Gendered Language, Gendered Mind

What is so female about ships to call them she (LINK)? What is so neuter about children to call them it (LINK)? Now imagine that entire languages – like German, Spanish and French – are full of these arbitrary gender assignments, not allowing any genderless nouns. This has a profound effect on the way the mind works. A couple of articles published last year on the grammatical gender of nouns in different languages nicely illustrate this point.
To native speakers of gendered languages – i.e. languages whose nouns are all masculine, feminine or perhaps neuter – their language’s gender system usually appears obvious. I vividly remember sitting in France in a Philosophy class and the teacher elaborated on the female gender of life (la vie). According to her, life could only ever be feminine for some forgotten reason. When a class mate pointed out that life was neuter in German and, that, therefore, her reasoning was flawed she turned to me as a native German speaker. I could only agree with the comment and see her theory fall apart in real time (btw, life can even be masculine as for example in Bulgarian or Hebrew). This is the first experience which I can remember of a native speaker applying the mostly arbitrary grammatical gender system beyond the domain of language.
Recent research has found more examples of grammatical gender influencing how language users think about completely asexual things. In a very small experiment, an Israeli friend of mine (Rony Halevy) asked Hebrew speakers to dress up cutlery and other objects and found more feminine dresses on grammatically female items and vice versa for male items (see picture). Dutch controls, who do not distinguish between male and female grammatical gender, did not show a similar effect. Still, one may argue that the reference to gender was in the task already. Similarly, language based tasks in this field could be said to only reveal an effect of grammatical gender on other linguistic processes. So, can language really influence the mind in general?
Rony Halevy
Hebrew is a gendered language and participants tend to dress up simple objects such as a spoon or a fork according to their grammatical gender. The Dutch gender system does not refer to male and female and does not show the same effect. Data based on student project by Rony Halevy.
Cubelli et al. (2011) used a categorisation task in which participants had to quickly judge whether two pictures showed objects belonging to the same category or not. Judgements were faster if the objects’ grammatical gender matched. The authors interpreted this as showing that people access the words related to the pictures even when this is not required for the task.
Even outside the laboratory the effect can be shown. Sampling images from a big online art database, Segel and Boroditsky (2011) looked at all the gendered depictions of naturally asexual entities like love, justice, or time. Depicted gender agreed with grammatical gender in 78% of the cases. The effect was replicable for Italian, French and German. On top of that, it even held when only looking at those entities whose grammatical genders are conflicting in the studied languages.
It is worth reiterating that the aforementioned behaviours were completely non-linguistic. The grammatical gender system is just a set of rules for how words change when combined. The fact that people draw on these purely linguistic rules to perform unrelated tasks shows quite powerfully what a central role language plays in our minds.
But the effect may go further than that. In English, natural gender must be included in personal pronouns (he/she). Admittedly, there are exceptions (child – it) but they are rare. In Chinese, there is no such requirement. Personal pronouns can mark gender (written forms of ta) or not (spoken ta). Chen and Su (2011, Experiment 2) presented English or Chinese participants with written English or Chinese sentences which included gendered personal pronouns. Participants were asked to match each sentence to one of two pictures, each showing a person of a different gender. English speaking participants were faster and more accurate than Chinese speakers on these judgements. It’s as if English speakers are better trained in thinking about natural gender because English makes such thinking compulsory. Chinese participants, on the other hand, can produce pronouns without thinking of natural gender and, thus, have this information less readily available for their judgements.
One may argue that the effect relies on people of different native tongues showing different behaviours. These people probably differ in many ways other than their native language. Wider cultural differences could be invoked. Still, given that the effect holds for German, French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese, the most straightforward explanation indeed appears to be their language background. A way of overcoming the confounding influence of cultural upbringing may be to contrast second language learners of the same native language who learn different second languages.
Despite these short comings, the influence of the gender status of a language on the mind of its users is clearly measurable. This illustrates quite nicely that thought is influenced by what you must say – rather than by what you can say. This highlights that language is not an isolated skill but instead a central part of how our minds function. Studying language use is important – not just for the sake of language.
Chen, J-Y., & Su, J-J. (2011). Differential Sensitivity to the Gender of a Person by English and Chinese Speakers. Journal of Psycholinguist Research, 40, 195–203. doi: 10.1007/s10936-010-9164-9
Cubelli, R., Paolieri, D., Lotto, L., & Job, R. (2011). The Effect of Grammatical Gender on Object Categorization. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37, 449–460. doi: 10.1037/a0021965
Segel, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Grammar in art. Frontiers in Psychology, 1,1. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244


  1. I was wondering about this some time ago in relation to social biases. As far as I know, several decades ago it was normal for English speakers to refer to a person whose gender was unknown as a “he”. Then the issues of equality came up and it seemed like using a “he” for all the doctors, professors, politicians etc. would make it seem that women are absent from public life so people started using “he/she” or “they” to be politically correct. The same change is still in progress in Poland where it used to be a norm to use “profesor” (masc.) for a generic person and even for a female and now we are forced to say “profesorka”, “lekarka” etc. even though it sounds really weird. Now, the question is, can such a policy of changing language in order to change social attitudes actually work. Can we stop conjuring up a gendered image in our minds when we read “he/she” forms? Do Chinese people have more equal attitudes because they don’t mark gender?
    (it’s Katja writing here, signed with my lovely wordpress avatar)

    1. @noctifer: Before the advent of s/he forms in English, did people really refer to nurse, nanny and baby sitter as a generic male (he)? I have nothing to back this up because I came to the UK in 2005 but I somehow doubt it. The generic ‘gender = he’ argument may be a selective one. Concerning the Chinese case, I wondered whether a written gendered form is not enough if it is pronounced in an ungendered way. Languages which get written with an alphabet usually do not have this issue, but in Chinese this could mark an interesting case of phonological primacy over the written form.

  2. I think the point was that when you don’t have a neutral form, you will be forced to use one or the other with “he” being the default. If a “she” is used for nurses and baby sitters then it will only make matters worse reinforcing the gender stereotypes. So again, in Poland people try their best to gender everything, including a gendered form for male nurses (which sounds even weirder than female forms for professors). I just think it’s an interesting case for a more practical side of the language-cognition link where people actually try to shape minds by changing language.

    1. The ambition to change minds by changing language is definitely there. My proposal to study what influence the learning of a second language has could have fallen into that category and would be an interesting model for this kind of thing. In a later post (which I am currently working on) I will show that in the domain of metaphores in language and mind, such an influence has already been shown. So, there may actually be something to the idea of saying he/she all the time.

  3. Pingback: Brain's Idea

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