Skip to main content

How Persistent are Grammatical Gender Effects? The Case of German and Tamil

Abstract

Does the language we speak shape the way we think? The present research concentrated on the impact of grammatical gender on cognition and examined the persistence of the grammatical gender effect by (a) concentrating on German, a three-gendered language, for which previous results have been inconsistent, (b) statistically controlling for common alternative explanations, (c) employing three tasks that differed in how closely they are associated with grammatical gender, and (d) using Tamil, a nongendered language, as a baseline for comparison. We found a substantial grammatical gender effect for two commonly used tasks, even when alternative explanations were statistically controlled for. However, there was basically no effect for a task that was only very loosely connected to grammatical gender (similarity rating of word pairs). In contrast to previous studies that found effects of the German and Spanish grammatical gender in English (a nongendered language), our study did not produce such effects for Tamil, again after controlling for alternative explanations, which can be taken as additional evidence for the existence of a purely linguistic grammatical gender effect. These results indicate that general grammatical gender effects exist but that the size of these effects may be limited and their range restricted.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Barner, D., Inagaki, S., & Li, P. (2009). Language, thought, and real nouns. Cognition, 111, 329–344.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Bellugi, U., Bihrle, A., & Corina, D. (1991). Linguistic and spatial development: Dissociations between cognitive domains. In N. Krasnegor, D. Rumbaugh, R. Schielfelbusch, & M. Studdert-Kennedy (Eds.), Biological determinants of language development (pp. 368–398). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought? Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43, 1–22.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Boroditsky, L. (2003). Linguistic relativity. In L. Nadel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of cognitive science (pp. 917–921). London: MacMillan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boroditsky, L. (2009). How does our language shape the way we think? In M. Brockmman (Ed.), What’s next? Dispatches on the future of science (pp. 116–129). New York: Vintage Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boroditsky, L., & Schmidt, L. A. (2000). Sex, syntax, and semantics. Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society, 22, 42–47.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L. A., & Phillips, W. (2003). Sex, syntax, and semantics. In D. Gentner & S. Goldin-Medow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp. 61–79). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bowerman, M. (1996). The origins of children’s spatial semantic categories: Cognitive versus linguistic determinants. In J. Gumperz & S. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking linguistic relativity (pp. 145–176). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown, R., & Lenneberg, E. (1954). A study in language and cognition. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 454–462.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brysbaert, M., Fias, W., & Marie-Pascale Noe, M.-P. (1998). The Whorfian hypothesis and numerical cognition: Is ‘twenty-four’ processed in the same way as ‘four-and-twenty’? Cognition, 66, 51–77.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Carroll, J. B., & Casagrande, J. B. (1958). The function of language classifications in behavior. In E. E. Maccoby, T. M. Newcomb, & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in social psychology (pp. 18–31). New York: Henry Holt.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chen, J.-Y. (2007). Do Chinese and English speakers think about time differently? Failure of replicating Boroditsky (2001). Cognition, 104, 427–436.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, J. (1992). A power primer. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 155–159.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, J., Cohen, P., West, S. G., & Aiken, L. S. (2003). Applied multiple regression/correlation analysis for the behavioral sciences (3rd ed.). Mahwah: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dehaene, S., Spelke, E., Pinel, P., Stanescu, R., & Tsivkin, S. (1999). Sources of mathematical thinking: Behavioral and brain-imaging evidence. Science, 284, 970–974.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Deutscher, G. (2010). Through the language glass: How words colour your world. London: William Heinemann.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elman, J. (1990). Finding structure in time. Cognitive Science, 14, 179–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ervin, S. M. (1962). The connotations of gender. Word, 18, 249–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fodor, J. (1983). The modularity of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Furth, H. (1966). Thinking without language. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gelman, R., & Gallistel, R. (1978). The child’s understanding of number. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gentner, G., & Imai, M. (1997). A cross-linguistic study of early word meaning: Universal ontology and linguistic influence. Cognition, 62, 169–200.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Heider, E. R. (1972). Universals in color naming and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 93, 10–20.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hox, J. J. (2010). Multilevel analysis: Techniques and applications (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hunt, E., & Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: A cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review, 98, 377–389.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • January, D., & Kako, E. (2007). Re-evaluating evidence for linguistic relativity: Reply to Boroditsky (2001). Cognition, 104, 417–426.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1979). A functional approach to child language: A study of determiners and reference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Koch, S. C., Zimmermann, F., & Garcia-Retamero, R. (2007). El sol-die Sonne: Hat das grammatische Geschlecht von Objekten Implikationen für deren semantischen Gehalt? Psychologische Rundschau, 58, 171–182.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Konishi, T. (1993). The semantics of grammatical gender: A cross-cultural study. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 22, 519–534.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kousta, S.-T., Vinson, D. P., & Vigliocco, G. (2008). Investigating linguistic relativity through bilingualism: The case of grammatical gender. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34, 843–858.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Landauer, T. K., & Dumais, S. T. (1997). A solution to Plato’s problem: The latent semantic analysis theory of acquisition, induction, and representation of knowledge. Psychological Review, 104, 211–240.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lehmann, T. (1993). A grammar of modern Tamil (2nd ed.). Pondicherry: Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leinbach, M. D., Hort, B. E., & Fagot, B. (1997). Bears are for boys: Metaphorical associations in young children’s gender stereotypes. Cognitive Development, 12, 107–130.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Levinson, S. L. (1996). Frames of reference and Molyneux’s question: Crosslinguistic evidence. In P. Bloom, M. Peterson, L. Nadel, & M. Garrett (Eds.), Language and space (pp. 109–169). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Li, P., & Gleitman, L. (2002). Turing the tables: Language and spatial reasoning. Cognition, 83, 265–294.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Lucy, J. (1992). Grammatical categories and cognition: A case study of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Luria, A. R. (1961). The role of speech in the regulation of normal and abnormal behavior. New York: Liveright.

    Google Scholar 

  • Malt, B. C., Sloman, S. A., & Gennari, S. P. (2003). Speaking versus thinking about objects and actions. In D. Gentner & S. Goldin-Medow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp. 81–111). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martinez, I., & Shatz, M. (1996). Linguistic influences on categorization in preschool children: A crosslinguistic study. Journal of Child Language, 23, 529–545.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mill, J. S. (1872/1973). System of logic. In J. M. Robson (Ed.), Collected works of John Stuart Mill (8th ed., Vols. 7 and 8). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Original edition published 1872).

  • Miller, K., Smith, C., Zhu, J., & Zhang, H. (1995). Preschool origins of cross-national differences in mathematical competence: The role of number-naming systems. Psychological Science, 6, 56–60.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mullen, M. K. (1990). Children’s classifications of nature and artifact pictures into female and male categories. Sex Roles, 23, 577–587.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Raudenbush, S. W., Bryk, A. S., Cheong, Y. F., Congdon, R. T., & du Toit, M. (2011). HLM 7: Hierarchical linear and nonlinear modeling. Lincolnwood, IL: Scientific Software International Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schiffman, H. F. (1999). A reference grammar of spoken Tamil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Schiffman, H. F. (2004). The Tamil case system. In J.-L. Chevillard, & E. Wilden (Eds.), South Indian horizons: felicitation volume for Francois Gros on the occasion of his 70th birthday (pp. 293–322). Pondicherry: Institut Francaise d’Indologie de Pondichéry.

  • Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2013). Forschungsmethoden und Statistik: Ein Lehrbuch für Psychologen und Sozialwissenschaftler (2nd ed). [Research methods and statistics: A textbook for psychologists and social scientists]. Munich: Pearson Education.

  • Sera, M. D., Berge, C., & del Castillo Pintado, J. (1994). Grammatical and conceptual forces in the attribution of gender by English and Spanish speakers. Cognitive Development, 9, 261–292.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sera, M. D., Elieff, C., Forbes, J., Burch, M. C., & Rodríguez, W. (2002). When language affects cognition and when it does not: An analysis of grammatical gender and classification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 131, 377–397.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Soja, N., Carey, S., & Spelke, E. (1991). Ontological categories guide young children’s inductions of word meaning: Object terms and substance terms. Cognition, 45, 101–107.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Steever, S. B. (1987). Tamil and the Dravidian languages. In B. Comrie (Ed.), The world’s major languages (pp. 725–746). London: Croom Helm.

    Google Scholar 

  • Takano, Y. (1989). Methodological problems in cross-cultural studies of linguistic relativity. Cognition, 31, 141–162.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Twain, M. (1880). A tramp abroad. Hartford, CT: American Publishing.

  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D. P., Paganelli, F., & Dworzynski, K. (2005). Grammatical gender effects on cognition: Implications for language learning and language use. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 501–520.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vuksanović, J., Bjekić, J., & Radivojević, N. (2014). Grammatical gender and mental representation of object: The case of musical instruments. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. doi:10.1007/s10936-014-9293-7.

  • Wettler, M., Rapp, R., & Sedlmeier, P. (2005). Free word associations correspond to contiguities between words in texts. Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, 12, 111–122.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Whorf, B. L. (1940). Science and linguistics. Technology Review, 42(229–231), 247–248.

    Google Scholar 

  • Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Friederike Brockhaus, Thomas Schäfer, Marcus Schwarz, and Isabell Winkler for helpful comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter Sedlmeier.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sedlmeier, P., Tipandjan, A. & Jänchen, A. How Persistent are Grammatical Gender Effects? The Case of German and Tamil. J Psycholinguist Res 45, 317–336 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-015-9350-x

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-015-9350-x

Keywords

  • Grammatical gender
  • German
  • Tamil
  • Extralinguistic explanations