jueves, 6 de abril de 2017

THROUGH THE LANGUAGE GLASS

Sex and Syntax 


In one of his loveliest but most enigmatic poems, Heinrich Heine 
describes the yearning of a snowy pine tree for a sunburned Oriental 
palm. In the original the poem runs like this: 

Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam 
Im Norden auf kahler Höh'. 
Ihn schlafert; mit weisser Decke 
Umhullen ihn Eis und Schnee. 

Er traumt von einer Palme, 
Die, fern im Morgenland, 
Einsam und schweigend trauert 
Auf brennender Felsenwand. 

The quiet despair of Heine's poem must have struck a chord with one of 
the great melancholies of the Victorian period, the Scottish poet James 
Thomson (1834-82, not to be confused with the Scottish poet James 
Thomson, 1700-48, who wrote The Seasons). Thomson was especially 
admired for his translations, and his rendering remains one of the most 
oft quoted of the many English versions: 



A pine tree standeth lonely 
In the North on an upland bare; 
It standeth whitely shrouded 
With snow, and sleepeth there. 

It dreameth of a palm tree 
Which far in the East alone, 
In mournful silence standeth 
On its ridge of burning stone. 



With its resonant rhymes and its interlocked alliteration, Thomson's 
rendering captures the isolation and the hopeless fixity of the forlorn 
pine and palm. His adaptation even manages to remain true to Heine's 
rhythm while apparently following the meaning of the poem very faith- 
fully. And yet, despite all its artfulness, Thomson's translation entirely 
fails to reveal to an English reader a pivotal aspect of the original poem, 
perhaps the very key to its interpretation. It fails so decidedly because it 
glosses over one grammatical feature of the German language, which 
happens to be the basis of the whole allegory, and without which Heine's 
metaphor is castrated. If you haven't guessed what that grammatical fea- 
ture is, the following translation by the American poet Emma Lazarus 
(1849-87) will make it clearer: 



There stands a lonely pine tree 
In the north, on a barren height; 
He sleeps while the ice and snowflakes 
Swathe him in folds of white. 



He dreameth of a palm tree 
Far in the sunrise-land, 
Lonely and silent longing 
On her burning bank of sand. 
In Heine's original, the pine (der Fichtenbaum) is masculine 
while the palm {die Palme) is feminine, and this opposition of gram- 
matical gender gives the imagery a sexual dimension that is repressed 
in Thomson's translation. But many critics believe that the pine tree 
conceals far more under his folds of white than merely the conventional 
romantic lament of unrequited love, and that the palm may be the object 
of an altogether different kind of desire. There is a tradition of Jewish 
love poems addressed to the distant and unattainable Jerusalem, which 
is always personified as a female beloved. This genre goes all the way 
back to one of Heine's favorite psalms: "If I forget thee 

[feminine], O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither, may my tongue 
cling to the roof of my mouth." Heine may be alluding to this tradition, 
and his lonely palm on her ridge of burning stone may be a coded refer- 
ence to the deserted Jerusalem, perched high up in the Judaean hills. 
More specifically, Heine's lines may be alluding to the most famous of 
all odes to Jerusalem, written in twelfth-century Spain by Yehuda 
Halevy, a poet whom Heine revered. The pine tree's object of desire "far 
in the East" may be echoing Halevy's opening line, "My heart is in the 
East, and I am in the farthest West." 

Whether or not the poem is really about Heine's despair at reconcil- 
ing his roots in the Germanic North with the distant homeland of his 
Jewish soul is a mystery that may never be resolved. But there is no 
doubt that the poem cannot be unlocked without the genders of the two 
protagonists. Emma Lazarus's translation transfers this sexual basis 
into English, by employing the pronouns "he" for the pine tree and 
"her" for the palm. The price Lazarus pays for this faithfulness is that 
her translation sounds somewhat arch, or at least artificially poetic, 
since in English it is not natural to speak of trees in this way. But unlike 
English, which treats inanimate objects uniformly as "it," German 
assigns thousands of objects to the masculine or feminine gender as a 
matter of course. In fact, in German there is nothing the slightest bit 
poetic about calling inanimate objects "he" or "she." You would simply 
refer to a Palme as "she" whenever you spoke of her, even in the most 
mundane chitchat. You'd explain how you got her
half price in the garden center a few years ago and then unfortunately 
planted her too close to a eucalyptus, how his roots have disturbed her 
growth, and how she's given you no end of trouble since, with her fun- 
gus and her ganoderma butt rot. And all this would be related without 
a hint of poetic inspiration, or even of self-consciousness. It's just how 
one speaks if one speaks German— or Spanish, or French, or Russian, or 
a host of other languages with similar gender systems. 

Gender is perhaps the most obvious area where significant otherness 
is found not just between "us" and exotic tropical languages, but also 
much closer to home. You may spend nine lives without ever meeting a 
speaker of Tzeltal or Guugu Yimithirr. But you would have to go to great 
lengths to avoid meeting speakers of Spanish, French, Italian, German, 
Russian, Polish, or Arabic, to name just a few examples. Some of your 
best friends may even be gendered. Are their thought processes affected 
by this aspect of their language? Could it be that the feminine gender of 
the German Palme affects how a German thinks of a palm tree even 
beyond the artifice of poetry? As surprising as it may seem, we shall 
soon see that the answer is yes and that there is now solid evidence that 
gender systems can exert a powerful hold on speakers' associations. 

"Gender" is a loaded word these days. It may not be quite as risque as 
"sex," but it runs the risk of engendering serious misunderstandings, 
so it is helpful to start by clarifying how linguists' rather dry use of this 
word diverges from that of everyday English and also from that of some 
of the trendier academic disciplines. The original sense of "gender" had 
nothing to do with sex: it meant "type," "kind," "race"— in fact, "gen- 
der" has exactly the same origin as the words "genus" and "genre." Like 
most serious problems in life, the latter-day diversity of meanings for 
"gender" has its roots in ancient Greece. The Greek philosophers started 
using their noun genos (which meant "race" or "type") to refer to one 
particular division of things into three specific "types": males (humans 
and animals), females, and inanimate things. And from Greek, this sense 
passed via Latin to other European languages. 

In English, both senses of "gender"— the general meaning "type" 
and the more specific grammatical distinction— coexisted happily for a 
long time. As late as the eighteenth century, "gender" could sti11 be used 
in an entirely sexless way. When the novelist Robert Bage wrote in 1784, 
"I also am a man of importance, a public man, Sir, of the patriotic 
gender," he meant nothing more than "type." But later on, this general 
sense of the word fell into disuse in everyday English, the "neuter" 
category also beat a retreat, and the masculine-feminine division came 
to dominate the meaning of the word. In the twentieth century, "gender" 
became simply a euphemism for "sex," so if you find on some official 
form a request to fill in your "gender," you are unlikely nowadays to 
write "patriotic." 

In some academic disciplines, notably "gender studies," the sexual 
connotations of "gender" developed an even more specific sense and 
started being used to denote the social (rather than biological) aspects 
of the difference between women and men. "Gender studies" are thus 
concerned with the social roles played by the two sexes rather than with 
the differences between their anatomies. 

Linguists, on the other hand, veered in exactly the opposite direc- 
tion: they returned to the original meaning of the word, namely "type" 
or "kind," and nowadays use it for any division of nouns according to 
some essential properties. These essential properties may be based on 
sex, but they do not have to be. Some languages, for example, have a 
gender distinction that is based only on "animacy," the distinction 
between animate beings (people and animals of both sexes) and inani- 
mate things. Other languages draw the line differently and make a gen- 
der distinction between human and non-human (animals and inanimate 
things). And there are also languages that divide nouns into much more 
specific genders. The African language Supyire from Mali has five gen- 
ders: humans, big things, small things, collectives, and liquids. Bantu 
languages such as Swahili have up to ten genders, and the Australian 
language Ngan'gityemerri is said to have fifteen different genders, which 
include, among others, masculine human, feminine human, canines, 
non-canines, vegetables, drinks, and two different genders for 
spears (depending on size and material). 

In short, when a linguist talks about "gender studies" she is just as 
likely to mean "animal, mineral, and vegetable" as the difference between 
men and women. Nevertheless, since the research on the influence of 
grammatical gender on the mind has so far been conducted exclusively 
on European languages, in which the distinction between masculine 
and feminine nouns dominates the gender system, our focus in the fol- 
lowing pages will be on the masculine and feminine, and more exotic 
genders will make only a passing appearance. 

The discussion so far may have given the impression that grammatical 
gender actually makes sense. The idea of grouping together objects with 
similar vital properties seems eminently reasonable in itself, so it would 
be only natural to assume that whatever criteria a language has chosen 
for making gender distinctions, it will abide by its own rules. We would 
expect, therefore, that a feminine gender would include all, and only 
all, female human beings or animals, that an inanimate gender would 
include all inanimate things, and only them, that a vegetable gender 
would include, well, vegetables. 

There are in fact a handful of languages that do behave like that. In 
Tamil, there are three genders— masculine, feminine, and neuter— and 
you can pretty much tell which gender any noun belongs to given its 
obvious properties. Nouns denoting men and male gods are mascu- 
line; those denoting women and goddesses are feminine; everything 
else— objects, animals, and infants— is neuter. Another straightforward 
case was Sumerian, the language spoken on the banks of the Euphrates 
some five thousand years ago by the people who invented writing and 
kick-started history. The Sumerian gender system was based not on sex 
but on the distinction between human and non-human, and nouns were 
assigned consistently to the appropriate gender. The only point of inde- 
cision was with the noun "slave," which was sometimes deemed human 
and sometimes assigned to the non-human gender. Another language 
that can be said to belong to the elite club of logical gender is English. 
Gender is marked only on pronouns in English ("he," "she," "it"), and 
in general such pronouns are used transparently: "she" refers to women 
and occasionally to female animals, "he" to men and to a few male 
animals, and "it" to everything else. The exceptions, such as "she" for a 
ship, are few and far between. 

There are also some languages, such as Manambu from Papua New 
Guinea, where genders might not be entirely consistent, but where one 
can at least discern some basic threads of rationality in the system. In 
Manambu, masculine and feminine genders are assigned to inanimate 
objects, not just to men and women. But apparently there are reason- 
ably transparent rules for the assignment. For instance, small and 
rounded things are feminine, while big and longish things are mascu- 
line. A belly is feminine, for example, but a pregnant woman's belly is 
spoken of in the masculine gender once it has become really big. Intense 
things are masculine, less intense things feminine. Darkness is femi- 
nine when it's not yet completely dark, but when it becomes pitch-black 
it turns masculine. You don't have to agree with the logic, but at least 
you can follow it. 

Finally, there are those languages, such as Turkish, Finnish, Estonian, 
Hungarian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese, that are entirely consistent 
about gender simply because they have no grammatical gender at all. In 
such languages, even pronouns referring to human beings do not bear 
gender distinctions, so there aren't separate pronouns for "he" and "she." 
When a Hungarian friend of mine is tired, he sometimes lets slip things 
like "she is Emma's husband." This is not because speakers of Hungarian 
are blind to the difference between men and women, only because they 
are not in the habit of specifying the sex of a person each and every time 
the person is mentioned. 

If genders were always as straight as they are in English or Tamil, there 
would be little point in asking whether a gender system can affect people's 
perception of objects. For if the grammatical gender of every object 
merely reflected its real-world properties {man, woman, inanimate, vege- 
table, etc.), it could add nothing to anyone's associations that was not there 
objectively. But as it happens, languages with a consistent and transpar- 
ent gender system are very much in the minority. The great majority of 
languages have wayward genders. Most European languages belong in this 
degenerate group: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Ger- 
man, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Polish, Czech, Greek. 
Even in the most erratic gender systems, there is usually a core 
group of nouns that are assigned grammatical gender in a consistent 
way. In particular, male human beings almost always have masculine 
gender. Women, on the other hand, are much more often denied the 
privilege of belonging to the feminine gender and are relegated to the 
neuter gender instead. In German, there is a whole range of words for 
women that are treated as "it": das Mädchen (girl, the diminutive form 
of "maid"), das Fräulein (unmarried woman or miss, the diminutive of Frau), 
das Weib (archaism: woman, cognate with English "wife"), or das Frauenzimmer 
(woman, but literally "lady chamber": the original meaning referred to 
the living chambers of the lady, but the word started to be used for the 
entourage of a noble lady, then for particular members of the entourage, 
and hence to increasingly less distinguished women). 

The Greeks treat their women a little better: while their word for girl, 
koritsi, is, just as you would expect, of the neuter gender, if one speaks 
about a pretty buxom girl, one adds the augmentative suffix -aros, and 
the resulting noun, koritsaros, "buxom girl," then belongs to the... 
masculine gender. (Heaven knows what Whorf, or for that matter Freud, 
would have made of that.) And if this seems the height of madness, con- 
sider that back in the days when English still had a real gender system, 
it assigned the word "woman" not to the feminine gender, not even to 
the neuter, but, like Greek, to the masculine gender. "Woman" comes 
from the Old English wif-man, literally "woman-human being." Since in 
Old English the gender of a compound noun like wif-man was deter- 
mined by the gender of the last element, here the masculine man, the 
correct pronoun to use when referring to a woman was "he." 

The habit of European languages to misplace human beings— 
especially from one sex — in the wrong gender may be the most offen- 
sive element about the system. But in terms of the number of nouns 
involved, this quirkiness is rather marginal. It is in the realm of inani- 
mate objects that the party actually gets going. In French, German, Rus- 
sian, and most other European languages, the masculine and feminine 
genders extend to thousands of objects that are by no stretch of the 
imagination male or female. What, for instance, is particularly femi- 
nine about a Frenchman's beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a 
"she," and why does she become a "he" once you have dipped a tea bag 
into her? Why does the German feminine sun (die Sonne) light up the 
masculine day (der Tag), and the masculine moon (der Mond) shine in 
the feminine night (die Nacht)? After all, in French, he (le jour) is actu- 
ally illuminated by him (le soleil) whereas she (la nuit) by her (la lune). 
German cutlery famously spans the whole gamut of gender roles: Das 
Messer (knife) may be an it, but on the opposite side of the plate lies the 
spoon (der Löffel) in his resplendent masculinity, and next to him, 
bursting with sex appeal, the feminine fork (die Gabel). But in Spanish, 
it's the fork (el tenedor) that has a hairy chest and gravelly voice, and 
she, the spoon (la cuchara), a curvaceous figure. 

For native speakers of English, the rampant sexing of inanimate 
objects and occasional desexing of humans are a cause of frustration 
and merriment in equal measure. The erratic gender system was the 
main charge in Mark Twain's famous indictment of "The Awful German 
Language": 

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: 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. 

Twain was inspired by German grammar to write his famous "Tale of 
the Fishwife and Its Sad Fate," which he pretended to have translated 
from German quite literally. It begins like this: 

It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he 
rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how 
deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has 
dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales 
as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got 
into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for 
Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the rag- 
ing of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she 
will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her 
Mouth— will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife's brave Mother-dog 
deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin— which he eats, himself, as his 
Reward. O, horror, the Lightning has struck the Fish-basket; he sets 
him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the doomed Utensil with her 
red and angry Tongue; now she attacks the helpless Fishwife's Foot- 
she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and even SHE is partly con- 
sumed; and still she spreads, still she waves her fiery Tongues; she 
attacks the Fishwife's Leg and destroys IT; she attacks its Hand and 
destroys HER also; she attacks the Fishwife's Leg and destroys HER 
also; she attacks its Body and consumes HIM; she wreathes herself 
about its Heart and IT is consumed; next about its Breast, and in a 
Moment SHE is a Cinder; now she reaches its Neck— He goes; now its 
Chin— IT goes; now its Nose— SHE goes. In another Moment, except 
Help come, the Fishwife will be no more!



The thing is, for Germans none of this is even remotely funny. It is so 
natural, in fact, that German translators struggle to render the passage's 
particular brand of humor. One translator solved the problem by substi- 
tuting the tale with another one, which he called "Sehen Sie den Tisch, es 
ist grün" — literally "look at the table, it is green." If you find you are hav- 
ing a sense of humor failure yourself, then remember that what one 
really ought to say in German is "look at the table, he is green." 

Twain believed that there was something specially debauched about 
the German gender system and that among all languages it was 
unusually and peculiarly irrational. But that belief was based on igno- 
rance, because if anything it is English that is unusual in not having an 
irrational gender system. And at this point, I ought to declare a conflict 
of interest, since my mother tongue, Hebrew, assigns inanimate objects 
to the feminine and masculine genders just as erratically as German or 
French or Spanish or Russian. When I go into a (masculine) house, the 
feminine door opens onto a masculine room with a masculine carpet 
(be he ever so pink), a masculine table, and feminine bookcases full of 
masculine books. Out of the masculine window I can see the masculine 
trees and on them the birds, which are feminine regardless of the acci- 
dents of their anatomy, if I knew more about (feminine) ornithology, I 
could tell by looking at each bird what biological sex she was. I would 
point at her and explain to the less initiated: "You can tell she is a male 
because of that red spot on her chest and also because she is larger than 
the females." And I would not feel there was anything remotely strange 
about that. 

Wayward genders are not confined to Europe and the Mediterra- 
nean basin. If anything, languages farther afield, which have a larger 
number of gender categories, have even more scope for erratic assign- 
ments, and hardly any such language fails to make ample use of the 
opportunity. In the Australian language Dyirbal, water is assigned to 
the feminine gender, but in another aboriginal language, Mayali, 
water belongs to the vegetable gender. The vegetable gender of the 
neighbouring Gurr-goni language includes the word erriplen, "air- 
plane." In the African language Supyire, the gender for "big things" 
includes, as one would expect, all the big mammals: horse, giraffe, hip- 
popotamus, and so on. All? Well, almost: only one wasn't consid- 
ered big enough to be included and was assigned instead to the human 
gender— the elephant. The problem is not how to find more such 
examples, it is how to stop. 



Why do so many languages develop irregular genders? We don't know 
much about the infancy of gender systems, because in most languages 
the origin of gender markers is entirely opaque.' But the few clues we do 
have make the ubiquitous irrationality of mature gender systems appear 
particularly peculiar, because all the signs suggest that in their early 
days genders were perfectly logical. There are a few languages, espe- 
cially in Africa, in which the feminine gender marker looks rather like 
a shortened version of the noun "woman" itself, and the inanimate gen- 
der marker resembles the noun "thing." Likewise, the vegetable gender 
marker in some Australian languages looks rather similar to the 
noun . . . "vegetable." It stands to reason, therefore, that gender markers 
started out in life as generic nouns such as "woman " "man," "thing," or 
"vegetable." And if so, it seems plausible that they would have originally 
been applied only to women, men, things, and vegetables, respectively. 

But with time the gender markers may start being extended to nouns 
beyond their original remit, and through a series of such extensions a gen- 
der system can quickly be brought out of kilter. In Gurr-goni, for example, 
the vegetable gender came to include the noun "airplane" through a per- 
fectly natural sequence of little steps: the original "vegetable" gender 
marker must first have been extended to plants more generally, and 
hence to all kinds of wooden objects. Since canoes are made of wood, 
another natural step would have included them in the vegetable gender 
as well. Since canoes happened to be the main means of transport for 
the speakers of Gurr-goni, the vegetable gender was then widened to 
include means of transportation more generally. And so, when the bor- 
rowed word erriplen entered the language, it was quite naturally assigned 
to the vegetable gender. Each step in this chain was natural and made 
perfect sense in its own local context. But the end result seems entirely 
arbitrary. 

The Indo-European languages may also have started with a trans- 
parent gender system. But suppose, for instance, that the moon came to 
be included in the masculine gender because he was personified as a 
male god. Later, the word "month" developed from the word "moon," 
so it was only natural that if the moon was a "he" a "month" would also 
be a "he." But if so, then words for other time units, such as "day," can 
also come to be included in the masculine gender. While each step in 
this chain of extensions may be perfectly natural in itself, after two or 
three steps the original logic has become opaque, and so masculine and 
feminine genders can find themselves applied to a range of inanimate 
objects for no intelligible reason. 

The worst thing about this loss of transparency is that it is a self- 
propelling process: the less consistent the system becomes, the easier it 
is to mess it up even further. Once there are enough nouns with arbi- 
trary genders, children struggling to learn the language may stop 
expecting to find reliable rules based on the real-world properties of 
objects, so they may start looking for other types of clues. For example, 
they can start guessing what gender a noun has on the basis of what it 
sounds like (if X sounds like Y, and Y is feminine, then maybe X is 
feminine as well). Incorrect guesses by children may initially be per- 
ceived as errors, but with time such errors can stick and so before too 
long any trace of the original logic can be lost. 

Finally, it is ironic that when a language loses one gender out of three 
the result may actually increase the waywardness of the system rather 
than decrease it. Spanish, French, and Italian, for instance, lost the origi- 
nal neuter gender of their Latin forebear, when the neuter coalesced with 
the masculine. But the result only ensured that all inanimate nouns are 
randomly assigned to the masculine or feminine genders. 

Nevertheless, the syndrome of genus erraticum is not always an 
incurable illness in a language. As the history of English can attest, 
when a language manages to lose not just one gender but two, the result 
can be a radical overhaul that eliminates the erratic system altogether. 
Until the eleventh century, English had a full-blown three-gender sys- 
tem just like German. English speakers from the eleventh century 
would not have understood what Mark Twain was bemoaning in his 
"Tale of the Fishwife and Its Sad Fate," since for them a wife (wif) was 
an "it," a fish (fisc) was a "he," whereas fate (wyrd) was a "she." But all 
this changed during the twelfth century. 

The collapse of the Old English irregular genders had little to do 
with improving standards of sex education. The reason was rather that 
the gender system had critically depended on the doomed system of 
case endings. Originally, English had a complex case system similar to 
that of Latin, where nouns and adjectives appeared with different end- 
ings depending on their role in the sentence. Nouns of different genders 
had different sets of such case endings, so one could tell from the end- 
ings which gender a noun belonged to. But the system of endings rap- 
idly disintegrated in the century after the Norman Conquest, and once 
the endings had disappeared, the new generation of speakers hardly had 
any clues left to tell them which gender each noun was supposed to 
belong to. These new speakers, who grew up into a language that no 
longer gave them sufficient information to decide whether a carrot, for 
example, should be addressed as a "he" or a "she," fell back on a radical 
and highly innovative idea, and started to call it an "it" instead. So over 
a period of just a few generations, the original arbitrary gender system 
was replaced by a new one with transparent rules, whereby (almost) all 
inanimate objects came to be referred to simply as "it." 

Still, a few wily nouns, especially feminine ones, managed to escape 
the mass sterilization. Mark Twain, who was outraged by the bestowal 
of femininity upon German turnips, would have been surprised to 
learn that the same custom was still practiced in England only three 
centuries earlier. A medicinal manual published in London in 1561, The 
Most Excellent and Perfecte Homish Apothecarye or Homely Physick 
Bookefor all the Grefes and Diseases of the Bodye, offers the following 
confection against hoarseness: "He that is become hoorse lately, let him 
roste a rape [turnip] in ashes or upon the fyre till she be all black, then 
pare her clene and eate her as warm thou canst." 

In dialectal varieties of English, some gendered nouns survived for 
much longer, but in the standard language a great tide of neuters flooded 
the inanimate world, leaving only a few isolated nouns bobbing about 
in their femininity. The slow but sure iticization of English can be said 
to have come to its final mooring on March 20, 2002. For the maritime 
world, that particular Wednesday seemed no more eventful than any 
other Wednesday. Lloyd's List, the newspaper of the shipping industry, 
published its daily pageful of dispatches on casualties, accidents, and 
acts of piracy at sea. Among others, it mentioned the ferry Baltic Jet en 
route from Tallinn to Helsinki, which "had a fire in her port side engine 
room at 0814, local time" the tanker Hamilton Energy departed from 
Port Weller Docks in Canada after "repairs were made to damage suf- 
fered when she was in contact with a Saltie. The accident snapped the 
rudder post and drove her propeller shaft through her gearbox and 
smashed her engine casting off." Elsewhere in Canada, a shrimp trawler 
got stuck in pack ice, but the owner said that "there is a possibility she 
can be started up and steamed under her own power." A day, in short, 
like any other. 

The real ocean-shaking news was reported on a different page, 
stowed away in the editorial column. Kissed by the punning muse, the 
editor announced under the headline "Her today, gone tomorrow" that 
"we have taken the simple yet significant decision to change our style 
from the start of the next month and start referring to ships as neuter 
rather than female. It brings this paper into line with most other rep- 
utable international business titles." Reactions from the public were 
stormy, and the paper was overwhelmed by letters to the editor. An 
irate Greek reader wrote: "Sir, only a bunch of crusty, out of touch, 
stuck up Englishmen would dream of trying to change the way we've 
spoken of ships for thousands of years as 'she.' Get out of there and go 
tend to your gardens and hunt foxes, you arrogant assholes. Sincerely 
yours, Stephen Komianos." But not even this silver-tongued plea con- 
vinced Lloyd's List to change her course, and in April 2002 "she" fell by 
the quayside. 
Languages that treat inanimate objects as "he" or "she" force their 
speakers to talk about such objects with the same grammatical forms 
that are applied to men and women. This habit of he-ing and she-ing 
objects means that an association between an inanimate noun and one 
of the sexes is shoved down the speakers' ears whenever they hear the 
name of this object, and the same association is pushed up their throats 
whenever they have occasion to mention his or her name themselves. 
And as anyone whose mother tongue has a gender system will tell you, 
once the habit has taken hold and the masculine or feminine associa- 
tion has been established, it is very difficult to shake it off. When I speak 
English, I may say about a bed that "it" is too soft, but I actually feel 
"she" is too soft. She stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the 
glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue. 

As a basis for serious investigation, however, my professed feelings 
toward beds hardly constitute reliable evidence. It is not just the anec- 
dotal nature of this information that is the problem, but the fact that 
I have not provided any proof that the "she" feeling is anything more 
than tongue-deep— a mere grammatical habit. The automatic associa- 
tion between an inanimate noun and a gendered pronoun does not, in 
itself, show that the grammatical gender has exercised any deeper effect 
on the speakers' thoughts. It does not show, in particular, whether speak- 
ers of Hebrew or Spanish, which treat beds as feminine, really associate 
with beds any womanly properties. 

Over the last century, various experiments have been conducted 
with the aim of testing precisely this question: Can the grammatical 
gender of inanimate objects influence speakers' associations? Probably 
the first such experiment was conducted at the Moscow Psychological 
Institute in prerevolutionary Russia. In 1915, fifty people were asked to 
imagine each day of the week as a particular person, then to describe 
the person they had pictured for each day. It turned out that all partici- 
pants envisaged Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday as men but Wednes- 
day, Friday, and Saturday as women. Why should this be so? When 
asked to explain their choice, many of them could not give a satisfac- 
tory answer. But the researchers concluded that the answer could not be 
unrelated to the fact that the names for Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday 
have a masculine gender in Russian, whereas Wednesday, Friday, and 
Saturday are feminine. 

In the 1990s, the psychologist Toshi Konishi conducted an experi- 
ment comparing the gender associations of speakers of German and of 
Spanish. There are quite a few inanimate nouns whose genders in the 
two languages are reversed. The German air is a she (die Luft) but el aire 
is he in Spanish; die Brücke (bridge) is also feminine in German but el 
puente is masculine; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, 
newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the 
world, and love. On the other hand, der Apfel is masculine for Germans 
but la manzana is feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, but- 
terflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain, and garbage. Konishi 
presented a list of such nouns with conflicting genders to German and 
to Spanish speakers and asked the participants for their opinions on the 
properties of those nouns: whether they were weak or strong, little or 
big, and so on. On average, the nouns that are masculine in German 
but feminine in Spanish (chairs and keys, for example) got higher marks 
for strength from the Germans, whereas bridges and clocks, which are 
masculine in Spanish but feminine in German, were judged stronger on 
average by the Spanish speakers. 

The simple conclusion from such an experiment would be that 
bridges do have more manly connotations for Spanish speakers than for 
German speakers. However, one possible objection to this inference is 
that it may not be the bridge itself that carries such connotations— it 
may only have been hearing the name together with the masculine 
article el or un. In this interpretation, when Spanish and German 
speakers simply look at a bridge, their associations may not be affected 
at all, and it may be only in the moment of speech, only through the act 
of saying or hearing the gender marker itself, that a fleeting association 
with manliness or womanliness is created in the speaker's mind. 

Is it possible, therefore, to get round the problem and check whether 
womanly or manly associations for inanimate nouns are present even 
when the gender markers in the relevant language are not explicitly 
mentioned? The psychologists Lera Boroditsky and Lauren Schmidt 
tried to do this by repeating a similar experiment with Spanish and 
German speakers, but this time communicating with the participants 
in English rather than in their respective mother tongue. Although the 
experiment was conducted in a language that treats inanimate objects 
uniformly as "it," the Spanish and German speakers still showed 
marked differences in the attributes they chose for the relevant objects. 
German speakers tended to describe bridges as beautiful, elegant, frag- 
ile, peaceful, pretty, and slender; Spanish speakers as big, dangerous, 
long, strong, sturdy, towering. 
A more radical way of bypassing the problem was designed by the 
psychologist Maria Sera and her colleagues, who compared the reac- 
tions of French and Spanish speakers but used pictures of objects 
instead of words. As two closely related languages, French and Spanish 
mostly agree on gender, but there are still sufficiently many nouns that 
diverge: the fork, for instance, is la fourchette in French but el tenedor in 
Spanish, and so are cars (la voiture, el coche) and bananas (la banane, el 
plátano); on the other hand, French beds are masculine (le lit) but Span- 
ish ones are feminine (la cama), and the same goes for clouds (le nuage, 
la nube) and butterflies (le papillon, la mariposa). The participants in 
this experiment were asked to help in the preparation of a movie in 
which some everyday objects come to life. Their task was to choose the 
appropriate voice for each object in the movie. They were shown a series 
of pictures, and for each one they were asked to choose between a man's 
voice and a woman's voice. Although the names of the objects were 
never mentioned, when French speakers saw the picture of a fork, most 
of them wanted her to speak in a woman's voice, whereas the Spanish 
speakers tended to choose a male voice for him instead. With the pic- 
ture of the bed, the situation was reversed. 

The experiments described above are certainly suggestive. They seem to 
show that the grammatical gender of an inanimate object affects the prop- 
erties that speakers associate with this object. Or at least what the exper- 
iments demonstrate is that the grammatical gender affects the responses 
when speakers are actively requested to indulge their imaginations and 
come up with associations for such an object. But this last point is in 
fact a serious weakness. All the experiments described so far suffer 
from one underlying problem, namely that they forced the partici- 
pants to exercise their imaginations. A skeptic could argue with some 
justification that the only thing the experiments proved was that 
grammatical genders affect associations when the participants are 
coerced unnaturally to dream up properties for various inanimate 
objects. In the worst case, one could parody what might be going on in 
a participant's mind as something like: "Here I am being asked all sorts 
of ridiculous questions. Now they want me to think up properties for a 
bridge— goodness me, what's next? Well, I'd better come up with some- 
thing, otherwise they'll never let me go home. So I'll say X." Under such 
circumstances, the first property that comes to a Spanish speaker's 
mind is indeed likely to be more manlike than womanlike. In other 
words, if you force Spanish speakers to be on-the-spot poets, and 
extract properties of bridges out of them, the gender system will indeed 
affect their choice of properties. But how can we tell whether the mas- 
culine gender has any influence on speakers' spontaneous conceptions 
of bridges, even outside such exercises in poetry on demand? 

In the 1960s, the linguist Susan Ervin tried to downplay the element 
of creativity with an experiment that involved Italian speakers. She 
relied on the fact that Italian has very diffuse dialects, so even a native 
speaker would not be at all surprised to encounter entirely unfamiliar 
words in an unfamiliar dialect. Ervin invented a list of nonsense words 
that sounded as if they could be the dialectal terms for various objects. 
Some of these ended in -o (masculine) and the others in -a (feminine). 
She wanted to check what associations these words would evoke in Ital- 
ian speakers but did not want the participants to realize that they were 
indulging in creative imagination. So she told them they were going to 
see a list of words from an Italian dialect that they didn't know, and she 
pretended that the aim of the experiment was to check whether people 
could guess correctly the properties of words merely by the way they 
sound. The participants tended to attribute to the -o words similar prop- 
erties to those they attributed to men (strong, big, ugly), whereas the -a 
words tended to be described with properties that were also used for 
women (weak, little, pretty). Ervin's experiment showed that associa- 
tions were affected by the grammatical gender even when the partici- 
pants did not realize they were indulging in creative imagination and 
assumed that the question before them had a correct solution. But 
while this experiment went some way toward overcoming the prob- 
lem of subjective judgments, it still did not solve the problem completely, 
since even if the participants were not aware of being coerced to pro- 
duce associations on demand, in practice this is exactly what they 
were required to do. 
In fact, it is difficult to imagine how one could design any experi- 
ment that would completely bypass the influence of subjective judg- 
ments. For the task requires nothing less than having one's cake and 
eating it too: how can any experiment measure whether grammatical 
genders exert an influence on speakers' associations, without soliciting 
these speakers for their associations? A few years ago, Lera Boroditsky 
and Lauren Schmidt found a way to do exactly that. They asked a group 
of Spanish speakers and a group of German speakers to participate in a 
memory game (which was conducted wholly in English, in order to 
avoid any explicit mention of the genders). The participants were given 
a list of two dozen inanimate objects, and for each of these objects, they 
had to memorize a person's name. For example, "apple" had the name 
Patrick associated with it, and "bridge" had the name Claudia. The par- 
ticipants were given a fixed period of time to memorize the names asso- 
ciated with the objects, then tested on how well they had managed. A 
statistical analysis of the results showed that they were better at remem- 
bering the assigned names when the gender of the object matched the 
sex of the person, and that they found it more difficult to remember the 
names when the gender of the object clashed with the sex of the person. 
For example, Spanish speakers found it easier to remember the name 
associated with "apple" (la manzana) if it was Patricia rather than 
Patrick, and they found it easier to remember the name for a bridge (el 
puente) if it was Claudio rather than Claudia. 

Since Spanish speakers found it objectively more difficult to match 
a bridge with a woman than with a man, we can conclude that when 
inanimate objects have a masculine or feminine gender, the associa- 
tions of manhood or womanhood for these objects are present in 
Spanish speakers' minds even when they are not actively solicited, 
even when the participants are not invited to opine on such questions 
as whether bridges are strong rather than slender, and even when they 
speak English. 

Of course, one could still object that the memory task in question 
was fairly artificial and at some remove from the concerns of everyday 
life, where one is not often called upon to memorize whether apples or 
bridges are called Patrick or Claudia. But psychological experiments 
often have to rely on such narrowly circumscribed tasks in order to 
tease out statistically significant differences. The importance of the 
results is not in what they say about the particular task itself but in what 
they reveal about the effect of gender more generally, namely that manly 
or womanly associations of inanimate objects are strong enough in the 
minds of Spanish and German speakers to affect their ability to commit 
information to memory. 

There is always room for refinement and improvement in psychological 
experiments, of course, and those reported above are no exception. But 
the evidence that has emerged so far leaves little doubt that the idiosyn- 
crasies of a gender system exert a significant influence on speakers' 
thoughts. When a language treats inanimate objects in the same way as 
it treats women and men, with the same grammatical forms or with the 
same "he" and "she" pronouns, the habits of grammar can spill over to 
habits of mind beyond grammar. The grammatical nexus between 
object and gender is imposed on children from the earliest age and 
reinforced many thousands of times throughout their lives. This con- 
stant drilling affects the associations that speakers develop about inani- 
mate objects and can clothe their notions of such objects in womanly or 
manly traits. The evidence suggests that sex-related associations are not 
only fabricated on demand but present even when they are not actively 
solicited. 

Gender thus provides our second example of how the mother tongue 
influences thought. As before, the relevant difference between lan- 
guages with and without a gender system is not in what they allow their 
speakers to convey but in what they habitually force their speakers to 
say. There is no evidence to suggest that grammatical gender affects 
anyone's ability to reason logically. Speakers of gendered languages are 
perfectly able to understand the difference between sex and syntax, and 
are not under the illusion that inanimate objects have biological sex. 
German women rarely mistake their husbands for a hat (even though 
hats are masculine), Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with 
what might be lying in it, and animism does not seem to be more wide- 
spread in Italy or Russia than in Anglo-Saxonia. Conversely, there is no 
reason to suspect that speakers of Hungarian or Turkish or Indonesian, 
which do not make gender distinctions even on pronouns, are in any 
way constrained from understanding the finer points about the birds 
and the bees. 

Nevertheless, even if grammatical gender does not restrict anyone's 
capacity for reasoning, that does not make its consequence any less 
severe for those immured in a gendered mother tongue. For a gender 
system may come close to being a prison-house nevertheless— a prison- 
house of associations. The chains of associations imposed by the gen- 
ders of one's language are all but impossible to cast off. 

But if you native speakers of English are tempted to feel sorry for 
those of us who are shackled by the heavy load of an irrational gender 
system, then think again. I would never want to change places with you. 
My mind may be weighed down by an arbitrary and illogical set of 
associations, but my world has so much to it that you entirely miss out 
on, because the landscape of my language is so much more fertile than 
your arid desert of "it's." 

It goes without saying that genders are language's gift to poets. Heine's 
masculine pine tree longs for the feminine palm; Boris Pasternak's My 
Sister Life can work only because "life" is feminine in Russian; English 
translations of Charles Baudelaire's "L'homme et la mer," however 
inspired, can never hope to capture the tempestuous relationship of 
attraction and antagonism that he evokes between "him" (the man) and 
"her" (the sea); nor can English do justice to Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the 
Sea," in which the (masculine) el mar strikes a stone (una piedra) and 
then "he caresses her, kisses her, drenches her, pounds his chest, repeat- 
ing his own name" — the English "it caresses it, kisses it, drenches it, 
pounds its chest" is not quite the same. 

Needless to say, genders cheer up the everyday life of ordinary 
mortals too. Genders may be a nightmare for foreign learners, but they 
do not seem to cause any serious trouble to native speakers, and they 
make the world a livelier place. How tedious it would be if bees weren't 
"she's" and butterflies "he's," if one didn't step from feminine pavements 
to masculine roads, if twelve masculine months didn't crowd inside one 
feminine year, if one couldn't greet Mr. Cucumber and Lady Cauliflower 
in the proper way. I would never want to forfeit my genders. Along with 
Aunt Augusta, I would rather say to the English language that to lose 
one gender may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like 
carelessness. 

Visitors to Japan in possession of a sharp eye might notice something 
unusual about the colour of some traffic lights. Not that there is anything 
odd about the basic scheme: just like everywhere else, the red light in 
Japan means "stop," green is for "go," and an orange light appears in 
between. But those who take a good look will see that the green lights 
are a different shade of green from that of other countries, and have a 
distinct bluish tint. The reason why is not an Oriental superstition about 
the protective powers of turquoise or a spillage of blue toner in a Japa- 
nese plastic factory, but a bizarre twist of linguistic-political history. 

Japanese used to have a colour word, aoi, that spanned both green and 
blue. In the modern language, however, ao has come to be restricted 
mostly to blue shades, and green is usually expressed by the word midori 
(although even today ao can still refer to the green of freshness or 
unripeness — green apples, for instance, are called ao ringo). When the 
first traffic lights were imported from the United States and installed in 
Japan in the 1930s, they were just as green as anywhere else. Neverthe- 
less, in common parlance the go light was dubbed ao shingoo, perhaps 
because the three primary colors on Japanese artists' palettes are tradi- 
tionally akai (red), kiiro (yellow), and aoi. The label aoi for a green light 
did not appear so out of the ordinary at first, because of the remaining 
associations of the word aoi with greenness. But over time, the discrep- 
ancy between the green color and the dominant meaning of the word 
ao began to feel jarring. Nations with a weaker spine might have opted 
for the feeble solution of simply changing the official name of the go 
light to midori. Not so the Japanese. Rather than alter the name to fit 
reality, the Japanese government decreed in 1973 that reality should be 
altered to fit the name: henceforth, go lights would be a color that better 
corresponded to the dominant meaning of aoi. Alas, it was impossible to 
change the color to real blue, because Japan is party to an international 
convention that ensures road signs have a measure of uniformity around 
the globe. The solution was thus to make the aoi light as bluish as possi- 
ble while still being officially green.

The turquoising of the traffic light in Japan is a rather out-of-the-way 
example of how the quirks of a language can change reality and thus 
affect what people get to see in the world. But of course this is not the 
kind of influence of language that we have been concerned with in the 
previous few chapters. Our question is whether speakers of different 
languages might perceive the same reality in different ways, just because 
of their mother tongues. Are the colour concepts of our language a lens 
through which we experience colours in the world? 

The way 
our language carves up the world into concepts has not just been deter- 
mined for us by nature, and that what we find "natural" depends largely 
on the conventions we have been brought up on. That is not to say, of 
course, that each language can partition the world arbitrarily according 
to its whim. But within the constraints of what is learnable and sensible 
for communication, the ways in which even the simplest concepts are 
delineated can vary to a far greater degree than what plain common 
sense would ever expect. For, ultimately, what common sense finds nat- 
ural is what it is familiar with. 

The significance of the genders in Heine's poem: Vygotsky 1987, 
253, Veit 1976; and Walser 1983, 195-96. 
page 202 Underlying regularities in the distribution of genders in Ger- 
man: Kopcke and Zubin 1984. 

page 204 The origin of gender systems: Claudi 1985; Aikhenvald 2000; 
and Greenberg 1978. 

page 206 Loss of the genders in English: Curzon 2003. 
page 207 Dialectal uses of feminine nouns: Beattie 1788, 139, and Pea- 
cock 1877. 

page 207 Femininity of "ship": Strangely enough, "ship" is a relative new- 
comer on the gender ocean, for in Old English a scip was actually 
neuter, not feminine. So the use of a gendered pronoun here seems to 
be an actual case of personification, not just an old relic. 

page 209 Experiment at the Moscow Psychological Institute: Jakobson 
1959a, 237, and Jakobson 1972, 108. 

page 209 German and Spanish comparisons: Konishi 1993. 

page 21 1 French and Spanish comparisons: Sera et al. 2002. 

page 212 Italian nonsense words: Ervin 1962, 257. 

page 213 Boroditsky and Schmidt's memory experiment: Boroditsky et 
al. 2003, but detailed results of the experiment based on Boroditsky 
and Schmidt (unpublished). 
page 217 Japanese traffic lights: Conlan 2005. The official Japanese stan- 
dard for green traffic lights shown in figure 7 in the insert is taken 
from Janoff 1994, and from the Web site of the Rensselaer Polytechnic 
Institute's Lighting Research Center (http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/programs/ 
transportation/LED/LEDTrafficSignalComparison.asp).


Oh... and, like, Spanish has "pez" for /fish as animal/ and "pescado" for /fish as food./ And the Scandinavian languages lack an exact word for the noun "mind" (translating the corresponding word, depending on the context, as "förstând" --reason--, "minne" --memory--, "tanke" --thought--, "själ" --soul--, "hjärna" --brain--, "sinne" --sense--, or "psyke"): I mean, they lack an exact word for /mind/ yet can tell between several different kinds of /snow/ (nysnö --new snow--, kornsnö --granulated snow--, snömos --creamy dirty slush formed on the streets--, kramsnö --malleable snow, ideal for building snowmen, igloos, et al.--, and so on)... A mind is a terrible thing to translate into Swedish, for instance. Seeing these cases through a Whorfian lens...


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