15 December 2012

The Bisexual Allure of Objects

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:14 pm

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.”



  1. very interesting :)


    Comment by learnitalianforfun — 15 December 2012 @ 2:59 pm

  2. They would be puzzled by the Irish where cailin (girl) is a masculine noun of the 4th.declension. I do believe that masc. and fem. nouns could be x and y nouns. There is no sense that gealbhan (sparrow) is masc. It’s to do with the word endings and this affects the gender of the pronoun. To call them masc. and fem. is a convention but one that evidently affects the associations though I must say I don’t notice it in Irish when I speak it or listen to it. The ‘South Pole’ and ‘The North Pole’ are masculine. Quite!


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 15 December 2012 @ 5:51 pm

  3. Mark Twain: “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has… A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female…tomcats included.”

    Most likely the subjects in this study weren’t conscious of their sexualization of gendered nouns either. One theory is that kids, when learning their own language, intentionally make sex-stereotyped associations with the noun’s referent in order to remember the noun’s gender. That seems unlikely, since so much language acquisition occurs at such a young age without a lot of conscious processing.

    I know that you resist the attempts to degender the customary preference for masculine pronouns in English writing. Isn’t it possible that, just as Spanish-speakers unconsciously think of bridges as having masculine traits, so too does an English reader think the content in masculine terms when she reads the purportedly neutral referents “he” and “his” in a text?


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 8:17 pm

  4. Boroditsky et al’s studies lend empirical support to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that different languages organize the world differently, affecting the way people think. Sapir-Whorf went out of favor with Chomsky’s ideas about the presence of a distinct biological language module in the human brain, structuring all human languages according to a built-in universal grammar. But now linguistic relativism is coming back. Jesse Prinz concludes the “Words and Worlds” chapter of his 2012 book Beyond Human Nature:

    Stephen Pinker argues that language is a window into human nature. Pinker is a Chomskyan, so he thinks the lesson we learn from language is that the mind is a constellation of highly specialized innate mechanisms, and that these are so highly constrained by evolution that there is little variation in the way people think. I have argued that quite the opposite is true. Language is an invention, not an instinct, and it is a conduit for human variation, rather than an inflexible universal. The way we divide categories and experiences in the world is not fixed by what’s out there or by what is innately specified within. Learning, including linguistic mastery, can impose a structure on reality that is not biologically inevitable.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 December 2012 @ 4:36 pm

  5. Excerpts from Salome by Oscar Wilde. He wrote this play in French, a language that assigns female gender to the moon (la lune). I wonder if the moon is masculine in any language.


    SALOME How good to see the moon! She is like a little piece of money, a little silver flower. She is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin. She has the beauty of a virgin. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men.


    THE PAGE OF HERODIAS Oh! How strange the moon looks! Like the hand of a dead woman who is seeking to cover herself with a shroud.

    THE YOUNG SYRIAN She has a strange aspect! She is like a little princess, whose eyes are eyes of amber. Through the clouds of muslin she is smiling like a little princess.


    HEROD The moon has a strange look tonight. Has she not a strange look? She is like a mad woman, a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked too. She is quite naked. The clouds are seeking to clothe her nakedness, but she will not let them. She shows herself naked in the sky. She reels through the clouds like a drunken woman. . . . I am sure she is looking for lovers. She is like a mad woman, is she not?

    HERODIAS No; the moon is like the moon, that is all.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 December 2012 @ 12:04 pm

  6. Awesome. Anecdotally, the very first thing I lose from my Italian (learned in childhood) when I’m not in practice is the genders. It’s also disproportionately embarrassing, an identity-disconfirming performative error.


    Comment by CarlD — 26 December 2012 @ 11:34 pm

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