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...

3 thoughts on “Linguistic Relativism and Grammatical Gender”

  1. the site got my gender wrong. too many definite articles?

    I love the point that article makes — I've been talking about this idea for several years. But I also feel that it's a bit too neat of a point. What about synonyms? Or studying foreign languages (reading books in translation) at an early age?

    One could argue that in Russian, death is fairly androgynous. I'm thinking of Alexander Blok's Balaganchik (The Puppet Show or The Fairground Booth), where death functions as a woman with a braid or with a scythe (braid and scythe are homonyms in Russian). The imported image of a hooded Grim Reaper is widely accepted and recognized as death.

    the adjectives for death? cold, blind, alien, equalizing, hungry, bitter, lonely

  2. I asked a German friend for death adjectives and he suggested “ashen,” “black, “dark ratty basement.”

    Karl S. Guthke's The Gender of Death mentions that Death is more often male in German poetry, female in Russian, but Guthke assumes this has more to do with Death being typically male in German folklore, female in Russian, than with grammatical gender. He doesn't consider the possibility of a causal relation one way or the other between Death's grammatical gender and folklore gender.

    Linguistic relativism, as Boroditsky mentions, has been out of favor for a long time. They taught me about Benjamin Lee Whorf at college, but they sneered at him….

    It's another question whether Spanish and German speakers actually treat keys and bridges differently, and whether Germans and Russian somehow differ in their attitudes towards death…

  3. color scheme wise, death is definitely white to me, snow-like 😉

    Here's what I wonder: does living in a different language have any effect on these associative patterns? how different were my notions of death 10 years ago? will they change in another 10 years? how to separate the effects of language vs aging? (I guess by testing many people of different ages?)

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