As any Italian speaker would attest, the moon, of course is utterly feminine. It is “la luna”. Now, to a German it is “der mond”, and very masculine.
Numerous languages assign a grammatical gender to objects, which in turn influences how people see these objects as either female or male. Yet, researchers have found that sex tends to be ascribed to objects and concepts even in gender-neutral languages. Scientific American reviews this current research.
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Gender is so fundamental to the way we understand the world that people are prone to assign a sex to even inanimate objects. We all know someone, or perhaps we are that person, who consistently refers to their computer or car with a gender pronoun (“She’s been running great these past few weeks!”) New research suggests that our tendency to see gender everywhere even applies to abstract ideas such as numbers. Across cultures, people see odd numbers as male and even numbers as female.
Scientists have long known that language can influence how we perceive gender in objects. Some languages consistently refer to certain objects as male or female, and this in turn, influences how speakers of that language think about those objects. Webb Phillips of the Max Planck Institute, Lauren Schmidt of HeadLamp Research, and Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University asked Spanish- and German-speaking bilinguals to rate various objects according to whether they seemed more similar to males or females. They found that people rated each object according to its grammatical gender. For example, Germans see the moon as being more like a man, because the German word for moon is grammatically masculine (“der Mond”). In contrast, Spanish-speakers see the moon as being more like a woman, because in Spanish the word for moon is grammatically feminine (“la Luna”).
Aside from language, objects can also become infused with gender based on their appearance, who typically uses them, and whether they seem to possess the type of characteristics usually associated with men or women. David Gal and James Wilkie of Northwestern University studied how people view gender in everyday objects, such as food and furniture. They found that people see food dishes containing meat as more masculine and salads and sour dairy products as more feminine. People see furniture items, such as tables and trash cans, as more feminine when they feature rounded, rather than sharp, edges.
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[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Scientific American.[end-div]