Does Gender Specific Language Influence How we Think?

 How we Think?

Many languages have two gender forms when referring to people. In English, this occurs through pronouns. However, in other languages like Spanish and French its use is through adjectives and prefixes. In Hebrew and Russian, verb conjugation indicates gender.

An interesting question has been highlighted by linguists over the last few years and that is whether this gendered language influences our way of thinking in certain situations. An American linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, in the 1950s, believed that the distinctions and categories which are unique to a language are linked to the way people act, perceive, and analyse information surrounding them. He also suggested that when someone speaks a different language it changes that person’s thought processes and behaviour.

A single study in the 1980s conducted by Fried, Guiora and Beit-Hallahmi compared gender identity in 2 and 3 year old children from the USA, Israel and Finland. The findings discovered that there was a clear relationship in existence between native language gender loading and attainment in gender identity. The children from Israel appear to have a significant advantage over their Finnish and US and counterparts when it comes to gender development timing. This suggests that maybe the speakers of Hebrew, which is a language that is heavily gendered, pay much more attention to differences in gender because of Hebrew’s grammatical characteristics.

Is this cultural or linguistic?

In a study in 2002 conducted by language translators Schmidt, Boroditsky and Phillips, native speakers of Spanish and native speakers of German who could speak English, were given the task of describing gender-neutral inanimate objects in English. The chosen objects were assigned 1 Spanish grammatical gender with the opposite to it in German. The participants indicated a clear preference for the adjectives more often linked with the equivalent grammatical gender. An example of this is the masculine “el Puente”, which is the Spanish for “the bridge”. The German word “die Brücke” is feminine.  The way native competency Spanish speakers described bridges was with words like “strong, big, dangerous, long, towering and sturdy”. On the other hand, German speakers described them with words such as pretty, peaceful, elegant, beautiful, fragile and slender.

There is no certainty whether this is to do with genuinely gendered language influence on the participant or simply cultural differences. However, studies do suggest that grammatical constructions related to gender and language can shape how people view the world.