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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Does Language Precede Thought? - Gender Edition

Way back before life took a tricky turn, I was actually maintaining two blogs, because the diversity of my obsession with languages just couldn't quite fit into one. Today I am reposting an oldie but a goody from my former Speech Therapy blog, Wide World of Speech Therapy. I give you:

Does language precede thought? - Gender Edition

In 2002, Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Philipps looked at one of my favorite questions. You know I love this one:

Does language precede thought, or does thought precede language?

The research team was interested (or "were interested," if you're British) in how gender markers in various languages (think "el" vs. "la" from Spanish 101) affect the way people conceptualize the world. In other words, does their language background affect their world experience?

Subjects were native speakers of Spanish and German, but proficient in, and tested in English. The team asked the subjects to state the first 3 adjectives that came to mind for various English words. The test words were of one gender in Spanish and the opposite gender in German.

Invariably, the adjectives that subjects chose were strongly linked to the gender of their native article-noun paradigm. For example, the word for "key" is masculine in German, but feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as "hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, useful." Spanish speakers described keys as "golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, tiny."

Conversely, the word for "bridge" is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described the English word "bridge" as "beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, slender." Spanish speakers said bridges are "big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering."

A full discussion of the findings is available in the paper, but to put it simply, these findings once again indicate that people's thinking about objects is influenced by the their language.

All the more reason for SLPs to get out of bed and head to work for another day!

For some more FUN tidbits from this research team, check out The Elephant Who Ate Peanuts Around the World!


  1. This is very interesting. But I think there is more. It also has to do with the signifiant and signifié (cfr. De Saussure): the Spanish speaker doesn't have the same reference in mind (signifié) when talking about key as the German one. The same applies to the bridges. This kind of study should be made with offering the test person an image of an object and then describe it with adjectives...

  2. Yes, it would be fascinating to see if the two groups would describe a bridge differently when looking at a picture of one, I agree. But I think that would be looking at an entirely different question, something like "does language affect cognitive-visual perception?"

    On the other hand, I like how this particular study eliminates the shared visual referent, and just finds what comes to mind upon the hearing of the word. Unless Spanish-speakers have only ever seen bridges that are "dangerous, long, and towering" and German-speakers have only ever seen bridges that are "fragile, pretty, and slender," there is something beyond just a lack of shared visual referent causing the two groups to choose such different adjectives. Gender assignment seems a likely candidate, although clearly more study would be needed to safely build on that conclusion.

    Thanks for initiating discussion. Lots of food for thought for the day!

  3. Definitely interesting - as an English speaker, it's hard to understand just how much the idea of noun "gender" influences one's perception of words.

    1. Yes, the gender idea is difficult to fully grasp as Anglophones, but it does make you wonder how many other cultural and linguistic paradigms affect our perception of words, without us realizing it. Fascinating stuff! So glad you stopped by, Frau Leonard!