In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed a theory that has remained controversial in the field of linguistics ever since: that the language you speak alters the way you think, even preventing you from understanding concepts which don’t have a word in your language. Since then, many of his claims have been relegated to the trash-heap, but new research is suggesting that speakers of different languages do indeed have different ways of viewing the world. The fundamental difference from Whorf’s hypothesis is the discovery that languages don’t so much restrict what you can think about, but rather alter specifically how you think about it.
In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love. On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.
In a different experiment, French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign human voices to various objects in a cartoon. When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice for it. More recently, psychologists have even shown that “gendered languages” imprint gender traits for objects so strongly in the mind that these associations obstruct speakers’ ability to commit information to memory.
Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.
Does Your Language Shape How You Think? [NYTimes]