This morning, NPR reported on an exciting new grammar and gender study by Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky. Boroditsky argues that languages which assign masculine and feminine genders to non-gendered objects actually affect the qualities the speakers assign to those objects. So, when a German speaker sees the word “bridge”—-in German, the feminine “die brucke”—-she’s more likely to describe it as beautiful, elegant, fragile, or slender; when a Spanish speaker sees the word “bridge”—-in Spanish, the masculine “el puente”—-she’s more likely to describe it as towering, sturdy, dangerous, or strong.
I remember spending a lot of time in my high school Spanish IV class arguing with my classmates as to whether or not the gendered grammatical structure was oppressive to women, men, humanity, whatever. Our teacher told us that, like a lot of things, it’s just arbitrary, it doesn’t matter, and we were all seriously cutting into our homework time.
Pwned, Señora! Writes Boroditsky:
Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? . . . It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender.
So, the grammatical gender of a signifier informs whether we think of the signified object as having traditionally masculine or feminine qualities. Could that also mean that Germans associate human femininity with bridge-like characteristics, or masculinity with the characteristics of keys? And how can we yield this power for good, not evil?