The Shore

The Shore

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Whorfian Hypothesis and gender

This post in the Economist got me thinking. . .

Do you know the whorfian hypothesis? I bought it hook, line and sinker in my first year at university (anthropology major) - it suggests that language that we speak, affects our thoughts in clear ways - it makes us how we are - that is, that what you speak is what/how you think. In the Whorf hypothesis, one cannot think outside the confines of one's language. Examples I remember from University, include that the Tibetans do not have nouns - the table is not a noun or thing in the way that we think of things as solid - but the table, in Tibetan, is tabling. . . and the Hopi have no tenses (complicated but this - no tenses in Hopi - turns out to not be entirely true)

I am not even sure that it is true about the Tibetan language - - and I am not sure that I want to propose what that might do to your thinking - pretty profound. . . but it would obviously make you see the world differently - everything in your world is in a state of being. . .
Now having said that - keep in mind that the wharfian hypothesis has become very controversial and not everyone even agrees that a language can restrict or bend your thought patterns.

So I was thinking about the whorfian hypothesis today, and about language - and language learning - because I am studying Hindi - and I realized that, in Hindi - lots of words (I don't know how many as I am still in "basic" Hindi . . . ) are pronounced differently if you are a man or a woman. So for instance a man says: "I understand" - he says: "Main somajthaha hoon." But a woman says "Main somajtahi hoon." I was wondering if that is true in Arabic, or in other languages where there is more gender separation than in English. I know it is true in Thai - any other languages? In what languages do men and women speak a different language? And does it affect the way that the culture/world sees gender - its importance or non-importance?
Blows my hypothesis out of the water if Arabic doesn't separate gender. . . although it could be the exception to the rule!

I may be onto something here (apparently not an original thought) Found an overview of the researcher's study - mentioned in the Economist article which says:
Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering." This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers. Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people's ideas of concrete objects in the world.

1 comment:

kirbycairo said...

I think many of us believe this theory to be true to some degree or other. It seems to be commonsense at some level. But the problem is that it is a self-restricting theory; if it is true, its truth restricts us from entirely confirming or understanding its implications. I have often extended the theory to include the number of fingers we have on our hands. If we had evolved with six fingers on each hand instead of ten, I suspect we would have constructed our view of the world quiet differently. Both Weber and Marx dealt with such ideas to a certain degree. And the contemporary philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who taught at Berkley has a great deal on the subject. I myself have dipped into the post-modern morass of it all, and though the waters good, you often feel like you are drowning.