Gender views about the properties and roles of men and women are part of the way we understand the world. Depending on your cultural background, you may have different ideas about what qualifies as gender-appropriate, but you'll have them. And so maybe it's no surprise that gender has a strong influence on language. There are two kinds of gender in language. One, grammatical gender, classes nouns into different categories, like masculine or feminine. Depending on the gender of the noun, determiners, adjectives, and verbs will conjugate differently to match. Grammatical gender is super interesting, and it influences the way that we process language, as well, but we'll save it for another time.
We talk about two different neurolinguistic studies: one, by Katherine White and colleagues, looks at how people react to gender-inflected word pairs. In each case, the participant would be shown the word "man" or "woman", and then a trait like nurturing or aggressive, or a noun like makeup or mechanic, stereotypically associated with one gender or the other. They used the event-related brain potential technique we talked about before, to see whether participants had a harder time associating words across gender lines. They found that participants display a stronger N400 effect for the mismatched gender cases than the match ones. The N400 shows that a person is having problems with semantic matching, so this finding suggests participants in the study had a harder time associating "man" with "secretary" than with "cigars."
But we don't normally get words in isolation; we get them in sentences. In the second study, by Lee Osterhout and colleagues, participants were asked to read sentences with reflexive pronouns, like "himself" or "herself". These pronouns require that there be a matching noun to associate with them in the sentence, so "Robert accidentally bounced the coin off herself" would be bad unless Robert is actually a woman. The researchers then constructed sentences where the reflexive would either match or not match with expected gender stereotypes. They found that participants, on their first interpretation of the sentence, produce a P600, usually associated with a syntactic error. So participants parse a reflexive as ungrammatical if it doesn't match the expected gender roles. If it's just a stereotype problem, participants often recover from this first interpretation, but this shows us just how entrenched our gender views really are.
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about gender and how it influences the way that we view and use language. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!