Language, How You Charm Me

November 10, 2009

I ran across a few things today related to language that intrigued me. I should probably just devote a regular section to language and all the fascinating things I find out about it.

Many languages in the world use gendered nouns; in fact, English may be an exception to the rule in having nouns which are not grammatically gendered. Evidently, researchers have discovered that this gendering of nouns has a greater impact upon people’s perception of the world than previously thought.

The word they used as a specific example when presenting the research was “bridge.” In German this is a feminine noun, but in Spanish it is masculine. (Gosh, I hope I got those genders correct.) When shown a bridge, German speakers tended to use more “feminine” words to describe the structure, and when shown the same bridge Spanish speakers tended to use more “masculine” words. I imagine that the masculinity and femininity of the words was ascertained by recourse the the native language of the study participants, but if it were ascertained on the basis on English, I think it is very telling that the interpretation of the study results would then have been based solely on the cultural perception of which terms were “masculine” and which terms were “feminine.”

I love how much this shows how language– in its verbal form– is infused with a person’s conceptual architecture. This goes back to the constitutive rules idea I posited earlier; language created the way the study participants perceived the bridges. Realities like this are important to understand when interacting with people from different cultures, and it surprises me how much people are unaware of the pervasive reality of language. For example, in my last seminar for my ethnic conflict class one of my classmates stated that he didn’t have much use for tradition, and, in his words, tries to “do nothing that I didn’t invent.” He’s a smart guy, and I was surprised that he didn’t realize that his ability to take that stance stems from a long line of radical free thinkers in Western society.

Human beings are historically created and rooted creatures, and recognizing that fact is a huge step in understanding each other.


One Response to “Language, How You Charm Me”

  1. Mom said

    I shared this with a student who is doing an independent TAG project where she is building three bridges in an architecture program (her dad is an architect and builds bridges, so she is testing her interest in this field). She is also just a junior but is in French IV. Anyway, I thought she would be interested in the difference between the feminine and masculine view of bridges, especially since she and her father recently had a discussion about how a bridge “should” look. Maybe it was the difference in their genders that caused their difference of opinion?

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