Saturday, December 3, 2011

Two excellent links on how far to take links between grammatical and actual gender

My two friends, Keyan Bowes and Aliette de Bodard, contributed some very interesting thoughts to the online discussion of grammatical gender and its links (if any) to actual genders and actual gender attributes. I found their position particularly interesting because of the implication that Americans tend to anthropomorphize more than other cultures (not something I can recall seeing any studies about, but it may indeed be the case), and that that influences us to give a greater significance to grammatical gender than it in fact merits.

I encourage you to go and read their arguments, here (Aliette de Bodard) and here (Keyan's response).

While the link between language and thought is undeniable, it is also subtle. Thus it can be easy, when saying something like, grammatical gender influences the way we think about objects, to overstate the case. Much of our language use is subconscious, and in particular it would be a mistake to assume that the presence of a grammatical feature in a language means that a speaker of that language will think about reality in a particular way all the time, or with intent, or on a conscious level. As Keyan notes, in Hindi there can be one masculine and one feminine word used for the same object - so clearly there can be no underlying assumption of gender being literally possessed by that object. Furthermore, as Aliette remarks, the characteristics that we assign to one gender or another vary widely across cultures.

If it were so simple, then it would have been a matter of much less debate, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about the links between language and culture would not have been so heavily disputed. It's important to remember that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had a "strong version" and a "weak version." As Wikipedia would have it:

"(i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories and (ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior."

In the end my best suggestion if you are curious about the links between language and thought is to go to the actual studies. One of the current leaders in the field is Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University. In looking directly at the psycholinguistic articles,  you will be able to see how studies were conducted and upon whom, and get into the real subtleties involved. It's a fascinating field to delve into.


  1. My favorite example is that in German "manliness" (die Männlichkeit) is grammatically "feminine."

  2. That's a great one, Mike. Thanks for the example!