Monday, November 18, 2013

How we think, at least initially

Meuse Bridge at Harreville Les Chanteurs, France: Sturdy or elegant?

Many languages classify nouns in categories called “genders”. Spanish nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine, for example. To take a few instances, masculine in Spanish are the nouns for man (hombre), bridge (puente) and courage (coraje), while feminine are those for woman (mujer), tower (torre) and happiness (felicidad). German has three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. Some masculine German nouns are man (Mann), road (Weg) and courage (Mut), feminine are woman (Frau), bridge (Brücke) and happiness (Glück); neutral nouns are house (Haus), girl (Mädchen) and trust (Vertrauen). Don’t say that it’s obvious that “man” is masculine and “woman” is feminine for in Russian the word for man (muzhchina) has a feminine gender. And we have just seen that the German noun for girl is neutral. Some languages, like English, have only one gender (or no gender, if you like); some Australian aboriginal languages have up to sixteen genders.
Although there is no necessary relation between the gender of a noun and its meaning, it’s an intriguing question whether its gender influences the way we think about a noun. For as my examples show, the same words can have different genders in different languages: puente (bridge in Spanish) is masculine, while its German equivalent Brücke is feminine. Lera Boroditsky accepted the challenge to find an answer to this question. She took a group of Spanish speakers and a group of German speakers and asked them to describe words with opposite gender assignments in their respective languages. The tests were done in English, which has only one gender, so that the language used for the test didn’t influence the findings on this point. For instance, when asked to describe “bridge”, the Spanish speakers said “big”, “dangerous”, “long”, “strong”, “sturdy” and “towering”, so Boroditsky, while the German speakers said “beautiful”, “elegant”, “fragile”, “peaceful”, “pretty” and “slender”. Other tests gave equal findings. As Boroditsky concludes: “Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.”
On April 19, 2010, I wrote in a blog: “Once some scientists thought that the language we speak determines in a certain degree the way we think and see the world around us. However, this view could not be substantiated by research. Nevertheless I think that our language has some influence on the way we think and observe: Our language is a guide for us, by the way we look at the world and make classifications. It gives us the first categories of what we perceive. But as it is with any guide: we can improve it or we can take a better one.” Then I hadn’t heard yet of Boroditsky and her research. For some years I had been occupied with the question whether language determines our thoughts (the so-called Sapir-Whorf thesis), but I came to the conclusion that research had refuted the thesis. Nevertheless the feeling remained that this conclusion was false. I mean, it was correct that languages do not have a determinate influence on how people think, but I thought that there had to be some influence, namely that the language you speak serves as a first guide for the way you think about the world around you. That’s what I expressed in the quote from my blog. However, I hadn’t the means to research it. Now we see that Boroditsky comes to the same conclusion. Although the example of her research presented here may give the impression that language determines the way you think (“German speakers gives bridges female qualities, Spanish speakers give bridges male qualities”), other research by Boroditsky and her team shows that such world views can change. Speakers of a certain language can change their views when they learn about other views. Actually, the world view in your native language is the view from which you start, but which you can alter later. That’s why I wrote then that “We can use another language with other categories and we can invent new categories. In that sense anything goes.”
I do not write this because I want to be right, but Boroditsky’s findings show how important it is to consider the way we speak (what feminists always have said). They show for instance (and here I refer to and quote from Prinz, 2013, pp. 189-190) that “we must be cautious when using gender-specific language”, and, as I want to add, “language in general”. It influences the way we see and categorize, anyway initially. “It’s a mistake”, so Prinz (and I fully agree), “that we cannot think without language”. However, “if you look at a scene, you immediately and automatically label the salient objects.” And although cultural and other influences and facts affect the way you see and classify as well, “linguistic variation is not superficial. It is a powerful example of how something we learn through experience can shape our understanding of the world.” Or in Boroditsky’s words: “Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.” In short: Languages help us shape and discriminate, positively and negatively.

Sources: Lera Boroditsky, “How does our language shape the way we think?” on ; Jesse J. Prinz, Beyond human nature, Penguin Books, London etc., 2013.


ombhurbhuva said...

You’re a bilingual person, do you feel a definite change in your view of the world in relation to gender issues as you switch from English to Dutch? I would surmise that you do not, much as I myself moving from Gaelic (Irish) to English. ‘Cailín’ (girl) is a masculine noun. Actually if they were called a, b, c, nouns it would make no difference. The use of ‘she’ for the unmarked personal pronoun in English (people in general) is replacing ‘he’ in philosophy papers as a piece of grammatical positive discrimination. I’ve noticed that they dither when it comes to a generalised ascription of vandalism and violence. Then they discover he/she.

HbdW said...

Hello. Thank you for your reaction. Thank you also for your compliment but I am not bilingual. English is really a foreign language for me and, when I write my blogs (directly in English), often it happens that what I write in English doesn’t express what I have in my Dutch mind. Some words simply have different connotations in Dutch and in English. So, sometimes it happens that I decide to skip a passage because in English it doesn’t say what I want (and can) express in Dutch.
I can’t help, but that’s what Boroditsky has found in her research. She has done a lot of research in that field and my case of the bridge is only one example. See her article mentioned in my blog. Note that she doesn’t say that language determines how you think, but that it influences it. One consequence of this difference is that other influences (like culture, education and maybe bilingualism as well) can undo the influence of language. Prinz says the same as well, and it has always been my idea about it, too.
I try always to use she/he instead of he or she, and vary only for stylistic reasons. It’s up to you to judge whether I have done it in a consistent way.

Grace said...

I'm highly interested in this topic. May I ask, can I use neutral "person" in papers? It is such a great word without any gender specifications.

HbdW said...

Hello Grace,
Thank you for your reaction. In English "person" is neutral for English has only one gender. But when you write in Russian, it has either a male or a female gender, depending on which word you chose. In German, the gender is female, as in French, for instance. In Dutch it's male, but hardly anybode will feel it anymore, since the article "de" is used both for male and female words.
So, as you see, it depends on which language you use. I hope that I haven't confused you.