To test whether grammatical gender really does focus speakers of different languages on different aspects of objects, we created a list of 24 object names that had opposite grammatical genders in Spanish and German (half were masculine and half feminine in each language), and then asked a group of native Spanish speakers and another group of native German speakers to write down the first three adjectives that came to mind to describe each object on the list. The study was conducted entirely in English, and none of the participants were aware of the purpose of the study. The question was whether the grammatical genders of object names in Spanish and German would be reflected in the kinds of adjectives that Spanish and German speakers generated. All of the participants were native speakers of either Spanish or German, but both groups were highly proficient in English. Since the experiment was conducted in English (a language with no grammatical gender system), this is a particularly conservative test of whether grammatical gender influences the way people think about objects.
After all of the adjectives provided by Spanish and German speakers were collected, a group of English speakers (unaware of the purpose of the study) rated the adjectives as describing masculine or feminine properties of the objects. The adjectives were arranged in alphabetical order and were not identified as having been produced by a Spanish or a German speaker.
As predicted, Spanish and German speakers generated adjectives that were rated more masculine for items whose names were grammatically masculine in their native language than for items whose names were grammatically feminine. Because all object names used in this study had opposite genders in Spanish and German, Spanish and German speakers produced very different adjectives to describe the objects. For items that were grammatically masculine in Spanish but feminine in German, adjectives provided by Spanish speakers were rated more masculine than those provided by German speakers. For items that were grammatically masculine in German but feminine in Spanish, adjectives provided by German speakers were rated more masculine than those provided by Spanish speakers.
There were also observable qualitative differences between the kinds of adjectives Spanish and German speakers produced. For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word for “bridge,” on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.
- Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips (2003), “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics.”