“Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. 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.”
Despite being written nearly 140 years ago, Mark Twain’s essay The Awful German Language continues to offer a relevant — if not satirical — critique of the German language. Today, non-German speakers are still sure to raise an eyebrow at the fact that a girl or young woman (in German, Mädchen or Fräulein) would be assigned the neuter, or genderless, article. “Yes, but that’s because of the suffix -lein or -chen,” says the German. “They make every word neutral!”
It’s common knowledge that words can move mountains — but should suffixes have the power to nullify the gender of a girl? Or the gender of a young boy (in German, Jüngelchen)? And what about knives, forks, plates and teapots? Do they have genders as well? In German, apparently so: das Messer (“knife” is genderless), die Gabel (“fork” is female), der Teller (“plate” is male) and die Teekanne (“teapot” is female). The assigning of genders to inanimate objects might make sense in Disney films, but for most native English speakers, inanimate objects are always genderless.
What is a grammatical gender?
We don’t think about it very often, but we deal with two sexes every day: the biological and the grammatical. In many languages, there’s a gender system in which all nouns are given genders, regardless of whether it’s a living cat, a seemingly-living robot with artificial intelligence or an inanimate stone. Some languages like Turkish, Japanese or Thai have no gender; others like English or Afrikaans have no genders for nouns but still highlight gender with pronouns (like he, she or it). Most languages have at least a feminine and a masculine gender, and others like German, Polish or Russian also add the neuter gender. Some languages even differentiate by gender between animate and inanimate objects!
Despite the confusion, gender does seem to be more than just another annoying hurdle in language learning; some studies suggest that grammatical gender actually influences both our perception of gender itself, as well as the resulting perception of objects.
If Monday were a person… (it would be a man)
There are many examples of how grammatical gender influences perception. In a 1966 study by Jakobson, for example, native Russian speakers were asked to personify weekdays. Unsurprisingly, participants consistently personified grammatically masculine weekdays — понедельник (“Monday”), вторник (“Tuesday”), четверг (“Thursday“) — as men, and grammatically female weekdays — среда (“Wednesday’), пятница (“Friday”), суббота (“Saturday”) — as women.
Is your apple called Patrick or Patricia?
In a 2002 study by Boroditsky, Schmidt and Phillips, a group of Spanish and German speakers was asked to produce proper names for 24 different objects (for example, an apple could be named Patrick). Interestingly, participants were better able to memorize the object-name pairs when the gender of the proper name matched the grammatical gender of the object in their native languages. German speakers, for example, had a much easier time memorizing the pair Apple-Patrick than Apple-Patricia (apple, or “der Apfel,” is masculine in German). The opposite was true, however, for native Spanish speakers (the Spanish word for apple, la manzana, is feminine). Furthermore, as the participants of the study were tested in English — a language whose nouns have no gender — the experiment reveals a particularly unconscious way of thinking: The native German and Spanish speakers had so internalized the grammatical gender of their native language, that they automatically transferred it to other languages.
Mr. Moon or Mrs. Moon?
So how exactly do we assign genders to our mental representations of objects? What does it mean for an apple to be male? One possibility is that the various stereotypically masculine or feminine characteristics of an object are highlighted according to the grammatical genders. In other words, we assign features and characteristics to an object which fit to its grammatical gender.
This is especially clear for the example of the moon, which is female in many romance languages. “Of course the moon is feminine!” says the Italian. While the connection between moon cycles and menstrual cycles may be a given in some languages, it’s not so obvious for languages like German and Hebrew, where the moon is masculine. And what about the sun? German speakers would probably emphasize its nurturing, life-giving warmth, while speakers of romance languages are more likely to see a mighty fireball in the sky — a force to be reckoned with, and a clearly masculine counterpart to a clearly feminine moon.
From Masculine Keys to Dangerous Bridges
These studies surely reveal that the speakers of both Spanish and German follow the grammatical genders of their respective native languages, and that gender-specific adjectives are often ascribed to grammatical gender-specific objects. For the German word der Schlüssel (“the key”), for example, assigned attributes included “hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful,” while the Spanish equivalent la llave, on the other hand, was described as “golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny.” Conversely, die Brücke (“the bridge”) is feminine in German, and therefore “beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender,” while the masculine el puente was given adjectives like “big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy and towering.”
When one considers that speakers of different languages refer to gender-specific articles for hundreds or thousands of words per day, it’s easy to imagine how the world of the German native speaker, with its jagged keys, elegant bridges and male moons, might differ from the Spanish speaker’s world of tiny keys, dangerous bridges and male suns.
So what about the native English speakers? Aside from Disney films, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to accept the idea of a genderless girl, female turnip, or male cake.
Illustration by Carolina Búzio