Eskimos have some number or other words for “snow.” No, bad example, not least because it isn’t exactly true (the Inuit language does have a dozen or so roots—it’s a polysynthetic language—for snow, but only about two or three best rendered in English as “snow”). Russians have two words for blue. This supposedly says something important about the Russophone mind, unless you look at it from their point of view and say that English having only one word for both голубой and синий reveals something about the Anglophone mind (since we are always normal, whoever “we” are).

It doesn’t, however, because most people are, well, smarter than that. As an English speaker, my language doesn’t ditinguish between light blue and dark blue, but my eyes certainly do. A siniy object shows up as well against a goluboy background as well as a purple object does against a green background1.

This might, however, come as a surprise to Prof. Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University. She recently found that speakers of gendered languages perceive nouns as belonging to the sex corresponding to their gender. This is why speakers of Welsh (in which the so-called dummy pronoun—”it’s raining”—is “she”) are incapable of sexism, and across the sea the Irish think stallions are female.

The major problem with this (as presumably the certain knowledge that a stallion is male overrides the grammatical gender of the word) is that despite the name, “masculine” and “feminine” are not the only options for grammatical gender (or human gender, when you get right down to it). Do speakers of Dutch and Danish see things as being either common or neuter, whatever that means? One African language has genders for “male human” and “female human” and a third for all other animals of any sex.

Boroditsky even says English speakers, despite the lack of grammatical gender in the language, are the same way. She knows this because she told a buch of English speakers that some things were male and some things were female and those English speakers started calling those things male and female respectively. In other words, native English speakers, who hadn’t grown up with a grammatical gender distinction and gotten inured to it, associated gramatical gender with sex.

I’m also not quite sure what makes “slender” a female adjective and “useful” a male one. That suggests that this—like backmasked Satanic messages in Obama’s campaign speeches—is a Bible code: you find what you’ve already decided you’re going to find.

1I used to have a coat that I would insist was green, and which my partner referred to as “the blue coat.” Colors are subjective.

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