Translation Culture

Does Gendered Language Influence the Way We Think?

Gendered Language

Many languages categorize the world into two genders. In English, this manifests mainly through the use of pronouns, but in languages like French and Spanish, it extends to prefixes and adjectives. In languages like Russian and Hebrew, it extends even to the conjugation of verbs.

Does This Division of the World into Two Gendered Categories Influence the Way We Think about Things?

Researchers have been contemplating this question for decades. Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist in the 1950s, suggested that the categories and distinctions unique to a specific language preserve a certain way of acting, perceiving, and analyzing information about the world. According to his theory, speaking a different language inherently changes one’s perceptions and behaviors. This theory has long been dismissed by modern cognitive science, but the question of how much influence a language has over the speaker’s thought process remains to be answered to the modern linguist’s satisfaction.

One study in the 80s (Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Fried, and Yoder, 1982) compared development of gender identity in two- and three-year-olds from Israel, the USA, and Finland. The findings indicated “a direct relationship between gender loading in the native language and gender identity attainment. It appears,” researchers wrote, “that the Israeli children have a significant, albeit temporary, advantage of their American and Finnish counterparts in the timing of gender development.” This suggests that speakers of Hebrew—a language that is heavily gendered—pay more attention to gender differences because of the grammatical characteristics of their native tongue.

Is the Difference Really Linguistic, or Is It Cultural?

In a more recent study (Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips, 2002), native Spanish speakers and native German speakers who were proficient in English were asked to describe inanimate gender-neutral objects in the English language. The objects chosen were ones that are assigned one grammatical gender in Spanish and the opposite in German. The participants showed a clear preference for adjectives more commonly associated with the corresponding grammatical gender. For example, the Spanish word for “bridge” is masculine: el puente, while the German word is feminine: die Brücke. Native Spanish speakers described bridges with words such as “big,” “strong,” “long,” “dangerous,” “sturdy,” and “towering,” while German speakers described them with words such as “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender.”

However: was this difference because of the gendered prefix in the participant’s native tongue? Or perhaps a cultural difference? Maybe German bridges are built differently than Spanish or Latin American bridges, resulting in these differences in description? Maybe the gendered prefix is the result of a difference in cultural perception, and not its cause? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question.

In an attempt to rule out the cultural influence, another study was carried out (Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips, 2002) in which native English speakers were taught about a distinction in a fictional language researchers called Gumbuzi. The distinction categorized 12 inanimate objects along with 4 males and 4 females. In this study, as well, participants who learned to categorize the objects along with males or females showed a preference for adjectives consistency with the assigned grammatical gender of the fictional language.

These and other studies suggest that grammatical categories such as gender can indeed shape the way people think about the world.

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