Would you describe a bridge as fragile, elegant, beautiful, peaceful, slender, pretty? Or as strong, dangerous, long, sturdy, big, towering? Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University, found that it depends – for native German and Spanish speakers, on whether your native tongue assigns a feminine or masculine gender to the noun bridge.
I’ve long been interested in the intricacies and contradictions of gendered language, both in the study of French and Latin and in the more subtle ways English is gendered. I’m glad this sort of rigorous research is going on, and I hope that this kind of work can inspire at least a few people to consider how deeply their firm ideas of gender are shaped by culture. We love to believe we are free agents, that the choices we make and beliefs we hold are our own. But we are rooted, growing out of a place, a culture, a family, even a religion. The more we acknowledge and analyze the things that shape us, the more we can grow beyond them. Our culture gives us meaning and common ground, but it can also be poisonous and stunting. Only by facing that can we fight it, and work to become truly free.