Language Drives Art

Lera Boroditsky at The Edge:

How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.

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  • B.B.

    I found the anecdote about the aboriginal tribe in Australia that uses cardinal-direction terms when discussing space interesting. In Richard Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis, Lynn claims that Australian Aboriginals do poorly on most psychometric tests, with exception to visual memory tests in which they do extremely well. Jason Malloy discusses this in his review of the book on GNXP (see chapter 6).

    • B.B.

      (see chapter 6)

      My apologies. I meant chapter 8.

  • jjj

    Err… Chicken? Egg?

    Were the predominant views of the culture that death was male/female before the term was adopted? Simultaneous? Is this evidence of anything?

    • Granite26

      Agreed. The language shows the culture has associated the concept with a gender and serves to reinforce that association. It’s inertia, not definition

    • Constant

      Chicken? Egg?

      There is an important asymmetry that suggests strongly that this is not a chicken and egg problem. We are having a discussion in English and so it could be that many participants are not aware that many foreign languages have something called grammatical gender, which English does not have, and these participants may not understand the nature of this. I’ll try to explain. Languages with grammatical gender require that every noun have a gender – every single noun, whatever it describes. Therefore whenever a new noun is added, a gender must be assigned to it.

      How likely do you think it is that for every single object in the world, the culture views that object as male or female prior to assigning its noun a gender? Well, consider the situation of English speakers, whose concepts are free of the influence of grammatical gender: what is the gender of steel? Of iron? Of a photograph? Of a computer? Are photographs male or female? Is ink male or female? What is the gender of a hat? Of socks? Of a cloud? Of grass? Of sand? Of death? As an English speaker I tell you that I don’t associate any of these things with any gender. This suggests that for most concepts, prior to adding a noun for it to the language people are unlikely to have any particular view of the concept as either male or female.

      A language with grammatical gender nevertheless forces every noun to be assigned a gender. So for the vast majority of concepts, the preceding suggests that people do not start out thinking of the concept as either male or female, but then (if the language has a grammatical gender) they are forced to assign a gender, and then once the gender is assigned they are affected by the gender (as described in the blog entry).

  • Mike

    I’d say language drives all abstract thought. Problem is proving it (or demonstrating it, or even making this statement precise), I guess.

    • mjgeddes


      Ordinary langauge doesn’t drive thought, ordinary language a creation of thought, not thought itself.

      There is another more precise form of ‘language’ based on the logical relationships and categorization of concepts which is more basic than ordinary language and this is the true driver of thought – it is called ontology (see Steven Pinker ‘The Stuff of Thought’).

      The male/female dictomomy is a ontological categorization, and indeed this is very closely tied to aesthetics. So its most accurate to say that ‘categorization is driving art’.

  • Constant

    There is an old controversy about the extent to which language influences thought. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language influences thought) has been alternately “debunked” and “rehabitated”. The effects, insofar as any have been discovered, strike me as being subtle and weak. Art is an area where one may reasonably expect subtle and weak effects to be magnified to the point of visibility.

  • Phil Goetz

    Since all the European drawings of Death that I’ve seen show death as a skeleton, usually almost entirely covered by a black robe, how did they classify them as male or female?

    • anon

      Here are two German pictures showing Death with a beard. Baldung was a student of Duerer, so this isn’t very independent evidence. I didn’t find very many pictures looking for this, but Death-with-some-flesh is pretty common, though often still hard to score.