Sunday, August 29, 2010

Blah blah Whorf blah


Guy Deutscher's article in the NYT mag about the Whorf hypothesis has set me off. I'm sure the Log will cover it in greater (and better) detail, so just let me say one thing that always bugs me about these discussions. Yes, there are these studies that show that Germans think bridges have nice soft feminine attributes, while Spanish speakers think they have "manly properties" (to quote Deutscher). But it seems to me that that's a fact about how German and Spanish speakers are educated, not a fact that derives from the grammatical gender of the word 'bridge' in the language they speak. So the real test case would be to find out what an illiterate speaker of one of these languages thinks about bridges. I bet there's no gender effect. Mutter, mutter, mutter (gnashing of teeth)...

4 comments:

Claire said...

Exactly. Or do the study with a language like Swahili...

Monica said...

Yeah - we could do a study that would show that Swahili speakers are forced by their language to think of women, men, and children as humans!

Matt the Linguist said...

and German children aren't, right?

Bastien B. said...

I think this is a bit ridiculous. What makes you think that? Illiterate or not a person will know what gender is ok? Why should this prevent from associations in the brain to be made... I don't think that being illiterate (not knowing how to write or read) would prevent anyone from working out such an association. Unless they have no concept of what gender is.
There is a lot of work done at the minute in the domain of linguistic relativity that uses more robust methodology than voice-attribution where it looks like gender IS affecting object categorisation. I'd wait and see until the domain is tested more thoroughly.