The Systematizing Moon and the Empathizing Sun

NoteI get a lot of questions in email about linguistic relativity, or the influence of language on thought. So instead of writing something new, I thought I'd repost two posts I wrote on the topic back on the old blog. Here's the first, originally posted on August 10, 2005. The second will be up tomorrow

In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print--I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

"Gretchen. Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

"Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen.

"Gretchen. Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

"Wilhelm. It has gone to the opera." -Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad

You've probably heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the grammar and other aspects of a language can affect cognition. Various versions of this hypothesis were extensively studied by cognitive scientists in the early days of the field, but after the 1960s, most felt that linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity were untenable as scientific hypotheses. Over the last decade or so, however, cognitive scientists have been revisiting linguistic relativity (linguistic determinism is probably gone for good). They've discovered that language does in fact constrain the way we perceive and conceptualize a wide variety of things, including time, space, number, events, and perhaps even color1 (see this article for a short and accessible summary of some of the research, along with a nice reference section). In 2003, a collection of essays describing much of the research on linguistic relativity was published under the title Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought. It's an excellent book (and it includes a chapter by Michael Tomasello, for those of you who are in the reading group), presenting many interesting ideas and experiments. I highly recommend it for people who are interested in the topic. To give you a taste, I thought I'd post on one chapter, which I chose both because I find it very interesting, and because the chapter is available, in its entirety, online. Oh, and because it quotes from that great passage by Mark Twain, too.

The chapter, titled "Sex, Syntax, and Semantics," and written by Lera Boroditsky, Lauren Schmidt, and Webb Phillips, presents data from a series of experiments (some of which were also written up in papers that you can find here and here) designed to test the influence of the grammatical gender categories found in some languages on the way speakers of those languages think. The chapter has a great opening paragraph (a rarity in cognitive psychology), so I thought I'd quote it in its entirety:

Speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world in order to use their language properly (Sapir 1921; Slobin 1996). For example, to say that "the elephant ate the peanuts" in English, we must include tense--the fact that the event happened in the past. In Mandarin, indicating when the event occurred would be optional and couldn't be included in the verb. In Russian, the verb would need to include tense, whether the peanut-eater was male or female (though only in the past tense), and whether said peanut-eater ate all of the peanuts or just a portion of them. In Turkish, one would specify whether the event being reported was witnessed or hearsay. Do these quirks of language affect the way their speakers think about the world? Do English, Mandarin, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up thinking about the world differently simply because they speak different languages?

In general, there are two ways that language can influence thought. It can influence what Dan Slobin calls "thinking for speaking," which is the thinking involved in producing speech, or it can influence the way we perceive and conceptualize things even when we're not speaking about them2. The former is pretty straightforward and uncontroversial. Clearly, the language we speak influences how we produce language. It is the latter, however, with which discussions of linguistic relativity and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are concerned. Boroditsky et al. describe several studies that imply that grammatical gender can affect thought, but note that these previous studies failed to differentiate between "thinking for speaking" and the nonverbal influences of language. Furthermore, some of the studies suffer from obvious demand characteristics that may have led people to use their knowledge of grammatical gender even in the nonverbal tasks. The experiments described in the chapter are designed to avoid both of these problems. In addition, to avoid the problem of comparing across languages, all of the studies were conducted in English (a language that doesn't have grammatical gender, as I'm sure you know).

The first experiment involved a memory task. Participants, all of whom were native speakers of either Spanish or German, but who were fluent in English, first memorized associations between proper names (e.g., Patrick or Patricia). Half of the proper names were male, and half female. The words were chosen because they were grammatically masculine in one language and feminine in the other (e.g., the sun is masculine in Spanish, but feminine in German, while the moon is feminine and Spanish and masculine in German). For each participant, half of the grammatically masculine words were paired with masculine nouns, and the other half with feminine. This was also the case for the feminine words. Thus, half of the word pairings were gender-consistent and the other half were not. Boroditsky et al. hypothesized that if grammatical gender influences how people conceptualize objects, then it should be easier to remember them when they are paired with proper names of the same gender. This would result in opposite patterns for the German and Spanish speakers, because the languages differed on the grammatical gender of each object. And that's what they found. Both German and Spanish speakers remembered words-name pairings that were gender-consistent in their language better than those that were gender-inconsistent, meaning that German speakers were more likely to remember a pairing with "sun" when the proper name was Patricia (or another feminine name), while Spanish speakers were more likely to remember it if it was paired with Patrick.

In another experiment, also using German and Spanish speakers, the participants were asked to rate the similarity of pictures of objects to pictures of people. As in the memory experiment, each object had a different grammatical gender in the two languages. Half of the pictures of people were of males, and half females. If grammatical gender affects how we conceptualize objects, then on average, objects with a masculine grammatical gender should be rated as more similar to pictures of males than pictures of females, while grammatically female objects should be rated as more similar to the pictures of females. Once again, because the objects have opposite genders in the two languages, we should expect opposite patterns in the Spanish and German speakers. And once again, their findings were consistent with the predictions: same-gender comparisons received higher similarity ratings than opposite-gender pairings, resulting in the Spanish and German participants assigning higher similarity ratings to opposite pairings.

In a third study, they asked German and Spanish speakers to list the first three adjectives that came to mind for each object. As in the previous two studies, the objects each had opposite genders in the two languages. After the participants had completed this task, raters who were unaware of the purpose of the study, who had listed each particular adjective, or for which objects the adjectives had been listed, rated whether the adjectives were more masculine or feminine. If grammatical gender affects conceptualization, then we would expect that objects that are assigned masculine genders would be conceptualized as having more masculine properties, while feminine objects would have more feminine properties. Consistent with this, they found that more masculine adjectives were listed for masculine objects, and more feminine adjectives for feminine objects. Furthermore, the objects for which the Germans speakers listed masculine adjectives were assigned mostly feminine adjectives by the Spanish speakers, and the mostly feminine objects for German speakers were mostly masculine for Spanish speakers.

Out of these three experiments, only the last one seems to be good evidence for the position that grammatical gender affects conceptualization. In the first experiment, it's not unlikely that people used verbal mnemonics which may have led to the effects of grammatical gender on memory for the object-name pairings. The second experiment is difficult to interpret. Comparing objects to people is a bit strange anyway, and it's possible that people noticed that the only thing some of the objects and people had in common was gender. Similarity tasks are strange, anyway. How often do we rate the similarity of objects in the world on Likert scales? Given a strange task like this, it wouldn't be surprising if people were trying to figure out what the experimenter was looking for rather than trying to determine the actual similarity between two dissimilar objects. In other words, this experiment likely suffered from demand characteristics that influenced its results. The third experiment, though, is very compelling. I'm not sure how participants could have figured out what the purpose of the study was, so demand characteristics were probably not an issue. If grammatical gender affects conceptualization, then concepts that posses more features associated with their gender is exactly what we would expect. So we have good evidence, in the form of the types of adjectives that people assign to objects, that grammatical gender affects the way people think about those objects.

None of these studies demonstrates that it is language is directly affecting conceptualization, though. It could be that culture mediates the influence of language, because cultures that assign a particular grammatical gender to an object tend to assign gender-consistent features to that object. Children growing up in that culture will learn not from the language directly, but through the culture, that the object is either more masculine or more feminine. In an attempt to tease apart the influences of language and culture, Boroditsky and her colleagues conducted their strangest experiment. Using native English speakers, they taught participants about a fictional language called Gumbuzi. In Gumbuzi, there is a distinction between oosative and soupative objects. The participants were shown pictures of people, and told that each person was either oosative or soupative. For each participant, the photos of one gender were oosative, and the other soupative (to which gender the labels were given was counterbalanced across participants). Thus, oosative and soupative applied to different genders. The participants were also told that some objects were oosative, while others were soupative. After learning which objects were oosative and which were soupative, the participants rated the similarity to the objects to photos of people (as in the experiment above). Just as the German and Spanish speakers had, gender-consistent object-person pairs were rated as more similar than gender-inconsistent pairs. For example, if spoons and males were oosative, then a photo of a spoon was rated as more similar to a photo of a male than a photo of a female.

They also conducted an experiment in which they taught English speakers the oosative-soupative distinction in Gumbuzi, associated each with one gender, and then with a set of objects, and then asked them to list the first three properties of those objects that came to mind, as in the adjective-listing study that used German and Spanish speaking participants. As in that study, they found that the adjectives given for an object were more likely to be gender-consistent than gender-inconsistent. Boroditsky et al. take these two experiments as evidence that language is directly affecting conceptualization. If cultural factors were mediating these effects, we wouldn't expect people who learned gender distinctions for objects over the course of an experiment to demonstrate them. I've got to be honest with you, though. I find these last two experiments even more unconvincing than I found the first two. Honestly, these are just weird tasks, and the oosative-soupative gender associations must be pretty damn obvious to the participants. I don't think I'm alone in being unconvinced, either. These experiments appeared in a conference precedings paper 3 years ago, but have yet to make it to the pages of a peer reviewed journal3. If I were a betting man, I'd say that if a write up of these experiments has been submitted to a journal (and after three years, they probably have been), reviewers voiced similar concerns. It might have been better to use native English speakers who had learned German or Spanish in high school or college. These individuals would be aware of the language's grammatical gender distinctions, but would not have experienced the cultural influences that native German or Spanish speakers would. Maybe someone's running those experiments right now (in order to answer reviewers objections, or to avoid such objections in blog posts).

Despite my qualms about the first two and last two experiments, taken together the experiments do present a compelling case for the hypothesis that grammatical gender affects conceptualization. When you add the adjective-listing experiment with German and Spanish speaking participants, the case gets even better. In fact, I think that experiment could stand alone, though it would be necessary to run an experiment with non-native speakers to determine the role of language separate from culture. Even if you're not convinced by the set of experiments, they certainly make further research worthwhile.

1 The research on color is particularly interesting because one of the main arguments against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the late 1960s was built on the evidence that even across cultures that have widely different numbers of color terms, color perception was highly similar.
2 Slobin, D.I. (1996). From "thought and language" to "thinking to speaking." In J. J. Gumperz & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, (pp. 70-96.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3 They were published in a peer-reviewed conference precedings, but that doesn't really say much. The reviewers of papers submitted for conferences are much more lenient, because people present works in progress at conferences, and because each reviewer is reviewing a buttload of papers for the conference. Reviewers usually write a paragraph or two on a conference preceding paper, while they might write pages on a journal submission. (I've received reviews that were damn near as long as the paper itself! By the way, if you're wondering, no, that didn't bode well for the paper.)

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I'm saving it for reading later, but thanks already for this (re)post. I've always mused about this, being a native Spanish speaker who went to a German school in my Southamerican country. It was quite annoying to have the moon, the spring and butterflies as masculine things. A lot of children poetry becomes impossible to translate! Now I'm quite happy learning French, which shares most of the genres with Spanish.

By dileffante (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink