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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