Grammatical Gender’s Effect on Language and Thought

In our previous post about grammatical gender in languages, we gave a general introduction to the topic. Read the last article to see how and why grammatical genders might have developed and how they’re still a part of most European languages today. Perhaps surprisingly, there are quite a few differences in how genders behave in even closely related languages and, by now, the distinctions between feminine and masculine words seem to have become mostly random.

While there are different ways languages assign genders – including semantic and morphological, it does definitely seem that in most cases grammatical gender gets assigned rather arbitrarily. But even when there might not be a cohesive theory and intent behind how nouns get classified, there are some very real consequences to assigning genders in language.

Today, we’re taking a closer look at how grammatical genders affect language and thought.

Masculine vs Feminine, Male vs Female

Let’s imagine for a moment an artificial language where every word with a positive connotation (such as “good”, “love”, “safety”, “food”, etc) is of the female gender and everything negative and unpleasant (“sickness”, “death”, “hunger”, “despair”) is masculine. In such a situation, would it be possible that after internalising the idea that feminine equals good, masculine equals bad, this wouldn’t reflect how members of that society view men and women? While the previous example is purely hypothetical, there are less extreme examples out there. In the Ket language, for example, you will find that objects that are important to society tend to be masculine and things of no importance are feminine.

Even without such obvious examples, grammatical genders seem to have an effect on how people view the world. While they’re only supposed to be a way of classifying nouns, dividing words into feminine and masculine will undoubtedly create a connection to real-world females and males. When Russian speakers (a language with grammatical genders) were asked to imagine days of the week as people, the subjects consistently imagined grammatically masculine days as male and grammatically feminine days as female, without giving an explanation as to how they came up with their characterisation.

While this particular example might seem like a very abstract task, it is easy to see how filtering the world through a lens of masculine vs feminine, male vs female can lead to some very ingrained biases.

You can actually see the same effect at work in art galleries where artists must decide how to personify abstract concepts. It turns out that when they choose to turn Death, Love, or Time into either a man or a woman, 85% of the time the artist will choose the gender that matches with the word’s grammatical one in their native language.

Gender Sticks with You

Perhaps even more interestingly, this effect grammatical genders have on how we view the world also carries over to other languages.

When native German and Spanish speakers were given a list of words that have opposing genders in their languages and asked to describe each word in English (they were also fluent in English), researchers found that the object’s gender was still very much in play. For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German, so the test participants were much more likely to characterise keys as heavy, metal, hard, or useful. Native Spanish-speakers, where the word is feminine, on the other hand, described keys as intricate, golden, little, and lovely.

When they were asked to describe a bridge, German-speakers used words like beautiful, elegant, slender, fragile, while Spanish-speakers said bridges are strong, dangerous, and sturdy. Can you guess which gender the word for “bridge” is in either of these languages?

The important part to remember here is that this particular test was carried out in English. So, even if you switch languages but are used to characterising objects as either male or female, the biases created will follow you around. Additionally, if English speakers end up learning a gendered system of categorising nouns, it will influence their mental representations of gendered objects the same way.

Future of Genders

Other studies have also linked the use of grammatical genders in languages to greater gender inequality. Surprisingly, however, it is completely gender neutral languages which don’t even have different gender pronouns (“he”, “she”), that correlate to greatest gender inequality. The researchers did venture a hypothesis that using genderless pronouns often conjures to mind a male person but, naturally, that theory is rather difficult to prove or disprove. It is, of course, important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, and one study is hardly a stable basis for anything. Nonetheless, keeping in mind all that we previously went through, the results are not as surprising as they could be.

With gender issues rising to more prominence, it’s then not surprising that grammatical genders in languages are also seeing closer scrutiny. For example, the way many gendered languages deal with making a female form of people and professions: Arzt and Ärztin in German, учитель and учительница in Russian. This adding a female suffix has been working for centuries and across languages with great success. Now, however, there are arguments that this approach is inappropriate and reinforces gender divisions, mainly because the male version of the professions is often seen as the default.

With such bad press, it’s no wonder some languages are contemplating a move away from using grammatical genders. For example, there are ideas that German might start limiting its use of genders to move to a more neutral language. It might seem radical right now, but keep in mind that Old English got rid of its grammatical genders when evolving into Middle English.

Conclusion – Gender Influences Thought, But Wider Effects Still Unknown

Assigning grammatical genders to objects and abstract concepts brings with it some rather obvious effects. Categorising everything in terms of masculine, feminine (and neuter) will no doubt leave a lasting impression on how you see the world – an effect that has also been successfully proven.

While it can be argued that it is not the objects themselves that get the gender assigned to them, rather than simply the words – it is not the table itself that’s masculine, simply the word der Tisch – this, unfortunately, does not hold up to scrutiny. Logically speaking, it is easy to see how tables, chairs, and walls themselves have no genders, but allocating one nonetheless seems to lead to same very observable real-world consequences.