If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you know that in many languages, nouns —even inanimate objects— have grammatical gender. Russian, French, Spanish, and Arabic are all examples of such languages. In French, wine and chocolate are masculine. In Arabic, soup and the calendar year are feminine. Speakers of these languages must take care to mark gender with definite articles and pronouns. They also must alter adjectives and even verbs for gender agreement.
As it turns out, a language’s grammatical gender can have significant and surprising effects on cognition. In one study, for example, Russian speakers were asked to personify the days of the week. They consistently personified the grammatically masculine days (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday) as males and the grammatically feminine days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) as females. When asked why they did this, they were unable to explain themselves.
So linguistic gender can spill over into other mental processes, leading us to judge and categorize inanimate and abstract nouns as truly having a gender, even though we logically know better. But the Russians in this study were tested in their native language. Can grammatical gender influence speakers’ cognitive processes when they’re speaking another language entirely?
In 2002, researchers set out to answer that question. They created a list of 24 objects that have opposite genders in Spanish and German; in each language, half of the objects were masculine and half were feminine. Speaking English and using materials written in English, the researchers asked a group of native Spanish speakers and a group of native German speakers —all of whom were proficient in English— to generate three adjectives for each item on the list.
Across the board, object gender influenced the participants’ judgments. For example, the word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers in the study tended to describe keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used words such as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny when describing keys. The word “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Sure enough, German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering.
In the same study, German and Spanish speakers looked at picture pairs. Each pair included a picture of a person and a picture of an object. The participants rated how similar the two pictures were. There were no written labels, and participants did not speak during the task. Both Spanish and German speakers judged pairs to be more similar when the grammatical gender of the object matched the biological sex of the person in the picture. A pair consisting of a bridge and a man, for example, seemed quite similar to a Spanish speaker but not similar at all to a German speaker.
As these studies show, grammatical gender can influence people’s thinking, even when they’re speaking a language with no grammatical gender to speak of —and even when they’re not speaking any language at all!
Many of us like to believe we live in a post-sexism world, with the worst of gender prejudice behind us. But if gendered conventions of language can influence our thoughts —making a key seem prettier or a bridge seem sturdier— then it seems we are not yet free of gender stereotypes. Small, unnoticed features of language can influence our thoughts, sometimes in big ways. Knowing that, imagine how else language, culture, and society might affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Mind-boggling, isn't it?
Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L., & Phillips, W. (2003). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. In Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and cognition, ed. D. Gentner & S. Goldin-Meadow, pp. 61- 80. Cambridge University Press.