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How do gender articles affect cognition?

Languages organize their nouns into classes in various different ways. Some don’t have any of these noun classes (e.g., English: every noun is just ‘it’), some have two (e.g., French: every noun is either masculine or feminine), some have as many as 16 (e.g., Swahili: there are different classes for animate objects, inanimate objects, tools, fruits...). Some languages with two noun classes differentiate between masculine and feminine (e.g., French), some between common and neuter (e.g., Dutch). Clearly, all these languages differ in terms of what might be called their ‘grammatical gender system’. While Western European languages might give the impression that grammatical gender (e.g., whether nouns are male or female) primarily affects the articles placed in front of nouns (e.g., de versus het in Dutch), these differences often affect the noun itself and other words connected to it as well. Polish, for example, doesn’t even have articles (as if the English word ‘the’ didn’t exit) but still uses an intricate gender system which requires adjectives to agree with nouns. The reasons for these differences between languages remain mysterious.


Given that the gender system of a language permeates all sentences, one might wonder whether it goes further and also influences how people think in general. On the face of it, this appears unlikely. A grammatical gender system is just a set of rules for how words change when combined. There is no ‘deeper’ meaning to them. Nonetheless, a series of experiments have come up with surprising results.

In the 1980’s Alexander Guiora and colleagues noticed that two to three year old Hebrew-speaking children (whose language system does differentiate between masculine and feminine nouns) are about half a year ahead in their gender identity development compared to English- speaking children. It is as if the gender distinction found in Hebrew nouns gave these children a hint about a similar gender distinction in the natural world.

Adults too seem to make use of grammatical gender even when it doesn’t make any sense to do so. Roberto Cubelli and colleagues asked people to judge whether two objects were of the same category (e.g., tools or furniture) or not. When the grammatical gender of the objects matched, people were faster in their judgements than when there was a mismatch. This task didn’t require people to name these objects, and yet still they appear to use the arbitrary grammatical classification system of their native language.

Edward Segel and Lera Boroditsky found the influence of grammatical gender even outside the laboratory - in an encyclopedia of classical paintings. They looked at all the gendered depictions of naturally asexual concepts like love, justice, and time. They noticed that these asexual entities (e.g., time) tended to be personified by masculine characters if the grammatical gender was masculine in the painter’s language (e.g., French: ‘le temps’), and vice versa for female characters (e.g., German: ‘die Zeit’).  The depicted gender agreed with grammatical gender in 78% of the cases for painters whose mother tongue was ‘gendered’, like Italian, French and German. On top of that, this effect was consistent even when only looking at those concepts with different grammatical genders in the studied languages.

These and similar studies have powerfully shown how a grammatical classification system for nouns affects the view language speakers have on the world. By forcing people to think in certain categories, general thinking habits appear to be affected. This illustrates quite nicely that thought is influenced by what you must say – rather than by what you can say. The grammatical gender effect on cognition highlights the fact that language is not an isolated skill but instead a central part of how the mind works.

Written by Richard Kunert and Gwilym Lockwood

Further reading:

Segel, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Grammar in art. Frontiers in Psychology, 1,1. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos