Does Your Language Influence How You Think?

Would it be harder for people who speak a highly gendered language to create a more gender-neutral society?

Neal Whitman, Writing for
14-minute read
Episode #648

Linguistic Relativity and Spatial Relationships

Another area in which people’s languages do seem to influence how they think is spatial relationships. As English speakers, we’re accustomed to using words such as “right,” “left,” “in front of,” and “behind” to indicate relationships, but once you think about it, it’s amazing how much confusion we put up with in order to make this system work. For example, in talking about theatrical plays, I still can’t remember where stage right and stage left are. Is it from the audience’s point of view, or the actors’? I know I can look up the answer, and I have, but I still forget. 

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Further, we say that a prisoner in a jail cell is behind bars. But now imagine that you’re that prisoner, and you’re facing a guard on the other side of the bars. From the guard’s point of view, you’re behind the bars. From your point of view, the guard is behind the bars. And what happens if you turn your back on the bars? Are you in front of them now?

Some languages, including some aboriginal Australian languages, do away with all that and instead use compass directions to express spatial relations. So instead of a right arm and a left arm, you might have an eastern arm and a western arm, if you were facing north or south. This eliminates the problem of having to specify “my left” or “your left,” but it also means you need to maintain a good mental map and always keep yourself oriented on it. And speakers of these languages can do this. 

Some languages don't have words for 'left' and 'right.' Instead, they use compass directions to identify positions.

If you asked me to point to the southeast, I’d need to think about it for a while, and ultimately might need to use a compass, depending on where I was. In contrast, a speaker of one of these Australian languages could do it right away. So does this mean that their language does influence their thought? Maybe, but it could also mean that in these people’s culture, knowing their directions is so important that they have incorporated it into the fabric of their language. In other words, their thoughts influenced their language.

Better support for linguistic relativity comes from an interesting experiment that had participants sit at a table with an arrow in front of them pointing north, to the person’s right, or south, to the person’s left. Let’s say it was north, to the right. Then the person had to turn 180 degrees to face another table, and this table had two arrows, one pointing north and one pointing south. That meant that the arrow pointing north now pointed to the person’s left, and the arrow pointing south pointed to the person’s right. The person was then asked to choose the arrow that pointed in the same direction as the first one. Would they interpret “the same” to mean pointing north, or to mean pointing to the right? Speakers of English consistently chose the arrow pointing to the right. However, speakers of a particular Mayan language that uses absolute directions consistently chose the arrow that pointed north! It seems like the quirks of each group’s language were influencing what they thought of as “the same.”

Linguistic Relativity and Gender

Next, there’s the topic of gender, which got me started on this path. When we’re talking about language, “gender” has a specialized meaning, which is all about how a language groups nouns and pronouns into a small set of classes based on commonalities. A language could potentially have dozens of these classes; for example, one language spoken in Papua New Guinea has at least 177 noun classes (6). When a language has only two or three classes, they’re more likely to be called genders. Depending on what nouns go in what classes, the language is said to have natural gender, grammatical gender, or both. 

If a language has natural gender, its classes of nouns roughly correspond to classes of things in the real world. One way this could happen is that a language might have one class for nouns referring to living things, such as people, aardvarks, and snails; and another class for nouns that refer to nonliving things, such as rocks, houses, and oatmeal. A language like this is said to have two genders, animate and inanimate.

For example, Japanese differentiates between animate and inanimate nouns when choosing which existential verb to use. A sentence like “There’s a rock in my boot,” would use the verb “aru” for the inanimate rock, whereas a sentence like “There’s a snake in my boot,” would use the verb “iru” for the animate snake.

Another way for a language to have natural gender would be for it to have one class for nouns that refer to living male things, such as boys, fathers, and uncles; another class for nouns referring to living female things, such as girls, mothers, and aunts; and a third class for nouns referring to nonliving things, or living things that we don’t think of as being masculine or feminine. A language like this is said to have masculine, feminine, and neuter gender. English is this kind of language because we use pronouns such as “she” and “her” to refer to female things, “he” and “him" to refer to male things, and “it” to refer to almost everything else.

Now let’s suppose that a language has a masculine noun class that contains not only nouns referring to animate beings (e.g., men, husbands, and grandfathers), but also lots of other nouns referring to inanimate objects. Let’s also suppose it has a feminine noun class that contains not only nouns for animate beings (e.g., women, wives, and grandmothers), but also a lot of other nouns for inanimate objects. A language like this is said to have grammatical gender. Languages with grammatical gender will typically have different pronouns for their genders, too, so that instead of a word for “it,” speakers will use the equivalents of “he” or “she,” depending on the grammatical gender of the noun they’re referring to. They might also have different forms for adjectives that modify nouns with the different genders. They could even have different forms of the definite and indefinite articles for nouns of different genders. Some examples of languages like this are French, Spanish, and German. For example, in Spanish, the word for “key” uses a feminine article ("la llave") and the word for “pocket” (where I often put my key) uses a masculine article ("el bolsillo").

If an object has feminine gender in a language, people are more likely to describe it with stereotypically feminine adjectives.

As if it wasn’t complicated enough to talk about gender in language, it has also become complicated to talk about gender in human beings. In the last few decades, the word “gender” has become the preferred term for what used to be called “sex,” not only because the word “sex” can be embarrassingly ambiguous, but also because society has begun to recognize that classifications based on biological properties such as X and Y chromosomes and reproductive anatomy do not always correspond to a person’s psychological and emotional identity, which falls on a continuum from very masculine to very feminine. 

But even if we accept gender as something on a continuum for human beings, gender in language is still the way it’s been for thousands of years, usually with just two or three. This disconnect sets up the question of whether a language’s system of grammatical gender can make it easier or harder for its speakers to think about social gender in non-binary terms. With this background in mind, let’s talk about Lera Boroditsky’s research. In a widely cited experiment, she had Spanish speakers and German speakers describe an object whose name in Spanish had one gender, and in German had another--for example, a key. Her team would show a key to the participants, without saying the Spanish or German word for it. Remember that the word for “key” in Spanish is feminine, and Boroditsky found that Spanish speakers tended to describe the key with words that fit many feminine stereotypes, such as the Spanish equivalents of “tiny” and “beautiful”--even without being reminded of the word’s gender by hearing it said aloud. On the other hand, the word for “key” in German is masculine, and German speakers tended to describe the key with words that fit male stereotypes, such as “useful,” “heavy,” and “strong.”

So what does that mean? It looks like a language’s gender system does influence its speakers in artificial experimental settings, but what happens in the real world? 

To answer this question, a 2012 study by Jennifer L. Prewitt-Freilino, Andrew Caswell & Emmi K. Laakso (7) investigated more than 100 countries and their languages. They concluded that there tended to be less gender equality in countries whose primary language used grammatical gender than in countries whose primary language used natural gender or didn’t mark gender at all. Surprisingly, they found the most gender equality not in the countries whose languages didn’t use gender at all, but in the ones whose languages used natural gender. It works like this. In a genderless language, gender-neutral pronouns can be interpreted as referring to any gender, so it’s up to the listener to decide which gender is appropriate. And often, listeners are biased toward imagining a masculine gender. In contrast, if your language has gender-specific pronouns, such as “he” and “she,” then you have the option of using extra words to emphasize the existence or importance of different genders, which isn’t possible in genderless languages. 


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.