Gendered language leads to gendered thought?

I discovered a fascinating post today: Tiny Shiny Keys and Gendered Language, by Zuska at ScienceBlogs. It’s in response to an even more fascinating bit of science, a paper by Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University, which can be found here.

As Zuska describes it,

Boroditsky’s essay “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics” is forthcoming in Gentner & Goldin-Meadow (Eds.,) Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition. It is a fascinating (and very readable) look at one aspect of the “does language shape thought” question, which Boroditsky recasts as “Does thinking for speaking a particular language have an effect on how people think when not thinking for speaking that same language?” It turns out the answer is yes.

I want to draw your attention to my favourite part of the paper (which you really should read in full!), namely, section 4.6: Grammatical Gender and Object Descriptions. Native speakers of either Spanish or German (who were also proficient in English) were given 24 words, 12 of which were feminine in Spanish and masculine in German, and 12 of which were the other way around, and they were asked to write down English adjectives to describe the words. The results?

As predicted, Spanish and German speakers generated adjectives that were rated more masculine for items whose names were grammatically masculine in their native language than for items whose names were grammatically feminine. Because all object names used in this study had opposite genders in Spanish and German, Spanish and German speakers produced very different adjectives to describe the objects.

For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word for “bridge,” on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

(Quoted directly from the paper in question, which, remember, you can read here!)

It’s always been my gut feeling that language matters, especially in terms of perpetuating systems of thought. However, I’d only been really certain of this on the level of, for example, using “mankind” to mean “humankind.” It becomes obviously biased when one considers, for example, the following sentence:

It is morning in Chicago, and throughout the city man is preparing for his day. He brushes his teeth, trims his beard or puts on his make up, ties his tie or pulls on his pantyhose… 

By this point I tend to get outraged cries that obviously if you know the gender, you use the feminine form. “But I thought it was neutral!” I reply, killing the conversation but emerging semi-victorious.

However, I never had proof, before, that language matters so deeply.

On the one hand, it fascinates me to see how invested we can get, however subconsciously, in the gender binary. On the other hand, life is not academic; the more deeply-rooted these biases are, the harder they will be to conquer. But I suppose all we can do is keep working away. After all, if we can eliminate silly gender stereotypes, and create a world in which men and women can be strong and elegant, it should be no problem to think of our bridges as being both, as well.

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3 Responses to Gendered language leads to gendered thought?

  1. Secant says:

    That is an awesome study, and it’s something I’ve always wondered about. I wonder if the next step is true too, that speaking a strongly-gendered language actually makes people more gendered in their evaluation of people rather than just objects.

    Also, I think I did see a study somewhere on the generic ‘he’ pronoun: they asked people to pick illustrations from a pool for a textbook chapter which either used ‘he’ or ‘they’, and lo and behold people picked a lot more male images for the one that used ‘he’. Which they certainly wouldn’t have done if it was really sex neutral.

  2. Scott Madin says:

    Fascinating stuff! I’ll click through to read the linked post and article when I have a bit more time, but this is definitely going to influence the next entry in my Our Impoverished Discourse, Our Impoverished Thought series, if I ever finish getting it written.

  3. undercoverpunk says:

    Fascinating, indeed!! Thank you so much!

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