Linguistic Relativism and Grammatical Gender

Lera Boroditsky cites experimental evidence that the language you speak shapes how you think — including the finding that the grammatical gender your language assigns to a noun influences your thoughts about the object in question. Boroditsky describes a beautifully-designed experiment: “when asked to describe a ‘key’ — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like ‘hard,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘jagged,’ ‘metal,’ ‘serrated,’ and ‘useful,’ whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say ‘golden,’ ‘intricate,’ ‘little,’ ‘lovely,’ ‘shiny,’ and ‘tiny.’ To describe a ‘bridge,’ which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said ‘beautiful,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘fragile,’ ‘peaceful,’ ‘pretty,’ and ‘slender,’ and the Spanish speakers said ‘big,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘long,’ ‘strong,’ ‘sturdy,’ and ‘towering.’ This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender.”

Boroditsky adds, “Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.”

If nouns have genders in your native tongue, please let me know some adjectives you associate with death. Also, if you are unsure of your own gender, paste some of your prose into this site, and it will tell you whether you’re male or female — although it got the answer wrong in my case…
Posted in Everything UnfinishedBookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.