der/die/das and el/la make you think differently

Okay, so I kept reading about language and thought and came across a fascinating article I had read a few years ago. Chew on this:

A recent set of studies suggests that the grammatical genders assigned to objects by a language do indeed influence people’s mental representations of objects (Boroditsky et al., in press). […] Spanish and German speakers also ascribe more feminine or more masculine proper- ties to objects depending on their grammatical gender. For example, […] to describe a ‘bridge’ […] (a word feminine in German and masculine in Spanish), German speakers said ‘beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender’, while Spanish speakers said ‘big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering’. These findings once again indicate that people’s thinking about objects is influenced by the grammatical genders their native language assigns to the objects’ names. It appears that even a small fluke of grammar (the seemingly arbitrary assignment of a noun to be masculine or feminine) can have an effect on how people think about things in the world.

Lera Boroditsky, 2003

3 thoughts on “der/die/das and el/la make you think differently

  1. It’s true. I just tried it. I kept saying “der Brücke”, “den Brücke”, “einen Brücke” and tried to make it sound natural in sentences, and it totally changes the image of a bridge in my mind.

    And with this background, it gets interesting to look at common words we use and imagine someone intended these things to appear attractive or aggressive, give a creative or destructive air to it – and then see if public perception actually mirrors this.

    1. That’s an interesting idea, one that I haven’t tried. However, I was reminded of “das Mädchen” and how that word being “Neutrum” never made any sense to me! :P

  2. Boroditsky does some interesting research for sure and it has provided further fodder for the Linguistic Relativity debate that has been raging since the 1930s with introduction of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The problem with Boroditsky, beyond her penchant for self-aggrandizing in the mainstream media, is that other researchers (c.f., January & Kako, 2007) have had a difficult time replicating her research (particularly Boroditsky, 2001). Similarly, Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership from the 1960s is quite parsimonious and intuitive, as well provocative. Fiedler’s research, as well as that of his students, supported the theory, but no one else could replicate his results. His response was that other researchers weren’t doing it right! Consequently, the theory fell out of favor and is now mentioned as a way station on the road toward contemporary leadership theory. Psychology’s checkered past is littered elegant, intuitive theories that found little or no support beyond the original researcher and his students (Freud looms large in this respect). Replicability is the key to good science. Linguistic relativity research is rife with conflicting results and idealogical researchers on either side of the debate, so it’s little wonder that even 70 years after the initial hypothesis an end doesn’t appear on the horizon. As important as replicability is, such a dialectic approach to science of competing theories pushes us forward, so it’s not all bad.

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