Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Grammatical Gender

The concept of grammatical gender is one that is more evident in some languages than in others. The English word "the", for instance, has three equivalents in German: der (masculine), die (feminine), das (neuter). Nouns are divided into gendered categories, even those without a biological sex. In other words, inanimate objects become feminine (the door, die Tür) or masculine (the table, der Tisch). Sometimes, morphology offers clues to a noun’s gender.

Often, there is no clue at all. On the contrary, since grammatical gender varies from language to language, it is rather considered to be arbitrary by many linguistics (e.g. the moon is feminine in Italian and masculine in German: la luna, der Mond, the sun is masculine in Italian and feminine in German: il sole, die Sonne) (El-Yousseph, 2006).

A great many scientists, among them Whorf, argue that people would build an association between biological gender and grammatical gender and try to make a relationship between an object and its gender. In other words, an object with a masculine grammatical gender would be perceived as having more "masculine qualities" than one with a feminine grammatical gender (El-Yousseph, 2006).

In their study, Boroditsky et al. presented 24 object names with opposite grammatical genders in Spanish and German to Spanish and German native speakers who were highly proficient in English. All participants were asked to describe each object with three adjectives in English, a "neutral" language without a grammatical gender system. As predicted, in both languages the inanimate objects were rated more masculine when they were grammatically masculine and more feminine when they were grammatically feminine. "Key", for instance, is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as "hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful" while Spanish speakers described them as "golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny". "Bridge", on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Bridges were described as "beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender" by German speakers while Spanish speakers described them as "big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering" (Boroditsky et al., 2003).

The photographs of April Atkins, the "world's strongest seventh-grader", were taken by Loomis Dean in 1954. Muscle Beach, south of Santa Monica Pier, closed in the 1950s and reopened in Venice (via).

- Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L. A. & Phillips, W. (2003) Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. 61-79
- El-Yousseph, N. (2006) Sex and Size: The Influence of Grammatical Gender on Object Perception in English and German. Ohio: Thesis
- Tight, D. G. (2006) The Relationship between Perceived Gender in L1 English and Grammatical Gender in L2 Spanish.
- Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D. P., Indefrey, P., Levelt, W. J. M. & Hellwig, F. (2004) Role of Grammatical Gender and Semantics in German Word Production. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 30(2), 483-497.
- Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D. P., Paganelli, F. & Dworzynski, K. (2005) Grammatical Gender Effects on Cognition: Implications for Language Learning and Language Use. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134(4), 501-520.
- photos of April Atkins (1954) via and via and via and via and via, and directly via LIFE