Sex with words: how gendered nouns are altering our speech

Many languages have gendered nouns: masculine, feminine, and sometimes neuter in the case of German, for instance. How do these genders affect the meanings of the words themselves? It turns out the answer is a lot. Kara Jensen-Mackinnon shows how gendering of nouns can even affect us as English speakers.

The moment you start learning a foreign language, you realise that no word has a universal meaning. A common phrase in English may make no sense when translated into French, or become offensive when translated into Japanese. It's only once you grasp how another language works, that you gain insight into the culture, idiosyncrasies and worldview of the people who speak that language.

As a native English speaker, I believe the strangest element of some foreign languages was the concept of grammatical gendered nouns, that is the notion that nouns are either masculine or feminine (and in some languages neuter).

Your teacher will tell you in the first few weeks of learning a language that, the gender has nothing to do with whether you are a girl or a boy, or whether the objects in question look like men or women. It's just something that you'll need to memorise because it's very important.

In Italian, for example, nearly all words that end in 'a' are feminine as are those that end in 'o' masculine. And you must take this into account every time you form a sentence.

The question that has plagued me since learning this alien feature of foreign languages is whether, what the teacher said about the gender of nouns not mattering was actually true. When one divides nouns arbitrarily into masculine and feminine gender, does that cause one to assign masculine and feminine qualities to inanimate objects?

Recently I found a study by a psychologist at Standford University called Lera Boroditsky who has devised a number of experiments in an attempt to answer just this question.

Boroditsky created a list of 24 objects that happen to have the opposite grammatical gender in Spanish and German. Twelve words were feminine in Spanish and masculine in German like the word for KEY while the other 12 were masculine in Spanish and feminine in German like the word for BRIDGE. Native Spanish and German speakers with a proficiency in English were then asked to write down three adjectives that described each of the objects in English. Boroditsky wanted to cut to the psychology of how the speakers viewed these inanimate objects.

Her results were fairly conclusive. To reiterate, these were the adjectives they chose in English.

KEY: German (masculine) - hard, heavy, jagged, metal, useful, serrated Spanish (feminine) - golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, tiny

BRIDGE: German (feminine) - beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, slender Spanish (masculine) - big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering

While it's convincing, it is hard to know for sure to what extent grammatical gender accounts for differences compared to deeply rooted cultural difference. Boroditsky and her colleagues, therefore, came up with a second experiment so the effects of cultural differences would be minimised. In this study, only native English speakers were used.

Boroditsky made up a fictional language, which has two arbitrary noun categories, A and B. Participants were shown drawings of objects that were in both categories.

In category A there were drawings of items like of human males, spoons, and pens while category B was comprised of objects like females, forks and pencils. If a violin was put in category B along with human males people described it as: difficult, impressive noisy. When it was grouped in B with females people said it was: artsy, beautiful, curvy and pretty.

This second study was demonstrative of how quickly our use of language and perception of objects was subject to suggestion. As we don't have gendered nouns in English, it's easy to believe that we perceive all things equally and neutrally. But, have you ever stopped to consider how this seemingly subconscious judgement is triggered by advertisers, tastemakers, writers, speakers and politicians?

What are the adjectives that come to mind when you read the words, CHAIR, TREE, CUP and BRUSH?

Are these objects feminine, masculine or neutral? What is your chair made of? is it a stool or an armchair? is your brush for painting or hair? Does your tree have flowers? is it 3D or is it a drawing? How can you be sure that when you're describing a tree to someone else, they're imagining the same picture?

We base our language on the foundation that these words are universal, and everyone pictures a uniform object, but the truth is, they're not. It's not so important for these arbitrary objects, because more often than not your message is still conveyed and there is a general consensus about what a 'tree' looks like. But what about bigger concepts that aren't so easily objectified? What about LOVE, FREEDOM, WAR, PEACE, PAIN, HUMAN RIGHTS.

Where do these words fit?

How do these ideas, communicated across cultures and languages when we can't even universalise on something as trivial as a tree?

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