Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Systematizing Moon and the Empathizing Sun

In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print--I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

"Gretchen. Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

"Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen.

"Gretchen. Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

"Wilhelm. It has gone to the opera." -Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad

You've probably heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the grammar and other aspects of a language can affect cognition. Various versions of this hypothesis were extensively studied by cognitive scientists in the early days of the field, but after the 1960s, most felt that linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity were untenable as scientific hypotheses. Over the last decade or so, however, cognitive scientists have been revisiting linguistic relativity (linguistic determinism is probably gone for good). They've discovered that language does in fact constrain the way we perceive and conceptualize a wide variety of things, including time, space, number, events, and perhaps even color1 (see this article for a short and accessible summary of some of the research, along with a nice reference section). In 2003, a collection of essays describing much of the research on linguistic relativity was published under the title Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought. It's an excellent book (and it includes a chapter by Michael Tomasello, for those of you who are in the reading group), presenting many interesting ideas and experiments. I highly recommend it for people who are interested in the topic. To give you a taste, I thought I'd post on one chapter, which I chose both because I find it very interesting, and because the chapter is available, in its entirety, online. Oh, and because it quotes from that great passage by Mark Twain, too.

The chapter, titled "Sex, Syntax, and Semantics," and written by Lera Boroditsky, Lauren Schmidt, and Webb Phillips, presents data from a series of experiments (some of which were also written up in papers that you can find here and here) designed to test the influence of the grammatical gender categories found in some languages on the way speakers of those languages think. The chapter has a great opening paragraph (a rarity in cognitive psychology), so I thought I'd quote it in its entirety:
Speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world in order to use their language properly (Sapir 1921; Slobin 1996). For example, to say that "the elephant ate the peanuts" in English, we must include tense--the fact that the event happened in the past. In Mandarin, indicating when the event occurred would be optional and couldn't be included in the verb. In Russian, the verb would need to include tense, whether the peanut-eater was male or female (though only in the past tense), and whether said peanut-eater ate all of the peanuts or just a portion of them. In Turkish, one would specify whether the event being reported was witnessed or hearsay. Do these quirks of language affect the way their speakers think about the world? Do English, Mandarin, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up thinking about the world differently simply because they speak different languages?
In general, there are two ways that language can influence thought. It can influence what Dan Slobin calls "thinking for speaking," which is the thinking involved in producing speech, or it can influence the way we perceive and conceptualize things even when we're not speaking about them2. The former is pretty straightforward and uncontroversial. Clearly, the language we speak influences how we produce language. It is the latter, however, with which discussions of linguistic relativity and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are concerned. Boroditsky et al. describe several studies that imply that grammatical gender can affect thought, but note that these previous studies failed to differentiate between "thinking for speaking" and the nonverbal influences of language. Furthermore, some of the studies suffer from obvious demand characteristics that may have led people to use their knowledge of grammatical gender even in the nonverbal tasks. The experiments described in the chapter are designed to avoid both of these problems. In addition, to avoid the problem of comparing across languages, all of the studies were conducted in English (a language that doesn't have grammatical gender, as I'm sure you know).

The first experiment involved a memory task. Participants, all of whom were native speakers of either Spanish or German, but who were fluent in English, first memorized associations between proper names (e.g., Patrick or Patricia). Half of the proper names were male, and half female. The words were chosen because they were grammatically masculine in one language and feminine in the other (e.g., the sun is masculine in Spanish, but feminine in German, while the moon is feminine and Spanish and masculine in German). For each participant, half of the grammatically masculine words were paired with masculine nouns, and the other half with feminine. This was also the case for the feminine words. Thus, half of the word pairings were gender-consistent and the other half were not. Boroditsky et al. hypothesized that if grammatical gender influences how people conceptualize objects, then it should be easier to remember them when they are paired with proper names of the same gender. This would result in opposite patterns for the German and Spanish speakers, because the languages differed on the grammatical gender of each object. And that's what they found. Both German and Spanish speakers remembered words-name pairings that were gender-consistent in their language better than those that were gender-inconsistent, meaning that German speakers were more likely to remember a pairing with "sun" when the proper name was Patricia (or another feminine name), while Spanish speakers were more likely to remember it if it was paired with Patrick.

In another experiment, also using German and Spanish speakers, the participants were asked to rate the similarity of pictures of objects to pictures of people. As in the memory experiment, each object had a different grammatical gender in the two languages. Half of the pictures of people were of males, and half females. If grammatical gender affects how we conceptualize objects, then on average, objects with a masculine grammatical gender should be rated as more similar to pictures of males than pictures of females, while grammatically female objects should be rated as more similar to the pictures of females. Once again, because the objects have opposite genders in the two languages, we should expect opposite patterns in the Spanish and German speakers. And once again, their findings were consistent with the predictions: same-gender comparisons received higher similarity ratings than opposite-gender pairings, resulting in the Spanish and German participants assigning higher similarity ratings to opposite pairings.

In a third study, they asked German and Spanish speakers to list the first three adjectives that came to mind for each object. As in the previous two studies, the objects each had opposite genders in the two languages. After the participants had completed this task, raters who were unaware of the purpose of the study, who had listed each particular adjective, or for which objects the adjectives had been listed, rated whether the adjectives were more masculine or feminine. If grammatical gender affects conceptualization, then we would expect that objects that are assigned masculine genders would be conceptualized as having more masculine properties, while feminine objects would have more feminine properties. Consistent with this, they found that more masculine adjectives were listed for masculine objects, and more feminine adjectives for feminine objects. Furthermore, the objects for which the Germans speakers listed masculine adjectives were assigned mostly feminine adjectives by the Spanish speakers, and the mostly feminine objects for German speakers were mostly masculine for Spanish speakers.

Out of these three experiments, only the last one seems to be good evidence for the position that grammatical gender affects conceptualization. In the first experiment, it's not unlikely that people used verbal mnemonics which may have led to the effects of grammatical gender on memory for the object-name pairings. The second experiment is difficult to interpret. Comparing objects to people is a bit strange anyway, and it's possible that people noticed that the only thing some of the objects and people had in common was gender. Similarity tasks are strange, anyway. How often do we rate the similarity of objects in the world on Likert scales? Given a strange task like this, it wouldn't be surprising if people were trying to figure out what the experimenter was looking for rather than trying to determine the actual similarity between two dissimilar objects. In other words, this experiment likely suffered from demand characteristics that influenced its results. The third experiment, though, is very compelling. I'm not sure how participants could have figured out what the purpose of the study was, so demand characteristics were probably not an issue. If grammatical gender affects conceptualization, then concepts that posses more features associated with their gender is exactly what we would expect. So we have good evidence, in the form of the types of adjectives that people assign to objects, that grammatical gender affects the way people think about those objects.

None of these studies demonstrates that it is language is directly affecting conceptualization, though. It could be that culture mediates the influence of language, because cultures that assign a particular grammatical gender to an object tend to assign gender-consistent features to that object. Children growing up in that culture will learn not from the language directly, but through the culture, that the object is either more masculine or more feminine. In an attempt to tease apart the influences of language and culture, Boroditsky and her colleagues conducted their strangest experiment. Using native English speakers, they taught participants about a fictional language called Gumbuzi. In Gumbuzi, there is a distinction between oosative and soupative objects. The participants were shown pictures of people, and told that each person was either oosative or soupative. For each participant, the photos of one gender were oosative, and the other soupative (to which gender the labels were given was counterbalanced across participants). Thus, oosative and soupative applied to different genders. The participants were also told that some objects were oosative, while others were soupative. After learning which objects were oosative and which were soupative, the participants rated the similarity to the objects to photos of people (as in the experiment above). Just as the German and Spanish speakers had, gender-consistent object-person pairs were rated as more similar than gender-inconsistent pairs. For example, if spoons and males were oosative, then a photo of a spoon was rated as more similar to a photo of a male than a photo of a female.

They also conducted an experiment in which they taught English speakers the oosative-soupative distinction in Gumbuzi, associated each with one gender, and then with a set of objects, and then asked them to list the first three properties of those objects that came to mind, as in the adjective-listing study that used German and Spanish speaking participants. As in that study, they found that the adjectives given for an object were more likely to be gender-consistent than gender-inconsistent. Boroditsky et al. take these two experiments as evidence that language is directly affecting conceptualization. If cultural factors were mediating these effects, we wouldn't expect people who learned gender distinctions for objects over the course of an experiment to demonstrate them. I've got to be honest with you, though. I find these last two experiments even more unconvincing than I found the first two. Honestly, these are just weird tasks, and the oosative-soupative gender associations must be pretty damn obvious to the participants. I don't think I'm alone in being unconvinced, either. These experiments appeared in a conference precedings paper 3 years ago, but have yet to make it to the pages of a peer reviewed journal3. If I were a betting man, I'd say that if a write up of these experiments has been submitted to a journal (and after three years, they probably have been), reviewers voiced similar concerns. It might have been better to use native English speakers who had learned German or Spanish in high school or college. These individuals would be aware of the language's grammatical gender distinctions, but would not have experienced the cultural influences that native German or Spanish speakers would. Maybe someone's running those experiments right now (in order to answer reviewers objections, or to avoid such objections in blog posts).

Despite my qualms about the first two and last two experiments, taken together the experiments do present a compelling case for the hypothesis that grammatical gender affects conceptualization. When you add the adjective-listing experiment with German and Spanish speaking participants, the case gets even better. In fact, I think that experiment could stand alone, though it would be necessary to run an experiment with non-native speakers to determine the role of language separate from culture. Even if you're not convinced by the set of experiments, they certainly make further research worthwhile.

1 The research on color is particularly interesting because one of the main arguments against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the late 1960s was built on the evidence that even across cultures that have widely different numbers of color terms, color perception was highly similar.
2 Slobin, D.I. (1996). From "thought and language" to "thinking to speaking." In J. J. Gumperz & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, (pp. 70-96.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3 They were published in a peer-reviewed conference precedings, but that doesn't really say much. The reviewers of papers submitted for conferences are much more lenient, because people present works in progress at conferences, and because each reviewer is reviewing a buttload of papers for the conference. Reviewers usually write a paragraph or two on a conference preceding paper, while they might write pages on a journal submission. (I've received reviews that were damn near as long as the paper itself! By the way, if you're wondering, no, that didn't bode well for the paper.)


Brandon said...

Just based on my own personal experience, the cultural mediation idea sounds very plausible to me. Two or three times I've been in situations where I mentioned Germannic myths about the sun and the moon to native English speakers (of various ages), and the reaction was one of mild surprise, since in the myths the Sun turns out to be a She and the Moon a He; they had just assumed it would be the reverse. I don't know how widespread this sort of reaction would be, but I'd imagine that there are experiments one could do in English and other gender neutral languages, without even bringing in knowledge of gendered languages, to see if one gets similar responses to what one gets in gendered languages. (Just to my nonexpert eye, if such an experiment is possible, it would tell us much more about the role of culture than the Gumbuzi experiment, which seems awfully roundabout even for a cognitive science experiment!)

Corollarius said...

This is another paper, somewhat related to the issue at stake, but this time regarding perception of time and space. It is very interesting:

Chris said...


Hey, thanks for the paper. I've actually posted on that work in the past, though I'm too lazy to look it up. It's very interesting stuff, though I think there are some problems in the interpretation

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Suz said...

This post reminds me of the poetry of José Oliver, who was a poet in residence at MIT one semester. Oliver grew up in a Spanish-speaking family in Germany. He writes poetry in Spanish, German, and English. And at a poetry reading he mentioned the genders of the words for "moon" and "sun" in Spanish and German. This was tied into a poem he wrote, but I forgot which one.

Anyway, I love his poetry... and what he said once: "you cannot write poetry in a language unless you love that language."

coturnix said...

In Serbian, Sun is It, Moon is He and the Morning Star is She.

Fork and spoon are female while the knife is male....

Chris said...

As it sets, he rises, and before it rises again, we see her.

Ella said...

It all sounds a bit dubious to me. First off, just to clarify, what proportion of Spanish feminine gender nouns are masculine gender in German? What about German neuter gender? (which doesn't occur in Spanish). Even the adjective thing - though indeed the most compelling piece of evidence in all of this - seems a bit spurious to me. Gendered languages usually require agreement between adjectives and the nouns that they are modifying. It would be therefore impossible to use a 'masculine' adjective to describe a 'feminine' noun, and, by extension, speakers would be more inclined to use 'masculine sounding' adjectives with 'masculine' nouns, even in a second language (if they are second language learners and not bilingual from childhood). Also, the 'masculine' or 'feminine' connotations of an adjective can vary wildly from culture to culture - pink is for girls and blue is for boys in our culture, but that association was the reverse as recently as 75 years ago, and other cultures probably have very different associations. What makes an adjective 'masculine' or 'feminine' in connotation, anyway? That's a pretty subjective judgement in and of itself.

Also, the gender of major 'forces of nature' such as the sun and the moon is almost invariably incredibly loaded, due to socio-cultural conventions often linked to latent vestiges of ancient religions.

I am still open to certain claims of Whorfian linguistics, but I remain relatively unimpressed with the reliability and con of many of the claims I've read in favour of the Whorfian hypothesis. Noun gender in particular seems like a very precarious standpoint to make any claims or predictions from, as it bears so little relationship to natural gender cf the example you gave of German's 'mädchen'.

Terribly sorry for the epic length comment.

Chris said...

Really, if people in other cultures tended to ascribe feminine traits to objects that are grammatically feminine, or masculine traits to grammatically masculine objects, simply because the adjectives in their language have to agree in gender, that would be a pretty clear instance of linguistic relativity.

Fitch said...

Seems to me like the argument is essentially, "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Or in this particular case, The thought or the words.

ghkj said...

Catch the wow gold star that holds your gold in wow destiny,cheap wow gold the one that forever maplestory money twinkles within your heart. Take advantage of precious opportunities while they still sparkle before you. Always believe that your buy maplestory mesos ultimate goal is attainable cheap mesos as long as you commit yourself to it.maple money Though barriers may sometimes stand in the way of your dreams, remember that your destiny is hiding behind gold kaufen Accept the fact that not everyone is going to approve of the choices Maple Story Accounts you've made. Have faith in your gold farmen Catch the star that maple story money twinkles in your heart and it will lead you to your destiny's path. Follow that pathway and uncover the sweet sunrises that await you. Take pride in your accomplishments, as they are stepping stones to your dreams. Understand that you may make mistakes, powerlevelbut don't let them discourage mesos Value your capabilities and talents for they are what make you truly unique. The greatest gifts in life are not purchased, but acquired through hard work and determination.maplestory mesos Find the star that twinkles in your heart?for you alone maplestory powerleveling are capable of making your brightest dreams come true. Give your hopes everything you've got and you will catch the star that holds your destiny.

kiloi said...

tn chaussuresEnter the necessary language translation, up to 200 bytes winter, moves frequently in China, nike chaussures showing that the deep strategy of the Chinese market. Harvard Business School, nike tnaccording to the relevant survey data show that in recent years the Chinese market three brands, Adidas, mens clothingpolo shirts Li Ning market share at 21 percent, respectively, 20%, 17%. The brand is first-line to three lines of urban competition for mutual penetration. Side of theworld,announced layoffs, while China's large-scale facilities fists. The sporting goods giant Nike's every move in the winter will be fully exposed its strategy. Years later, the Nike, Inc. announced the world's Fan

shen bing said...

cheap hair straightenerscheap flat ironnew polo shirtssexy lingerie storepolo shirtsnorth face jacketschi straightenerpink chichaussures puma chaussure puma

shen bing said...

hair straightenersugg bootscheap handbagscheap bagscheap pursetntattoo wholesalejackets worldjackets cartmen's clothingwomen's clothing

shen bing said...

handbags Louis Vuitton Vuitton handbags Balenciaga Balenciaga Bally handbagsBottega Veneta handbagsCartier handbagsChanel handbagsChloe handbagsChristian Dior handbagsCoach handbagsDolce Gabanna handbags

shen bing said...

Fendi handbags Givenchy handbags Gucci handbags Hermes handbags Jimmy Choo handbags Juicy Couture handbags lsabella Fiore handbags Miu Miu handbags Mulberry handbags Prada handbags Tods handbags Versace handbags Yves Saint Laurent handbags

shen bing said...

Men's Lacoste Polo Shirts Men's RL Striped Polo Shirts Women's Lacoste Polo Shirts Men's polo shirts Men's polo shirts Men's polo shirts 4 polo shirts Women's polo shirts 21 polo shirts Men's polo shirts Women's LACOSTE 5 PCS of Ralph Women's lacoste polo shirts

products said...

China Wholesale has been described as the world’s factory. This phenomenom is typified by the rise of buy products wholesalebusiness. Incredible range of products available with wholesale from china“Low Price and High Quality” not only reaches directly to their target clients worldwide but also ensures that China Wholesalers from China means margins you cannot find elsewhere and China Wholesale will skyroket your profits.

Anonymous said...


lljj said...

Do not mean bad.Thank you so much! I just want to show some fashion wedding dress, cheap wedding dresses to all of you. I like wedding dresses, because wedding for a girl, it is the most special day in her life. Do you want to have the beautiful wedding dresses and designer wedding dresses in perfect day?? Here are the most popular discount wedding dresses and lace wedding dresses even plus size wedding dresses for all of you. Also the cheap evening dresses and evening formal dresses are a great choice for you. Let you dream come ture!! When you take part in a party, you can choose party cocktail dresses, also fashion but cheap cocktail dresses and cheap prom dresses here. Besides, the cheap bridesmaid dress and cheap flower girl dresses are also provide to you!

lljj said...

Adi said...

Oes Tsetnoc one of the ways in which we can learn seo besides Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa. By participating in the Oes Tsetnoc or Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa we can improve our seo skills. To find more information about Oest Tsetnoc please visit my Oes Tsetnoc pages. And to find more information about Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa please visit my Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa pages. Thank you So much.
Oes Tsetnoc | Semangat Mengembalikan Jati Diri Bangsa

Anonymous said...

rosetta stone spanish discount

Anonymous said...

I had never see a blog batter than this blog, I like this blog very very much.By the way, do you like my products: solar street lights, sanitary valve, street lights, street lighting, street lamps, ball valves, butterfly valves, butterfly valve handles, check valves, sanitary fittings, butterfly valve handles, butterfly valve handles,street light, valve manufacturer, butterfly valve handles, street lamp, solar street light, ball valve, butterfly valve handles, butterfly valve, check valve, butterfly valve handles

Anonymous said...

Hand bags
Hand bag
Burberry Handbag
Chanel Handbag
Gucci Handbag
Prada Handbag
D&G Handbag
LV Handbag
Coach handbag

coach outlet
Coach bags
Coach boots
Coach shoes
Coach sneakers
Coach sunglasses

sunny said...

mbt shoes
mbt sale
mbt shoes sale
mbt 2010

mbt sandals
mbt outlet
MBT Women Maliza Shoes
MBT Men M. Walk

MBT Changa Shoes
MBT Chapa
MBT Lami
MBT M.Walk
MBT Men Safiri Shoes
MBT Sport

Anny said...

Coach handbags outlet,The relations between two elementsCheap Coach handbag, in the composition may be considered as two aspects – Discount Coach handbags,we are like fashion handbags and oter thingsDiscount Coach handbag,we have all kind od goods as you likeNewest Coach handbags musical instrument capable of establishing love it or you don't.LVBefore anotherexperts and designersDiscount LV Outletthey might be back in fashion again?Louis VuittonWhen my heart was hardened and my courses constrained Cheap Louis Vuitton Outletbut when I measured it by Your forgiveness Lord, newest Louis Vuitton 2010 It can be incredibly Its about materialism and can make you or break you. It means getting excited about Fall and Spring. Keep it in check or it love rain wearthey should be kept for the future. Who knows when discount rainwearthey should be kept for the future. Who knows when dog rain jacketsthey should be kept for the future. Who knows when colorful rain bootsi think fashion is something you wear obvouisly, or however that word is spelled Cheap Jeans outletthey should be kept for the future. Who knows when Diesel Jeansthey should be kept for the future. Levis Jeansthey should be kept for the future. Wholesale Ed Hardy Jeansthey should be kept for the future.Discount Jeans outletImagine this Certainly not!cheap abercrombie fitchthey should be kept for the future. Who knows when discount abercrombie & fitchthey should be kept for the future. discount abercrombie and fitchthey should be kept for the future. abercrombie fitch outletthey should be kept for the future. wholesale abercrombie fitchIn fact these days, clothes are stain-resistant and even waterproof.ed hardy wholesalecheap ed hardy wholesalethey should be kept for the future. discount ed hardy wholesalethey should be kept for the future. Who knows when wholesale ed hardythey should be kept for the future. Who knows when ed hardy outlet

Anny said...

Fashion trends change on daily basis, like Cheap GHD Straighteners (you can get it from a GHD Outlet), Why not get rid of your old straighteners to buy new GHDs? There is another kind hair straightener, called CHI hair Straighteners. Do you want to buy Discount GHD Styler? Following the latest in designer shades has become a passion of everyone, now 2010 Cheap Sunglasses, or we can say 2010 Discount Sunglasses. If you are the type of a woman who loves to explore in fashion, our Sunglasses Outlet will definitely satisfy your taste, because as you can see, we wholesale Sunglasses. Designer shades with optical grade lenses are important to protect our eyes from the sun. Don’t forget us-- Sunglasses Wholesale. Ed hardy streak of clothing is expanded into its wholesale ED Hardy chain so that a large number of fans and users can enjoy the cheap ED Hardy Clothes range easily with the help of numerous secured websites, actually, our discount ED Hardy Outlet. As we all know, in fact Wholesale Ed Hardy,is based on the creations of the world renowned tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy. Why Ed hardy wholesale? Well, this question is bound to strike the minds of all individuals. Many people may say cheap Prada is a joke, but we can give you discount Prada, because we have Prada Outlet. Almost everyone will agree that newest Prada handbags are some of the most beautiful designer handbags (Prada handbags 2010) marketed today. The reason is simple: fashion prohibited by AnkhRoyalty, in other words, we can write it as Ankh Royalty the Cultural Revolution. Straightens out the collar, the epaulette epaulet, the Ankh Royalty Clothing two-row buckle. Would you like to wear Ankh Royalty Clothes?Now welcome to our AnkhRoyalty Outlet. And these are different products that bear the most famous names in the world of fashion, like Ankh Royalty T-Shirt by the way -Prada, Spyder, Moncler, GHD, ED Hardy, designer Sunglasses, Ankh Royalty, Twisted Heart.

Anny said...

As responsible members of the global business community we have an obligation to ensure that our companies are run in a socially and ecologically responsible manner.MBT,MBT Shoes in fashion,Cheap MBT Shoes sale,Discount MBT outlet 2010,MBT Walking Shoes,Cheap Dior shoes,Discount Dior bags,Dior sunglasses,Dior outlet 2010,Newest Dior sunglasses.
On behalf of our customers and business partners, we actively support the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) effort to “promote social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights.”Discount New Balance shoes,New Balance outlet,Cheap New Balance,New Balance running shoes,New Balance shoes 2010,Discount PUMA Outlet,Cheap PUMA,Puma 2010,Kids Puma Shoes,Puma Walking Shoes.