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Essay Humanities Nonfiction Social Sciences Theory

The linguistic expression of gender identity: Albania’s “sworn virgins”

By Carly Dickerson, 2012

This article focuses on the linguistic aspects of the construction of masculine identities by the burrneshat (also known as “sworn virgins”) of northern Albania: biological females who have become “social men”. Unlike other “third genders” (Kulick, Don. 1999. Transgender and language: A review of the literature and suggestions for the future. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 5(4). 605622.), the burrneshat are motivated not by personal identity or sexual desire, but by the need to fulfill patriarchal roles within a traditional social code. Burrneshat do not marry or engage in sexual relationships, and are thus seen as honorable and self-sacrificing (Young, Antonia. 2000. Women who become men: Albanian sworn virgins. Oxford & New York: Berg.). How do burrneshat construct and express their identity linguistically, and how do others engage with this identity? I examine the effects of social and linguistic factors on variation in the use of grammatical gender in the speech of burrneshat and others in their communities. I find that choices in grammatical gender are linked to the speaker’s relationship to burrneshat, the grammatical context of the token, and whether the token is in oral or written language. An analysis of other gendered practices confirms language’s role in building masculine identities. Situated within a culture that embraces women becoming men, this study sheds light onto the linguistic practices used by speakers in the co-construction of gender. Keywords: Albanian; sworn virgin; gender performance; masculinities; third gender

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