Boroditsky proposes that because the word for “bridge” in German — die brucke — is a feminine noun, and the word for “bridge” in Spanish — el puente — is a masculine noun, native speakers unconsciously give nouns the characteristics of their grammatical gender.
“Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way?” she asks in a recent essay. “It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender.”
When asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — German speakers were more likely to use words such as “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated” and “useful.” Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny” and “tiny.”
This reminds me of that great William James quote: “We ought,” he wrote, “to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, or a feeling of cold.” What is James talking about? He’s pointing out that language creates the illusion of transparency. We pretend that we’re just describing the “substantive parts” of the world – those nouns we match together with adjective and verbs in neat sentences – but this substance is inevitably shaded by “transitive” mental processes we aren’t aware of, such as gendered nouns and quirks of grammar. In other words, language is a constraint on thought, a concrete riverbed for the stream of consciousness.