Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How Language Influences Gender Roles

We’ve learned in class that culture and language are inextricably linked, that we can learn about a culture through language.  But it seems as though language doesn’t only record observations about the culture it represents, but can actually influence a culture in a very measurable way.  Recent research suggests that language influences our behavior; specifically, cultures that use gender when referring to nouns are more likely to distinguish between male and female roles, which results in fewer women working, especially in politics and other powerful positions.

Languages often use gender for nouns.  The World Atlas of Linguistic Structures lists four grammatical variables related to gender in a language, which are: the number of possible genders in a language, whether or not the genders are linked to biological sex, whether or not the gender of the noun is determined by semantics, such as in English; and whether the pronouns take a gender in first, second, or third person.  

Researchers have studied this detailed data and assigned a numerical value based on it, called the Gender Intensity Index, which shows how heavily saturated the language is with gender.  The researchers found that the more heavily “genderized” the language, the fewer women participated in the work force.  Languages with sex-base gender nouns correlated to a decrease in female workers by up to 12%, as compared to 3% in non-sex-based gender languages.  

Women in these cultures are far less likely to hold political office, and the countries of these languages are more likely to have quotas for the number of women required.  Female participation in politics tended to rise sharply after the implementation of quotas, suggesting that it was a lack of opportunity rather than a lack of desire to participate in politics.  I found this interesting because while we know that language and culture are linked, the idea that language can influence culture is something I had not considered before.  

Gay, V., Santacreu-Vasut, E., & Shoham, A. (2012). Does language shape our economy? Female/male grammatical distinctions and gender economics. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from

1 comment:

  1. That is very interesting and something that I had thought about in the past. In class we always talk about how language is culture or how language makes up a part of culture. Even today, we also talked about how language can influence a culture or how culture can influence the language. I did understand that language and culture influenced each other and that’s why they are so closely associated with each other, but I didn’t fully understand just how deep it actually goes. I had thought that language just influenced how we should or shouldn’t act in a culture. Or if someone grows up in the culture the language can reflect the beliefs of that culture. So in some sense the behavior aspect of it I kind of understood, but as to how it affects areas like work and politics like you mentioned in your blog. That was something that I also never really considered. It’s fascinating just how much influence language actually has.