Yesterday I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR and caught this very intriguing segment, Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong. Would you describe a bridge as fragile, elegant, beautiful, peaceful, slender, pretty? Or as strong, dangerous, long, sturdy, big, towering? Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University, found that it depends – for native German and Spanish speakers, on whether your native tongue assigns a feminine or masculine gender to the noun bridge.
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.”
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. If you speak German and learn to think of Die Bruecke, when you are speaking English, the bridge – gender neutral in English – is still going to seem feminine to you, and you are going to associate feminine qualities with its descriptive elements. (And this may be part of why I had so much trouble learning German – faced with a sea of genderless objects, I was at a loss as to how to accurately attach a gendered pronoun to each of them.)
Boroditsky and colleagues developed a fictitious language with two categories for nouns, which they taught to English speakers. In one instance, the categories were clearly associated with male and female. In another, there was no such association. In the first case, subjects produced more masculine adjectives to describe objects when the name of the object belonged to the male category, and similarly more feminine adjectives for objects with names in the female category. Subjects were then asked to rate similarity between pairs of items. Items from the same category were rated as more highly similar than items from opposite categories. When gender was removed from the categories, as in the second case, there was no increase in similarity for within-category comparisons. So, it isn’t just being in the same category that causes people to see objects as being similar to one another – the category has to have some sort of significance, such as that given by biological gender. In this way, the linguistic category – the gender of the noun – induces people to carry out comparisons they would not otherwise have made.
The results of various studies reviewed by Boroditsky show that grammatical distinctions in language can affect memory, descriptions of words and pictures, assessments of similarities between pictures, and ability to generate similarities between pictures, as well as several other tasks. Language does play a role in thinking. Boroditsky concludes: “Considering the many ways in which languages differ, our findings suggest that the private mental lives of people who speak different languages may differ much more than previously thought.”
So thinking of a key as feminine means that you will likely see it as tiny and shiny rather than heavy and jagged, as you would if you think of it as masculine. Boroditsky doesn’t discuss this, but I couldn’t help wondering what her findings mean in regard to terms like “woman scientist” or “woman engineer”. To me, such terms have always implicitly reified “scientist” and “engineer” as inherently masculine and thus in need of adjectification to explain the presence of women. Yet, if you only say “scientist” or “engineer”, the average person automatically pictures a man . This is so even when the average person doing the picturing is a hairy-legged feminazi ScienceBlogger, much to my frequent chagrin. It’s very, very difficult to escape the culture we bathe in daily. I often think it would be better, therefore, if we would say things like “scientists who are women” or “women who do science”, even if such locutions seem awkward and time-consuming. They are more disruptive of our ingrained thought patterns, precisely because of their awkward, time-consuming nature.
The English language does not have gendered nouns or verbs, yet we do our best to make it a gendered language – using “he” to mean “he or she”, using “mankind” to mean “humans”, etc. – and this cannot help but affect the way we think. I believe Boroditsky’s results support this. Therefore, when you refer to “the engineer” as “he” you are doing harm – you are NOT using a harmless all-inclusive generic he, you are imprinting the notion that engineers are men and men only on the minds of your listeners. Language like this really is meaningful and significant – if not, why would people be so upset about requests to change it?
So the next time you are confronted with an angry humorless feminist bitching about sexist language – pay attention, dammit!