Tiny Shiny Keys and Gendered Language

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!

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My kids and I were in the car going to school when that story was broadcast and we were absolutely transfixed! First - excellent example of good science journalism. Second, I thought about the way my worldview changed as I moved from a gendered language (Serbian) to a non-gendered language (English) about 18 years ago. I think in English now and while my thoughts are, I think, less gendered than before, I still have occasional lapses - which The Bride Of Coturnix laughs at - when I refer to an object as a He or a She. Those things get deeply ingrained.

Fascinating! So English is the great gender neutralizer? Does that mean we see things for HOW THEY REALLY ARE?

Speak it! There's an unfortunately mundane explanation for the resistance to continuing to use sexist language that was the norm a few decades back: laziness. Learning how to alter your writing style to take out the sexism takes a little effort, and it requires paying attention to what you're saying (and try shifting back to the old mode when you're writing fiction sometime--not fun).

...or how about you try to think of a pronoun in the English language with a gender-neutral but non-dehumanizing connotation. Hmm, can't think of any? Yes, that's my point exactly. Hear me out for a second.

I noticed this back as a child watching my parents drive. When someone cut her off in a particularly rude or dangerous way, my mom would yell about how bad "she" was to do so. When my dad was driving, he would yell about "he" should watch where he's going. I always thought it interesting, because as a child I wondered how in the heck they knew the gender of the other driver. I was very nearsighted so I assumed they just had better eyes. But when we got closer they were frequently wrong about the gender, a fact that didn't seem to bother them at all as their rantings just shifted seamlessly into the right gendered pronoun.

But that gets to a larger issue, one I discuss occasionally with my wife (who's Bulgarian, a language with masculine, feminine, AND neuter genders). Bulgarians use the neuter gender for small objects, and they often use it in an affectionate way. Little kids are neuter, as are small objects. To put something in the neuter form is to show that you think it's dear, a very affectionate thing. But in English, to refer to a kid as "it" is dehumanizing and insulting. Bulgarians who learn English, even when told of the distinction, still frequently refer to human babies or even close pets as "it" instinctively when a native English speaker would always just use he or she. And there's a bigger problem: what pronoun SHOULD they use in English when they don't know the gender but they don't want to dehumanize it? The jury's out.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to my original point. The English language lacks a humanizing but gender-neutral pronoun. In certain situations "one" or even the ever-so-ungrammatical but ever-so-useful "they" will suffice, but not always. You're looking at someone's child and belt out, "Oh, how old is... IT?" it just sounds horrible. So people tend to pick a gendered word through lack of choice, and frequently it's the gender they are. So yes, engineers, scientists, doctors, etc tend to speak of others in those professions as "he." Not necessarily because of an intrinsic gender bias on their part, but because historically those professions (like almost all) were manned by men and men were also the ones writing about them (and THAT was where the gender bias was, not in the word choice). They just picked the gendered pronoun that was most like them and those who were reading their works. It's not fair, but it also doesn't imply a deeper bias toward women all by itself. Women also use "she" instinctively when they think about a nurse, for instance--men aren't the only ones to make assumptions. So I guess All I'm asking is for you to imagine, just for a moment, that everyone who uses a gendered pronoun in English isn't in fact sexist. Maybe they're just forced to make an assumption due to language constraints. Find a way to amend the language to fix the problem, and you might find that this supposedly deeply-held gender bias largely go away with the removal of the linguistic constraints.

Bit of etymology: Man used to be ungendered, and the sexes were 'werman' (male) and 'wifman'. It was around the 13th century that 'man' started to mean 'male human'.

Aaaannnnndd.....lengthy comment #4 proves my point about the meaning and significance of gendered language and how vigorously people will defend its continuing usage.

So I guess All I'm asking is for you to imagine, just for a moment, that everyone who uses a gendered pronoun in English isn't in fact sexist.

I never said people who use gendered pronouns are sexist. Where, exactly, did you get that? Gendered pronouns are certainly appropriate to use when it's necessary to refer to gender. "one", "they", "he or she" are all perfectly acceptable ways of indicating that the gender is unspecified or could be either. "Oh, how old is the baby/chlid?" There are always ways around these language questions. It's the insistence that we MUST continue using inappropriately gendered language in situations where it does not make sense that I find amusing. There's really no need for it - except to defend the status quo, of course.

This is fascinating. I was taught that German grammar doesn't actually assign words a gender, that they simply call things "die" words, "der" words, and "das" words. (Which of course works out to masculine, feminine, and neuter, but I wasn't sure if they were explicitly considered to be genders...) Amazing to see the differences between languages. Seems to support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis...

The other rebuttal is that language ought to be beautiful. Repetition of "he or she" is much more awkward than "he", "she", or even "one" as inclusive generic pronouns. Some writers defer to the pronoun that matches their own gender as a generic, while others prefer to alternate between "he" and "she" as generics. Some people make the mistake of using "they" as a singular pronoun, which is wrong but at least concise.

Also, it's interesting to note that vehicles often take feminine pronouns in english.

On a separate note, if we're gonna run around assigning genders to inanimate objects, how is a key not masculine?

By Spaulding (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

"Oh, how old is the baby/child?" There are always ways around these language questions.

Yes, that's the better approach, when possible. But when you need to discuss an abstract person at greater length, it gets awkward to avoid using pronouns at all. And as I said, I prefer "he" or "she", at the author's discretion, to "he or she".
The ideal solution, as #4 implies, would be to have a gender-neutral, short, single word like "it", but without the dehumanizing aspect of "it".

By Spaulding (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

I'm not sure how far this goes towards your conclusion regarding humans in specific roles. Regardless of language cues, I rather suspect that we imagine people-in-roles based on our experience base: the unspecified "engineer" is most often male simply because the majority of engineers we've known have been. There may also be an added weight that we assign to early experience.

Of course, gendered languages would reinforce this kind of cultural hysteresis.

One might get a rough idea of the influence exerted by gendered languages by comparing occupational gender disparity in countries with gendered and non-gendered languages. Personal recollection (not to be trusted) suggests that the influence isn't all that great.

Either way, though, we have a lot of resistance to change built into the social psychology of our cultures. Bummer.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

On a separate note, if we're gonna run around assigning genders to inanimate objects, how is a key not masculine?

Very often languages assign "gender" based on phonetics: words with an "-ah" ending are often feminine, to give an example. Loan words thus acquire "genders" that have nothing to do with anything other than the sound of the word.

I vaguely recall that this has resulted in some real howlers. "Key" would be downright boring by comparison.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

Actually Zuska, I think you slightly missed my point. It was that the English language doesn't have a gender neutral human pronoun. I never said that we "MUST continue using inappropriately gendered language" in any situation, so I'm not quite sure who that's directed at. I personally think it's silly and awkward, as I thought I made clear with my childhood anecdote about being confused over my parents' choices of gender in their pronouns. I just explained why I think people do it and why it might reflect a missing piece in the English language more than intrinsic gender bias.

What you say is, basically, that we should stop using pronouns to get around the problem. That was your solution to the small example I gave before. But I'm sorry, that's not how people speak. Try editing a very small story about a "scientist" of unknown gender in English and I guarantee you'll either default to "they"--which is wrong because it doesn't agree in number--or a form of "he" or "she", which is wrong because it assumes a gender. Try the following idiotic (but gender neutral) passage I just came up with:

"The scientist pulled the scientist's nose closer to the bubbling vial and recoiled sharply at the smell. Fighting the stinging in the scientist's eyes, the scientist wondered why anyone would've mailed such a thing to the scientist, but the scientist decided to put it off for another day and get to work for now."

I find it impossible to use a pronoun without either resorting to "they" or the "he/she" construct, which is a stand-in for the word that we lack. Or, you know, just picking "he" or "she" and calling it a day. You'll have a 50% chance of being wrong about the gender, but you'll be grammatically correct.

Given a gender-neutral pronoun, I think people would use it. We just don't have one. And I think that people get a bit wrapped up in seeing gender bias and don't realize that sometimes there's a reason people are doing what they're doing and it might have nothing to do with trying to insult women or pushing some sexist agenda.

(And as an aside, I was actually referring more to "usagi" in the one part of my comment which you chose to quote, as usagi seems to imply much more directly that using a gendered word is "sexist")

oh i love this post. it's very interesting stuff, especially for someone who's grown up bilingually. i wonder what that did to my brain in terms of gender perception.

is there a lot of research being done in this area?

D. C. Sessions,

You're absolutely right about languages assigning gender based upon phonetics (although it's the other way around sometimes). It's actually hard for Bulgarians to decode the gender in English names because names ending in consonants sound very masculine to them. My wife has been in the US for a while and studied English for years before that, but still occasionally has to ask me about the gender of some names. The only ones that are obvious, funny enough, are a lot of Black American names. Since some of the more creative Black female names tend to end in the "-ah" sound, it makes it easy to understand. Being Black, I think it's sorta charming in a way :-)

Also, since a lot of English words end in consonants (at least phonetically, ignoring those silent e's) a lot of nouns created in English are being incorporated into Bulgarian as loan words and almost all are masculine. Even those of new professions, by the way. I don't know if that means anything at all or will mean anything in the future in terms of their perception of the technology or the occupations.

Something to think about, I guess.

There was a push for a gender-neutral pronoun in English: Hu, short for "human."

It's not very aesthetic, but then again, neither is "they," "her or she" or "s/h/it."

Fascinating,though not surprising.This would explain a little why I find parts of German so irritating,despite speaking it fluently.
To the pronouns: I didn't realise "it" was perceived to be so bad.I always use it quite happily to refer to a human whose gender I don't know.I've also noticed that I'm the only native English speaker who doesn't feel the need to correct my Chinese friends when they use 'he' and 'she' incorrectly. (In Chinese,the pronouns are written differently,but sound the same,thereby eliminating the problem mentioned by Aaron.) Maybe we should stop seeing 'it' as de-humanising.
Going back to the post,I remember a (comparatively non-sexist) male friend of mine saying:"Yes,but they are the fairer sex.",obviously expecting me to be annoyed.I just stared at him and said:"So?" Turns out he had assumed that "fairer",which I thought just meant 'prettier',had all kinds of 'weaker','sillier',etc. connotations. Why? Well,because it was used of women,of course.This kind of thinking is far too ingrained,and should be rooted out and exposed as often as possible.

By A. willow (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

I'm seeing a common fallacy - the belief that 'they/their' is plural only. This is incorrect, and the use of those two, and their relatives, for singular indefinite-gender has been part of English for a long, long time. That fallacy got started as a result of the pronunciations of grammatical prescriptionists trying to impose Latin grammar onto English. The same people who are responsible for Churchill's famous quote "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."

More on singular they/their/etc here: http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html#X1a

Some famous users of such: Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, and George Orwell.

On the notion that language ought to be beautiful (therefore, we can't POSSIBLY use "he or she" or "they"): what's so beautiful about having your whole existence dismissed by the insistence that "he" really, truly does mean "he and she" and "mankind" really, truly does mean the ladeez too?

Isn't there an old joke/riddle where a child is in an accident and is rushed to the ER by its father and the ER doctor dramatically announces that they cannot operate on this child because it is their child? (Those incorrect pronouns are vital, because the answer, of course, is that the doctor is the mother of the child.) This plays up both points you have made here. When most people hear the story, they assume that an ER surgeon will be male and can't make sense of the situation. (Although I guess one could assume that the kid has two dads . . .)

A. Willow,
Yes, "ta" is useful in Mandarin because it represents either he or she when talking, so you don't have to be specific. Man, you just brought me back to college with that reference... I was studying Mandarine while going through some tough computer science courses at the time. NOT fun! Nin shi yi ge zhong guo ren ma?

I personally feel that "they" is used because we simply lack an alternative. It's a bit awkward but workable, and the language police likely just pointed that out and identified it as an error. And you're right that the formalization of the English grammar was a relatively recent construction (although not a bad one, in my opinion), although I'm fairly sure that having a pronoun agree in number with the noun it's replacing doesn't require a "Latin" influence. Moreover, the fact that someone uses "they" as an alternative to "it" doesn't exactly make it correct and imply that we're not lacking a word--it just means that it was used. It establishes precedent, but not correctness. The English language varies, always has, and does so even nowadays. Ever heard Indian or Pakistani English? I have a funny story to tell about that from a closer American-Indian friend of mine, but I know this post will be too long as is. So let's stick closer to home.

To me, "She be hatin." is grammatically correct and has a very specific meaning in the English language (because some would argue that I grew up learning two dialects of English, being Black), but I doubt that most people would refer to it as "correct English" anyway. I also grew up in PA, and "drug" was always an acceptable past-tense form of "drag" instead of "dragged." But some would say that that's wrong, and it *must* be "dragged."

And going back to the time period that you bring up, I was reading through a book written in the mid 1700s the other day (Wealth of Nations... don't ask) and I was shocked to see just how different the English language was even then in some ways. There were constructs in usage then that we'd definitely consider errors nowadays... heck, the language was just more fluid then (for better or worse). So yeah, establishing precedence is crucial to but not necessarily sufficient in and of itself in deciding the correctness of a given usage of the language. The moment you decide that there is one "correct" in a language that varies, by definition some variations of usage are "incorrect" regardless of their historical usage.

I've come to accept that there is value in define a "correct" for the sake of language preservation, so that's why I'd argue that using "they" as the singular, gender-neutral pronoun for humans is incorrect and we need another word, even if I occasionally feel a bit dirty and use it myself when I need a stand-in pronoun.

This whole experiment may fail to gain replicated results if it is tried again with monolingual native speakers of Chinese or some other language with no grammatical gender at all. English most definitely is still marked for gender, as one would expect of an Indo-European language. But try the experiment on more speakers of more different languages and see what happens.

Whether or not "they" is acceptable for use as a gender-neutral singular pronoun really depends on where you fall on the prescriptive/descriptive spectrum in linguistics.

I am pretty much a descriptivist, because the prescriptive folks inevitably get into lots of "my dictionary is better than yours!" debates and that's just not fun. But "they" as a gender-neutral singular still just sounds wrong to my ears in some cases. I say this not out of a passion for patriarchal language, but simply because once you internalize the rules of grammar it's hard to let go without a lot of exposure. If linguistic trends continue, we'll probably reach a point where singular "they" sounds fine to me. And then we will be free from the patriarchal grip of having so few third person singular subjective pronouns that are gender neutral but not dehumanizing.

I find this fascinating. I've thought about all three (he, he or she, invent gender-neutral pronouns) sides of the issue, and I still think there's no perfect solution. In Middle English, he probably really was mostly gender-neutral, but definitely not today, no matter what people insist. I'm in a love/hate relationship with English for sure. The obvious solution is for everyone to start speaking another language! Just kidding.

12 @Aaron: (And as an aside, I was actually referring more to "usagi" in the one part of my comment which you chose to quote, as usagi seems to imply much more directly that using a gendered word is "sexist")

I was referring primarily to technical writing for public consumption such as academic policy statements. Having been involved in a decade-long rewriting and updating of certain "zombie" policies that have been around longer than I've been alive, there is an abundance of what can be called sexist language that remains in such documents by sheer inertia (for instance, all the faculty and students being referred to as "he/him/his" while all the administrative staff [formerly secretaries] are "she/her/hers"). My personal preferred solution is to use a plural construction as consistently as possible. I find it the easiest to work with and to maintain (and I freely admit, I'm a stickler for subject/verb agreement & always use "their" as a plural--sorry, whacked upside the head once too many times in ninth grade English to accept the historical argument for using it as a singular; in modern usage, it's plural).

I've never bought the inelegance argument as a reason for not revising something. It's laziness. Sometimes getting gender out of a passage where it doesn't belong requires you toss the whole thing out and start over. How you phrase it on your personal blog or with your family is none of my business. When you're writing something that's coming out of my office as an official statement of policy for the institution, you're damn right I'm reading it for sexist use of pronouns and revising when appropriate. That's a part of the editing process any competent manager needs to take responsibility for. Not doing it is every bit as obvious as seeing their, there, or they're misused and creates an identically negative impression of your attention to detail.

Hooray for my native tongue, Turkish, which does not have gendered nouns or verbs or even pronouns.

By the way, it seems that children have found a solution to gendered pronouns:
Grammar Girl.

Then dont speak at all.

By BillyJean (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink