What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. –Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. –Benjamin Lee Whorf
Here’s an experiment to try out: find a black marker and two paper bags; on one bag write the word “Rose.” On the other write the words “Chili Peppers.” Now put rose petals into each of the bags and close them up. Find a few people willing to lend their sniffing power to your cause and ask them to sniff each bag (making sure that they can read the labels as well). Then ask them to report on what they smell in each bag.
Will, as Shakespeare claimed, “that which we call a rose by any other name smell as sweet”?
According to Stanford University psychology professor Lera Boroditsky, the answer is no. Her research on the shaping power of language was featured on an excellent National Public Radio science piece this week.
Focusing on the grammatical gender differences between German and Spanish, Boroditsky’s work indicates that the gender our langauge assigns to a given noun strongly influences us to unconsciously give that noun characteristics of the grammatical gender.
One example she discussed is the word “bridge.” In German, bridge (die brucke) is a feminine noun; in Spanish, bridge (el puente) is a masculine noun. Boroditsky found that when asked to describe a bridge, native German speakers used words like “beautiful, elegant, slender.” When native Spanish speakers were asked the same question, they used words like “strong, sturdy, towering.”
This worked the other way around as well. The word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. When asked to describe a key, native German speakers used words like “jagged, heavy, hard, metal.” Spanish speakers used words like “intricate, golden, lovely.”
Boroditsky even created her own language (called Gumbuzi), with its own feminine and masculine grammar assignments, to test the hypothesis from scratch. After only one day of learning the new language, participants began using descriptions of nouns influenced by grammatical gender.
Boroditsky’s work suggests that how we see the world is strongly influenced by the grammar we internalize. From the transcript:
The grammar we learn from our parents, whether we realize it or not, affects our sensual experience of the world. Spaniards and Germans can see the same things, wear the same cloths, eat the same foods and use the same machines. But deep down, they are having very different feelings about the world about them.
You can listen to the entire story here, including more about the test of Shakespeare’s quote. The piece is just over seven minutes long.