Reviewed by Alexander Onysko, University of Innsbruck
Doleschal’s book on gender in Russian is a welcome addition to research on grammatical gender. The book starts out with a brief overview of typological characteristics of gender languages before focusing on established views of the formal aspects of gender in Russian and on how gender agreement is realized in Russian. What makes D’s book particularly valuable is its functional-cognitive approach to investigating gender, which is laid out in the two most substantial chapters (4 and 5).
In line with proponents of associative networks (cf. Phonology and language use, by Joan Bybee, Cambridge University Press, 2003), D’s explanation of gender assignment is based on a postulate of morphological and semantic associative schemas that activate gender categories in the mind of a speaker. In her model, assignment rules are translated into associative schemas, and gender is assigned according to the overall associative strength of activated schemas. This provides an alternative to the problem of rule ordering and hierarchies of semantic and morphological rules (cf. Gender, by Greville Corbett, Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Hybrid nouns in Russian (e.g. nouns that are morphologically feminine but semantically male) give rise to gender-resolution strategies, which, in D’s model, show increased associative strength following the natural gender of the reference object. Her data specifically shows a predilection for the feminine gender if reference is highly personal and specific. General personal reference favors the selection of masculine gender, while impersonal general reference tends to be marked with neuter gender.
As far as the occurrence of gender in natural languages is concerned, D emphasizes the function of gender as a cognitive aid to classification and thus to structuring the mental lexicon. Furthermore, gender primarily serves the function of establishing reference in discourse. Thus, gender-specific forms alleviate the cognitive load of the recognition of information units by establishing anaphoric and cataphoric links to nominal referents.
Throughout her book, D supports her argumentation with excerpts from Russian literature and with data from questionnaire-based elicitations. While the various sources substantiate her analysis of the reasons for gender assignment and of the role of gender in discourse, the empirical evidence would need a broader quantitative basis to allow drawing general conclusions.
Overall, D’s study is a comprehensive account of gender in Russian, the motivations for its assignment, and to a lesser extent its functions in discourse. Chs. 1 to 3 offer a general picture drawing from established positions of gender research (specifically from Corbett 1991). Chs. 4 and 5 include the author’s approach to modeling gender assignment and to explaining the discourse functions of gender in Russian. The major contribution of D’s book lies in the application of associative schemas as factors of gender assignment. She answers the interesting questions of why gender systems that occur in language do not venture farther than the immediate functional explanation of cognitive categorization, and of how they are involved in the establishment and marking of reference in discourse.