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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?

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #648
two people communicating in a different language

If German were Gender-Neutral

Ramani asks if a new German law will change the German language. My take is that it could over time, but only if German speakers are already willing to make such a change. So what would need to happen for the German language to be gender-neutral? We can get some insights from developments that have already happened in English. 

In theory, one way would be to completely get rid of the notion that gender in language has anything to do with gender in real life. But realistically, that wouldn’t work. It would still be a fact that most words describing beings that are typically male in the real world fall into the same class of nouns, and similarly for nouns describing typically female beings. So what would be a more realistic way for this to play out? 

First, as Ramani observed, we’ll need pronouns that don’t refer to a person’s gender. In English, we’ve used the phrase “he or she.” In older stages of English, as well as in contemporary English, we also use the pronoun “they,” a usage that has been in the language for centuries, before being disparaged in usage manuals and grammar guides for the last century or two, and finally regaining respectability in the last few years. This could happen in German, too; in fact, they already use their pronoun for “they” as a polite form of the singular “you,” although they capitalize it when they do. Using it for a gender-indeterminate singular wouldn’t be much of a stretch.

Next, let’s think about the German definite and indefinite articles. If German speakers truly wanted to go gender-neutral, they’d probably create a word that’s recognizably like the existing words, but a little different. The German words for “the” are “der,” “die,” and “das”Der Junge, the boy. Die Mutter, the mother. Das Glas, the glassso maybe for a gender-neutral form they would just use something like “de.” 

Again, something similar has also happened in English. English used to have different versions of the definite article for three genders, but during the Middle English period, the distinctions became less and less distinct, until we ended up with the gender-neutral, singular and plural form “the.” We talk about “the boy” and “the boys,” “the girl” and “the girls.” Whatever we’re talking about, we can use the word “the.” Something similar would probably happen with the German equivalents of “every," “no,” and similar words; and adjectives in German, which also have different forms for masculine, feminine, and neuter. 

What about German nouns referring to people? Ramani discusses some of German’s many noun pairs that are like the English “actor” and “actress,” with one word for males and one for females. Probably the most likely path to gender neutrality would be, once again, to do what English is doing. Some feminine forms, such as “actress,” are being quietly dropped, and the masculine forms are being used gender-neutrally. We discussed this in an episode about gendered nouns, #230. Others are being replaced by newer nouns that never had a gender distinction, such as “server” to replace both “waiter” and “waitress.

Is any of this likely to happen? It depends on German speakers’ attitudes. If gender-neutrality in language is important to them, changes like these will happen as more and more individual people start to adopt them. Those who are opposed to it will vigorously resist the new words and usages; Ramani gives several real-life examples of this in her article. And children who grow up with the new forms will not find them unusual at all. All of this, I should add, is true for English, too.

Language and Cultural Attitudes

When considering experimental evidence like the kind we’ve discussed in this episode, it can be easy to overlook ways in which our language can fail to influence our thinking. For example, if you’ve lived long enough, you’ve probably noticed that in referring to emotionally charged subjects, such as different races or ethnicities, or disabilities, words that were once considered ordinary, or even scientific or polite, have become slurs, and have had to be replaced by new euphemisms. This may have even happened more than once in your lifetime. Linguists call this the euphemism treadmill, and it happens because the negative attitudes that people have about these ethnicities or disabilities attach themselves to the new words just like they did with the old words. The new words don’t change people’s attitudes; instead, the attitudes persist and make us have to replace the words every generation or two. 

In his book “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter, who now hosts Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, points out several ways in which linguistic relativity just doesn’t seem to operate, which proponents overlook (8). One of them is the euphemism treadmill. Another is English’s use of meaningless “do,” which we talked about in the episode “The Verb ‘Do’ Is Weirder than You Think." In English, we use “do” to form negative sentences and questions; for example, we’d say, “Fenster didn’t move” instead of “Fenster not moved,” and “Did Fenster move?” instead of “Moved Fenster?” But this requirement to use “do” in negative sentences and questions didn’t exist in Old English. McWhorter observes that it would be silly to conclude that “English speakers have become especially alert to negativity and uncertainty, such that we have to stress verbs with ‘do’ in the relevant types of sentence.”

On the other hand, it would be wise to acknowledge that language can influence your thinking if you’re not paying attention. Advertisers and politicians have known this for ages, and use this knowledge in the metaphors they use. A particularly chilling example of language influencing people’s thoughts, and then their actions, is in the use of language that dehumanizes groups of people. Psychologists, sociologists, and historians are aware that acts of genocide usually begin with the use of language that compares the targeted group to predatory animals, vermin, or diseases. This makes it easier for people to overcome their moral repugnance to harming or killing fellow human beings, a lesson we should take special note of these days.

So, in summary, for many years the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was ridiculed, but ongoing research has found areas here and there, where some evidence does suggest that the inherent features of your language can change the way you think—but in small ways. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were as obvious as some people think, euphemisms would be a lot more effective in changing people’s attitudes. On the other hand, if it were as false as many people argue it is, we would have much less to fear from insidious metaphors and dehumanizing language. 

This segment was written by Neal Whitman, an independent PhD linguist who blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. You can also find him on Twitter as @LiteralMinded.

References

1. Ludden, Patrick. “Fifty Shades of Grue: The Intimate Relationship between Language and Color Perception.”

2. Ramani, Madhvi. “Will a New Law Forever Change the German Language?” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/will-new-law-forever-change-german-language-180968289/ [accessed Jul 15 2018]

3. Boroditsky, Lera. 2017. “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.” TED talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/lera_boroditsky_how_language_shapes_the_way_we_think [Accessed June 25, 2018.]

4. Berlin, B. and Kay, P. 1969. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evaluation, Berkeley: University of California Press. Cited in Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics, 11th edition. The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics.

5. Lenneberg, E. and Roberts, J. M. 1956. “The Language of Experience: A Study in Methodology.” International Journal of American Linguistics 22. Cited in Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics, 11th edition. The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics.

6. Surrey Morphology Group. Combining gender and classifiers in natural language. The University of Surrey. http://www.smg.surrey.ac.uk/projects/gender-classifiers/?

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7. Prewitt-Freilino, J. L., Caswell, C.A. & Laakso, E. K. The gendering of language: A comparison of gender equality in countries with gendered, natural gender, and genderless languages. Sex Roles (2012) 66:268–281. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257663669_The_Gendering_of_Language_A_Comparison_of_Gender_Equality_in_Countries_with_Gendered_Natural_Gender_and_Genderless_Languages. DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-0083-5 [accessed Jul 14 2018].

8. McWhorter, J. 2009. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, Avery.

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