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Gender vs. Language, Thought, and Reality (with a tip of the hat to Benjamin Whorf)

Last week, thanks to my wife who frequently listens to NPR on the radio, I came across an amazing story which aired on Morning Edition on April 6, 2009. For years linguists have insisted — following on the very good authority of Ferdinand de Saussure, considered to be the father of modern linguistics — on the "arbitrariness of the sign," that is, that the series of letters that make up a word, and the word the letters make up, are arbitrary and by convention.

Last week, thanks to my wife who frequently listens to NPR on the radio, I came across an amazing story which aired on Morning Edition on April 6, 2009. For years linguists have insisted — following on the very good authority of Ferdinand de Saussure, considered to be the father of modern linguistics — on the "arbitrariness of the sign," that is, that the series of letters that make up a word, and the word the letters make up, are arbitrary and by convention. This means that le chien in French, el perro in Spanish, and der Hund in German all mean "the dog" in English, but there is no underlying common element between the words that all signify "dog." So far so good. But just about everyone was prepared to extend this idea of arbitrariness to the concept of grammatical gender. For native speakers of English, this is harder to follow, because English is not a gender-inflected language. Words do not possess certain endings or prefixes or infixes that determine whether they are masculine, feminine, or neuter. But a lot of languages, particularly classical ones and so-called Romance languages from western Europe, are inflected for gender. So not just words that mean men and women, or male and female animals, but all words, possess grammatical gender and are thus masculine, feminine, or neuter. And this fact has been dismissed as virtually irrelevant to native speakers of the language, who although they know (if they even give it a thought) that (in German for example) a school is feminine (die Schule) but an office is neuter (das Büro), supposedly do not associate masculine ideas with an office and feminine ideas with a school.

That is, until a recent study and experiment by Lera Boroditsky, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She started with a group of German speakers and asked them to describe the images that came to mind when they were shown a picture of a bridge (die Brücke, feminine in German). Surprisingly the group came up with adjectives like "fragile, elegant, beautiful, slender," which had a decidedly "feminine" tendency. Likewise, when the same picture was shown to native Spanish speakers, they came up with adjectives like "strong, sturdy, big, towering, dangerous," which were decidedly masculine in nature — and guess what? El puente ("bridge") happens to be masculine in Spanish. Repeating the experiment with other words brought similar results.

So then Professor Boroditsky took the next step: she invented a completely contrived language based on her research, which she gave the interesting name "Gumbuzi," with its own list of masculine and feminine nouns. Students who were native English speakers (remember English is not gender inflected) were taught the language, and then asked to characterize various nouns in the new language, with their (artificially and arbitrarily assigned) genders. And amazingly, the results duplicated those with native speakers of case inflected languages like German, Spanish, French, etc. Two native speakers of different languages may look at the same objects — bridges, mountains, sofas, buildings — and see the same objects but have very different impressions or emotions about those objects — influenced in part by the grammatical gender of the nouns that describe the objects.

For more details on these fascinating findings go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102518565 where a summary of the story can be found, or the audio version can be played at http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=102518565&m=102774242 (it lasts just under seven and a half minutes.

I guess Shakespeare was wrong after all — a rose by any other name just wouldn’t smell as sweet.

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3 Comments

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    Wayne Leman

    chicken or egg
    So, I wonder if anything could be concluded from the experiments about which comes first, the chicken or the egg, I mean, grammatical gender which might influence our preception of our world or genderization of our world which would cause us to grammaticalize language according to how we view the genders we perceive?

    Whorf claimed that language influenced thought (and reality, or at least our perception of it).

    We’ve heard a lot in recent years about grammatical gender in biblical languages and Bible translation. I wonder if anything from the gender experiments bears on any of those Bible translation gender debates.

    Sorry, always wondering. But I’m content with clearly revealed truth.

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    Sandra Glahn

    Fascinating

    Very interesting post. Thanks. And Wayne, you ask a good question. What if translating a word "man" when it means" person" really does affect how we perceive its application (e.g. 1 Tim 5:8)? I notice this less than does my daughter, who has used gender-neutral textbooks throughout her time in public schools. 

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    Ernest J Hershberger

    Gender and language

    What an interesting post!!  Your comments on gender and language is helping me understand some things that have bugged me for years about my own native language which happens to be Low German.  I've wondered why for example my car is feminine while a pickup is masculine even though in my dialect the English words for each are used (with a German accent!).  Cars and trucks are rather recent inventions, so the gender designations must have originated somewhere in the Germanic sub-conscious.  Some of this "bleeds over" into my  English thinking. 

    DTS 1978

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