He, she, or it?

Yesterday, NPR’s Morning Edition carried a science story on language, specifically about evidence that gendered language influences the ways in which its speakers view the world. Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at Stanford, has conducted a couple of studies that demonstrate the ways in which linguistic associations with gender affect our perceptions.

This isn’t exactly a newsflash for feminists, who have been saying this for years. Boroditsky’s research, however, finally lends the weight of science to the common sense arguments that progressive women and men have made against sexist language since long before anyone now living was born.

In light of this research, then, how might a language without gendered nouns, such as English, open up possibilities in the minds of its speakers? The NPR report cites an example from one of Boroditsky’s studies in which speakers of German and Spanish were asked to characterize the word “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. The bridge pictured on the NPR web page is the Golden Gate Bridge. The key words I came up with upon first seeing the picture were a combination of the respectively “feminine” and “masculine” words provided by the German and Spanish speakers: long, elegant, strong, beautiful. Had I seen a picture of the Pont-Neuf in Paris instead, I would have immediately thought of more “masculine” descriptors, such as sturdy or solid, because of the bridge’s construction. Does my being a native English speaker dispose me more readily to think flexibly about the characteristics of objects?

Sounds like an interesting topic for a follow-up study. Any psycholinguists or cognitive psychologists in the house?


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