite

sex. Thus a drag queen might refer to another drag queen as her and speak

154 Anna Livia

about getting her periods, engaging in a catfight, or putting on her make-up. A

drag king might speak about his butch brothers, getting an erection, or going

home to his wife.

In a study I carried out on the use of linguistic gender by male to female

transsexuals writing in French, I found that although all the authors stated

that they had always felt they were women, in fact they alternated between

masculine and feminine grammatical agreement throughout their autobiographies

(Livia 2000: 168-76). Masculine agreement could indicate variously a

sense of belonging with other males, the gender other people ascribed to them,

or a feeling of power and superiority. Feminine agreement indicated the gender

they felt most comfortable in, isolation and alienation, or a triumphant affirmation.

There was no simple, one-to-one alignment of masculine pronouns

with the rejected gender and feminine pronouns with the desired gender.

When we turn to the descriptions of hermaphrodites in literary texts, we

find that the situation is even more complex. Possessing the sexual organs of

both sexes, hermaphrodites tend to vary in self-presentation far more than the

transsexuals I studied. Feelings of solidarity, isolation, alienation, success, failure,

are all encoded in switches from one gender to another. Indeed, the switch

may be made from one sentence to another with no attempt to naturalize it, or

it may be presented as a positive sign of the fluidity of gender.

4 Gender and Translation

Where the two types of analysis come together (discussion of writing styles, and

discussion of uses of linguistic gender) is in investigations of gender and translation,

a field in which both morphological gender and cultural gender are

highly relevant. Translators work both as interpreters of the original text and,

often, as guides to the culture which produced the text. If the social expectations

of gender in the target culture are very different from those of the source culture,

they need to deal with this anomaly. Similarly, if the languages encode gender

in very different ways, they need to devise a system to encompass the differences.

In their dual role as linguistic interpreters and cultural guides, translators

must decide what to naturalize, what to explain, and what to exoticize.

Studying the role gender plays in translation. Sherry Simon observes that

since as early as the seventeenth century translations themselves have been

seen as belles infideles (beautiful but unfaithful) because, like women, they can

be either beautiful or faithful, but not both (1996: 10-11). Many of the metaphors

for the act or process of translation are highly sexed, and indeed, heterosexed.

One dominant model views translation as a power struggle between author

and translator (both male) over the text (female). In this model, the translator

must wrest the text away from the original author, like a son growing up to

rival his father. George Steiner, himself a prominent translator, describes the

translator as penetrating and capturing the text in a manner very similar to

Linguistic Approaches to Gender 155

erotic possession (1975). Lori Chamberlain, another translation theorist, quotes

Thomas Drant, the sixteenth-century translator of Horace, who claims: «[I have]

done as the people of God were commanded to do with their captive women:

I have shaved off his hair and pared off his nails» (1992: 61-2). For Drant, the

original text must be utterly enslaved and deprived of its foreignness, or, in

his own words, «Englished.» In another model, the original author becomes the

translator’s mistress whose hidden charms must be revealed and whose blemishes

must be improved. In yet another view, the translator is a submissive,

subjugated, female, alienated, absorbed, ravished, and dispossessed, entirely

taken over by the author (Chamberlain 1992: 57-66). Although the imagined

relationships that prevail among author, text, and translator vary widely, at

the core is the sense that translation is a sexual act.

Given this intense gendering of the process itself, it is hardly surprising that

when it comes to linguistic gender in the original text, the problems posed

are complex and sometimes unanswerable. The novels and poetry of French

Canadian feminist writers such as Nicole Brossard and Louky Bersianik are

characterized by rich alliteration, plays on words, and the creation of portmanteau

words. The title of Brossard’s novel L‹Amer, for example, is a portmanteau

word containing three others: la mer («the sea»), la mere («the mother»),

and amere («bitter»). Amer is the masculine form of the adjective, while amere

with a grave accent and a terminal –e is the feminine form. In itself amer is a

neologism invented by Brossard. Since the English words sea, mother, and

bitter do not contain the same phonemes as the French words, the neatness of

the alliteration is necessarily lost. The gender play is also lost in English since

the adjective bitter has only one form. Brossard’s translator, Barbara Godard,

decided to use a very elaborate graphic representation for the translated title,

composed of three distinct phrases: The Sea Our Mother, Sea (S)mothers, and

(S)our Mothers, all twined around a large S. The English title can therefore

read either These Our Mothers or These Sour Mothers (Simon 1996: 14). This is an

elegant rendition of the original French, but it does not address the practical

problem of how librarians and book catalogues are to refer to the novel.

In my own translation of Lucie Delarue-Mardrus› I’Ange et les Peruers («The

Angel and the Perverts,» Livia 1995), I had to tackle the question of how to

refer to the central character who is a hermaphrodite. Here both linguistic and

cultural gender are at issue. Delarue-Mardrus describes Mario (or Marion, in

her female persona), the main protagonist, as alternately masculine and feminine.

The changes in gender concord in the original French are intended to

produce a sense of shock, requiring the reader to work out how the grammatical

system relates to Mario/n’s personality and mental state. The first chapter

introduces us to the young boy and his childhood in a glacial chateau in

Normandy. Here masculine pronouns and concord are used: II avait toujours

ete seul au monde («he had always been alone in the world»; Delarue-Mardrus

1930: 19). The second chapter begins in the bedroom of a rich society woman

in an upper-middle-class suburb of Paris. In this section, Marion is described

in the feminine: Elle n’aime rien ni personne («She loves nothing and no-one»;

156 Anna Livia

Delarue-Mardrus 1930: 21). There is no obvious connection between the il of

the first chapter and the elle of the second. Furthermore, both place and social

setting have changed, from Normandy to Paris, and from an old, lonely castle

to a gossipy boudoir. By witholding any explicit link, Delarue-Mardrus forces

readers to make the connection themselves between Mario(n)’s male and female

personae. In this way, they are also implicated in his/her change of gender.

Occasionally, Delarue-Mardrus shocks the reader by referring to Mario/n in

the masculine and then immediately afterwards in the feminine, without providing

any intervening material or a change of context to make this seem more

natural. The River Seine provides a geographical divide between Mario’s

bachelor garret and Marion’s more luxurious rooms. In one scene we watch

as Mario/n crosses the river and moves from one personality to the other: La

voila chez elle. Le voila chez lui («She was home. He was home»; Delarue-Mardrus

1930: 38). For a translator the lack of gender concord in English poses a problem.

While the pronouns la and le may easily and effectively be translated as

«she» and «he,» their grammatical connection to the expressions chez elle («at

her house») and chez lui («at his house») are harder to convey. «There she was

at her house» and «there he was at his house» are more faithful translations

than «she was home,» «he was home,» and they retain the naturalizing effect

of grammatical necessity. They sound rather stilted in English, however.

In the memoirs of a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite, Herculine Barbin,

recently rediscovered and annotated by Michel Foucault (1980), the narrator’s

unusual gender status is conveyed to the reader on the first page. Barbin

begins her self-description in the masculine: soucieux et reveur («anxious and

dreamy»), but ends in the feminine: fetais froide timide («I was cold, shy»;

Barbin 1978: 9). By this movement from masculine concord in the adjective

soucieux to feminine concord in the adjective froide in the next sentence, Barbin

gets immediately to the crux of the matter. In contrast, in the English translation

it is not until page 58 that reference is made to the grammatical ambiguity

of Herculine’s identity: «She took pleasure in using masculine qualifiers for

me, qualifiers which would later suit my official status.» The expression

«using masculine qualifiers» is strangely formal, even learned, and stands

out in this plaintive, simply stated autobiography.

5 Implications

We have seen that although many prominent writers have set out to discover the

differences between men’s and women’s sentences, following in the footsteps

of Virginia Woolf at the beginning of the twentieth century, no convincing

linguistic evidence has yet been provided to indicate the stylistic characteristics

of each. Instead, we have found that there are conventions of masculine and

feminine style which any sophisticated writer, whether male or female, can


Linguistic Approaches to Gender 157

When we turned to look at linguistic gender, we saw that far from being a

tyrannical system which forces speakers to follow a rigid dualistic structure, it

actually provides means by which speakers may create alternative, oppositional,

or conventional identities. In the realm of science fiction, authors have created

neologistic, non-gendered pronouns to speak of egalitarian Utopias, supplementing

the existing system, which is retained for more traditional worlds.

Authors have experimented with non-gendered protagonists in both the first

and the third person. Although these literary experiments have an effect on

our reading of the novel, it is the lack of pronominal reference, not the lack of

gender markers per se, which causes disturbance.

Finally, in our discussion of the role of the translator and the metaphors used

for the process of translation, we observed that while many different metaphors

exist for the act itself, the dominant metaphors place the translator in a sexual

role in relation to the text and the author. Frequently, when translating from a

language in which there are many linguistic gender markers into a language

which has fewer, either gender information is lost, or it is overstated, overtly

asserted where in the original it is more subtly presupposed.

This research on linguistic approaches to gender in literature demonstrates

the utility for students of gender in society at large to investigate the uses to

which gender may be put in the unspontaneous, carefully planned discourse

of fiction. It reveals not what native speakers naturally do, but what they

are able to understand and the inventions and models that influence their



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