A discursive approach to structural gender linguistics

theoretical and methodological considerations


  • Heiko Motschenbacher Goethe-University




structural gender linguistics, language and gender theories, poststructuralist approach, discourse, discursive materialisation, de-essentialisation, language policy


This article addresses the current marginalisation of structural gender linguistics within the field of language and gender. Traditional, structuralist-minded approaches to language and gender are briefly reviewed, and it is argued that a revitalisation of the study of gendered language structures can only be achieved when such analyses reflect recent theoretical developments within the field. More specifically, this necessitates a reconceptualisation of (gendered) language structures in the light of discursive or poststructuralist theories, namely as the result of processes of discursive materialisation in language use. Also discussed at a methodological level is how de-essentialisation as a central driving force of discursive approaches to language and gender can be operationalised in various types of structural linguistic analysis. Four basic dimensions of deessentialisation are distinguished for this purpose: first, the contrastive linguistic dimension (de-essentialisation across languages); second, the historical linguistic dimension (de-essentialisation across time periods); third, the lexicogrammatical dimension (de-essentialisation across linguistic gender categories); and fourth, the pragmatic dimension (de-essentialisation across usage contexts). A contrastive sample analysis of the complexities of pronominalisation in English and German complements the discussion.

Author Biography

Heiko Motschenbacher, Goethe-University

Heiko Motschenbacher completed his PhD and postdoc research (Habilitation) at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His research focuses on aspects such as English as a lingua franca, language, Europeanness and nationalism, corpus linguistics, (critical) discourse analysis, inclusion in foreign language teaching and language, gender and sexuality at all linguistic levels. He was temporary professor of English Linguistics at the Universities of Bayreuth, Siegen, Braunschweig and Mainz and is initiator and co-editor of the Journal of Language and Sexuality (John Benjamins). Beyond the titles mentioned in the references below, his recent publications include the monographs New Perspectives on English as a European Lingua Franca (John Benjamins, 2013), Language, Normativity and Europeanisation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and a special issue of the journal Discourse & Society on ‘Queer Linguistic Approaches to Discourse’ (Sage, 2013; with Martin Stegu).


Baker, P. (2010) Will Ms ever be as frequent as Mr? A corpus-based comparison of gendered terms across four diachronic corpora of British English. Gender and Language 4(1): 125–49. http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/genl.v4i1.125

Baker, P. (2015) Two hundred years of the American man. In T. M. Milani (ed.) Language and Masculinities: Performances, Intersections, Dislocations 34–52. New York: Routledge.

Baron, D. (1986) Grammar and Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Barrett, R. (2002) Is queer theory important for sociolinguistic theory? In K. Campbell-Kibler, R. J. Podesva, S. J. Roberts and A. Wong (eds) Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice 25–43. Stanford, CA: CSLI.

Bing, J. M. and Bergvall, V. L. (1996) The question of questions: beyond binary thinking. In V. L. Bergvall, J. M. Bing and A. F. Freed (eds) Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice 1–30. London: Longman.

Bodine, A. (1975) Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular ‘they’, sex-indefinite ‘he’, and ‘he or she’. Language in Society 4(2): 129–46. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0047404500004607

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1997) Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge.

Bybee, J. and Hopper, P. (2001) Introduction to frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure. In J. Bybee and P. Hopper (eds) Frequency and the Emergence of Linguistic Structure 1–24. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/tsl.45.01byb

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Cralley, E. L. and Ruscher, J. B. (2005) Lady, girl, female, or woman: sexism and cognitive busyness predict use of gender-biased nouns. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 24 (3): 300–14. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0261927X05278391

Davis, J. L., Zimman, L. and Raclaw, J. (2014) Opposites attract: retheorizing binaries in language, gender, and sexuality. In L. Zimman, J. L. Davis and J. Raclaw (eds) Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality 1–12. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199937295.003.0001

Derrida, J. (1988) Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Ehrlich, S. and King, R. (1992) Gender-based language reform and the social construction of meaning. Discourse & Society 3(2): 151–66. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0957926592003002002

Ehrlich, S., Meyerhoff, M. and Holmes, J. (eds) (2014) The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9781118584248

Hall, K. (2013) ‘It’s a hijra!’ Queer linguistics revisited. Discourse & Society 24(5): 634–42. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0957926513490321

Hall, K. and Bucholtz, M. (eds) (1995) Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge.

Hardman, M. J. (1999) Why we should say ‘women and men’ until it doesn’t matter any more. Women and Language 22(1): 1–2.

Harrington, K., Litosseliti, L., Sauntson, H. and Sunderland, J. (eds) (2008) Gender and Language Research Methodologies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harvey, K. (2002) Camp talk and citationality. A queer take on ‘authentic’ and ‘represented’ utterance. Journal of Pragmatics 34(9): 1145–65. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0378-2166(01)00058-3

Hellinger, M. (2006) Sexist language. In E. K. Brown (ed.) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics: Volume XI 265–72. Amsterdam: Elsevier. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-044854-2/01476-0

Hellinger, M. (2011) Guidelines for non-discriminatory language use. In R. Wodak, B. Johnstone and P. Kerswill (eds) The Sage Handbook of Sociolinguistics 565–82. London: Sage. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446200957.n38

Hellinger, M. and Bußmann, H. (2001) Gender across languages: the linguistic representation of women and men. In M. Hellinger and H. Bußmann (eds) Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men, Volume I 1–25. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/impact.9.05hel

Hellinger, M. and Bußmann, H. (eds) (2001–3) Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men, Volumes I–III. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hellinger, M. and Motschenbacher, H. (eds) (2015) Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men, Volume IV. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/impact.36

Hellinger, M. and Pauwels, A. (2007) Language and sexism. In M. Hellinger and A. Pauwels (eds) Handbook of Language and Communication: Diversity and Change 651–84. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/9783110198539

Hollmann, W. B. (2009) Semantic change. In J. Culpeper, F. Katamba, P. Kerswill, R. Wodak and T. McEnery (eds) English Language: Description, Variation and Context 301–13. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Holmes, J. and Meyerhoff, M. (eds) (2003) The Handbook of Language and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9780470756942

Hopper, P. J. (1998) Emergent grammar. In Michael Tomasello (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure 155–75. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hornscheidt, A. L. (2011) Feminist language politics in Europe. In B. Kortmann and J. van der Auwera (eds) The Languages and Linguistics of Europe: A Comprehensive Guide 575–90. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/9783110220261.575

Johnsen, O. R. (2008) ‘He’s a big old girl!’ Negotiation by gender inversion in gay men's speech. Journal of Homosexuality 54(1–2): 150–68. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00918360801952044

Lakoff, R. (1975) Language and Woman’s Place. New York: Harper & Row.

Leap, W. L. (2015) Review of The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality, eds Susan Ehrlich, Miriam Meyerhoff and Janet Holmes. Journal of Language and Sexuality 4(1): 174–82. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/jls.4.1.06lea

Livia, A. and Hall, K. (1997) ‘It’s a girl!’ Bringing performativity back to linguistics. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 3–18. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maltz, D. N. and Borker, R. A. (1982) A cultural approach to male–female miscommunication. In J. J. Gumperz (ed.) Language and Social Identity 195–216. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McConnell-Ginet, S. (2003) What’s in a name? Social labeling and gender practices. In Holmes and Meyerhoff (2003): 69–97. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9780470756942.ch3

Mills, S. (2004) Third wave feminist linguistics and the analysis of sexism. Discourse Analysis Online 2. Retrieved on 3 June 2016 from http://extra.shu.ac.uk/daol/articles/open/2003/001/mills2003001.html.

Mills, S. (2008) Language and Sexism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511755033

Motschenbacher, H. (2008) Structural linguistic gender categories and discursive materialization: a deconstructionist analysis. Indiana University Working Papers in Linguistics 8(3): 21–46.

Motschenbacher, H. (2010a) Language, Gender and Sexual Identity: Poststructuralist Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/impact.29

Motschenbacher, H. (2010b) Female-as-norm (FAN): a typology of female and feminine generics. In M. Bieswanger, H. Motschenbacher and S. Mühleisen (eds) Language in its Socio-Cultural Context: New Explorations in Gendered, Global and Media Uses 35–67. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Motschenbacher, H. (2012) An Interdisciplinary Bibliography on Language, Gender and Sexuality (2000–2011). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/z.177

Motschenbacher, H. (2013) Gentlemen before ladies? A corpus-based study of conjunct order in personal binomials. Journal of English Linguistics 41(3): 212–42. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0075424213489993

Motschenbacher, H. (2014) Grammatical gender as a challenge for language policy: the (im)possibility of non-heteronormative language use in German versus English. Language Policy 13(3): 243–61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10993-013-9300-0

Motschenbacher, H. (2015) Some new perspectives on gendered language structures. In M. Hellinger and H. Motschenbacher (eds) Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men, Volume IV 27–48. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/impact.36.02mot

Motschenbacher, H. (2016) A poststructuralist approach to structural gender linguistics: Initial considerations. In J. Abbou and F. Baider (eds) Gender and the Periphery: Grammatical and Social Gender from the Margins 65–88. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nakassis, C. V. (2013) Citation and citationality. Signs and Society 1(1): 51–77. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/670165

Norri, J. (1998) Gender-referential shifts in English. English Studies 79(3): 270–87. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00138389808599131

Pauwels, A. (2003) Linguistic sexism and feminist linguistic activism. In Holmes and Meyerhoff (2003): 550–70. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9780470756942.ch24

Queen, R. (2006) Heterosexism and/in language. In E. K. Brown (ed.) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics: Volume V 289–92. Amsterdam: Elsevier. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-044854-2/01477-2

Sarrasin, O., Gabriel, U. and Gygax, P. (2012) Sexism and attitudes toward gender-neutral language: the case of English, French, and German. Swiss Journal of Psychology 71(3): 113–24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1024/1421-0185/a000078

Schulz, M. R. (1975) The semantic derogation of woman. In B. Thorne and N. Henley (eds) Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance 64–75. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Silverstein, M. (2005) Axes of evals: token versus type interdiscursivity. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15 (1): 6–22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/jlin.2005.15.1.6

Spender, D. (1980) Man Made Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tannen, D. (1990) You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: William Morrow.

Thorne, B., Kramarae, C. and Henley, N. (eds) (1983) Language, Gender and Society. Rowley: Newbury House.



How to Cite

Motschenbacher, H. (2016). A discursive approach to structural gender linguistics: theoretical and methodological considerations. Gender and Language, 10(2), 149–169. https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.v10i2.25525