After my post on words we hate–which yielded an awesome comment thread about not just nit-picky word-hating, but on language itself–I lucked into a fascinating article in Newsweek about how which language we speak may actually shape our perceptions and abilities. Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at Stanford, has been conducting a series of experiments into whether which language we speak affects our perception and cognition.
In a series of clever experiments guided by pointed questions, she is amassing evidence that, yes, language shapes thought. The effect is powerful enough, she says, that “the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically,” not only when they are thinking in order to speak, “but in all manner of cognitive tasks,” including basic sensory perception. “Even a small fluke of grammar”—the gender of nouns—”can have an effect on how people think about things in the world,” she says.
When the Viaduct de Millau opened in the south of France in 2004, this tallest bridge in the world won worldwide accolades. German newspapers described how it “floated above the clouds” with “elegance and lightness” and “breathtaking” beauty. In France, papers praised the “immense” “concrete giant.” Was it mere coincidence that the Germans saw beauty where the French saw heft and power? In German, the noun for bridge, Brücke, is feminine. In French, pont is masculine. German speakers saw prototypically female features; French speakers, masculine ones. Similarly, Germans describe keys (Schlüssel) with words such as hard, heavy, jagged, and metal, while to Spaniards keys (llaves) are golden, intricate, little, and lovely. Guess which language construes key as masculine and which as feminine?
There are some other significantly more mind-blowing examples in that article–check out the bit about Australian Aboriginal language and its effect on navigational skills–but it was this gender issue that intrigued me. The issue of gender, sexism and language kept coming up in the comment thread on my original post. I think it’s obvious that language can be a tool of sexism–being the primary form of human communication, language is a tool of every “ism”–but, paradoxically, we were arguing that point in one of the few Western languages that’s linguistically gender neutral.
Consider: English is a linguistic mash-up of two gendered language groups: the Germanic and the Romantic. Unlike its parent languages, though, English nouns have no gender. The word bridge, unlike brücke and pont, is just…neutral. And with very rare exceptions (like calling a ship “she”), English doesn’t assign any gender-specific pronouns to common nouns.
Yet no one can make the argument that English speakers are therefore free of gender bias. The British Empire definitely did not encourage equality, even if the language it spread around the globe had a more egalitarian vocabulary than the ones spoken by other colonial powers. The Patriarchy is obviously still alive and well in English-speaking countries. But Lera Boroditsky’s studies would suggest that if German and French cultural perceptions are influenced by their gendered languages, surely our minds must somehow be influenced by the gender neutrality of English. Do we grow up less aware of male-female differences if we speak English? I wonder. I spent a lot of my childhood with people who spoke a gendered language–Spanish–and I noticed very early on that gender differences play a much larger role in their culture than it did in my own English-speaking one. I’m not sure I can attribute that entirely to language–but Pro. Borotditsky’s study makes me think that maybe language did have something to do with it.
What do you think? Be as biased as you like in the comments…