Gender matters

Lera Boroditsky discusses her research on differences in gender stereotypes in HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? (www.edge.org, June 12). She asks “Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives?” She thinks they do:

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. For example, 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. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks…

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.”

Note: But did grammar come before culture? Can’t believe that. You’ll find “she” used in English for boats and tools, abstractions (except God), cities and countries, the Church … and the army. Never thought about it, but it’s “die Armee”! Do you know a language where the army is masculine?

Found through Azra Raza’s post on 3quarksdaily.

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

3 thoughts on “Gender matters”

  1. Gender Genie has been around awhile, so it may not be new to anyone and if you look around you’ll quickly find that not everyone is convinced of its accuracy. It is, however, a site that claims to be able to predict the gender of a writer based on a text you enter into their site and run through their algorithms. Take it for what it’s worth, but it is interesting to work with a bit.
    Your entry about gender here suggests that there may be another whole set of things going on when non-native speakers get into a second or third language. Very interesting. Thanks.
    Here’s the URL if anyone’s interested in trying it themselves — or with a group of students. Good luck getting them to write more than 500 words, however. Mine don’t get that much written and the tool works best with texts longer than 500 words.
    http://bookblog.net/gender/genie.php

  2. Dear Rod, I was also very impressed by Lera Boroditsky and definitely think these deeper gender issues in grammar and culture, and language and the way we thinking would be very interesting to pursue in a workshop. It’s obviously a huge academic subject. Maybe our linguistically inclined colleagues can tip us off/ point us in the right direction. Anyone?

  3. A bit of an update. I decided to try out the gender connections on a very small sample — two German women in an advanced English session. Very interesting results. I gave them four somewhat randomly selected words — had, however, selected two “masculine” and two “feminine” words from German: hut, key, sound, jacket. I simply gave them time to individually write down 5-6 adjectives for each word. The results? You can interpret them as you like.
    hut: wooden, isolated, well-equipped, small, mountain, new, small
    key: heavy, large, bunch of keys, door, master, important, wrong, big
    sound: beautiful, loud, familiar, muffled, strange, thin, intense, unbearable, annoying, unnerving
    jacket: worn, brand new, woman’s, cotton, colourful, fancy, modern, worn-out, expensive, red, old-fashioned

    We then read the first part of Boroditsky’s blog above and had a fascinating discussion. Followed that up by reading the second half and discussed a range of personifications in art and literature. Very interesting. Couldn’t come up with a language where “army” is masculine but soon remembered that “war” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish / French. Wonder what that says.

    Anyway, it would be interesting to hear what some others come up with if you decide to try the method in a session. We all enjoyed it and it produced some valuable food for thought.

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