More gender discussion, this time grammatical

Aliette de Bodard, Keyan Bowes and Juliette Wade all respond to this study about how grammatical gender supposedly influences perception.

I must confess that when I first read the National Public Radio article (since the actual study doesn’t seem to be online), I shook my head, though “What a load of bunk” and continued to do whatever I had been doing before.

Because as a native speaker of a gendered language and accidental linguist, I know that grammatical gender does not work that way outside some very narrow exceptions. Aliette de Bodard mentions animals. I would also add the sun and the moon, who tend to be depicted as whatever their grammatical gender is. Hence, the moon is generally depicted as male and the sun as female in Germany, corresponding to their grammatical gender, while in romance languages such as French, Italian and Spanish, the sun tends to be male and the moon female. But apart from those very few exceptions, grammatical gender is just a category. No one actually thinks of a table as male or a bridge as female. The grammatical gender simply tells us which articles and pronouns to use.

Besides, there are cases where the grammatical gender of a word does not correspond to the actual gender of the object described. For example, “das Mädchen”, the German word for girl, is grammatically neutral even though it describes a person who is obviously female. “Die Prostata” (the prostate) is grammatically feminine, though obviously a part of the male body. Conversely, “der Eierstock” (the ovary) is grammatically masculine, but still a part of the female body. “Der Büstenhalter” (the bra) is masculine, though it’s almost exclusively worn by women. Meanwhile, “die Hose” (trousers, pants) is feminine, though it was the almost exclusive province of men until approximately sixty years ago. And as Keyan Bowes describes for Hindi, German also has cases where two words which are synonyms of each other have a different grammatical gender. For example, “der Kampf” und “die Schlacht” both mean “battle”, but one is masculine and the other feminine. “Murder” and “manslaughter” are both masculine in German, while “killing” and “execution” are feminine.

I don’t really know a whole lot about the study and how serious it is, though it is notable that the book in which it appears is published by Vintage, i.e. a general trade publisher, rather than by a scholarly press. But I have an acquaintance, a linguist specializing in German grammar, who would probably tear that study to bits and spend two hours explaining how the thesis is wrong, wrong and wrong again (actually, I’m almost tempted to mail him the article now).

However, I suspect that the background – as Aliette de Bodard surmises – is the odd anglophone fascination with grammatical gender coupled with the hope that there are rules regarding what word is which gender, because otherwise grammatical gender is very difficult to learn for speakers of non-gendered languages and usually requires tedious memorizing. On the other hand, I frequently have to drill it into the heads of my students that in English the pronoun “it” is used for everything that isn’t a person or an animal they know personally.

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4 Responses to More gender discussion, this time grammatical

  1. Rosario says:

    I read about this study in a book called “Through The Language Glass”. The author, Guy Deutscher, who’s a linguist, didn’t seem to find anything methodologically wrong with it. From what I remember about how it was done, I found it pretty convincing as well, and in line with other research described in the book (for instance, that people who spoke a language with different words for blue and light blue actually perceived them as further apart in the spectrum than people whose languages described them as shades of the same colour). It’s not a conscious process, so sorry, Cora, I don’t think insisting that you don’t think that way is a particularly convincing response.

    • Cora says:

      Like I said, I haven’t seen the actual study and the NPR write-up might well be simplifying things or just plain misinterpreting them. We all know that science reporting in the general mainstream media isn’t always that accurate. And the article obviously isn’t very good, since they cannot even spell the German word for bridge properly.

      Anyway, thanks for the input from someone who has actually read the study.

  2. I also recall Deutscher mention this study in his book. You, Aliette and I speak grammatically gendered languages as our first ones, whereas English lacks this attribute. There is no doubt that animals and a few other items that have “shamanic value” (that is: not tables) are routinely thought of as their grammatic gender, which is of course arbitrary and changes across languages. So not entirely bunk: even though this looms large in the viewfinder of Anglophones (the few who bother with other languages), some grammatical gendering does color our perceptions.

    • Cora says:

      There definitely are exceptions, such as animals and heavenly bodies. For example, in almost all versions of the Bremen Town Musicians (and since I come from Bremen, I’ve seen and read a lot of them), the cat is portrayed as female while the donkey, dog and rooster are portrayed as male. Guess which word is grammatically feminine. And I grew up with imagery of a male, usually bearded moon and a female sun, going right back to the Norse deities, while romance languages (and I presume Greek) have a male sun and female moon, going back to Greco-Roman mythology.

      Ships and spaceships are another interesting exception, since they are usually perceived as female, even if they are named for men and the most common terms for ships, at least in German, are grammatically masculine or neutral. Ferries and yachts are feminine, but that’s about all. I actually had a student asking me why ships were always referred to as feminine. The best explanation I could come up with is that sailors used to consider themselves married to their ships in older time and would therefore view them as female.

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