A few days ago, LiveScience published an article titled Gendered Grammar Linked to Global Sexism by Stephanie Pappas, an article which quotes researcher Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino, a psychologist at the Rhode Island School of Design who is quoted as saying that “more and more research that is starting to come out looking at grammatical gender and language suggests that it has more of an impact than you would think.”
The problem is that the article is either ideological claptrap at best or a bigoted lie at worst. I will explain why, with quotes directly from the piece.
The article categorizes languages of the planet as being either “natural gender languages” (i.e. languages who don’t assign gender to nouns, such as Finnish or English) or “gendered languages” (i.e. languages who do assign gender to nouns, such as Spanish or French). This categorization is imperfect to say the least, but if that were the only problem with the narrative promoted by LiveScience, I wouldn’t bother writing this response.
The piece begins by saying:
Languages in which nouns are given male or female status are linked to gender inequality, according to a new study that compares languages and equality across the globe.
Surprisingly, though, languages with no gender at all — where even “he” and “she” are represented by the same word — are associated with the most gender inequality, perhaps because people automatically categorize gender-neutral references as male.
So, in other words, cultures with gendered language are more sexist, and, not to let any culture off guilt-free, cultures with NO gendered language are the most sexist. Really? So Finland, a country where people speak a genderless language, is on par with Yemen (a country with gendered languages) in terms of gender equality?
The “most gender inequality” links to a piece about women in the military. In other words, the supporting link for the assertion that countries in which people speak genderless languages are associated with the most gender inequality doesn’t actually support that assertion at all. In fact, that “supporting” link is not even a link about other countries or about language – it’s a story about the US military and what Rick Santorum was saying 3 years ago. Seriously, LiveScience?
Moving forward with the piece, it then goes on to say:
“These are aspects of language that seem very mundane and seem like they wouldn’t make a difference,” said study researcher Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino, a psychologist at the Rhode Island School of Design. “But more and more research that is starting to come out looking at grammatical gender and language suggests that it has more of an impact than you would think.”
The words “grammatical gender” links to a 2011 LiveScience article called Sexism and Racism Linked to Personality. Again, not an article about language – but an article about a study made in the Basque region in Spain.
For those of you who don’t know, the Basque region is one of the most nationalistic places in Europe. That place was the home of a particularly nasty terrorist group called Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) which tormented Spain and France for some time and which finally disarmed almost a year ago.
In other words, the sample of the study is quite irrelevant when it comes to the assertion that “grammatical gender” is correlated with anything. It’s like making a study within the neo-Nazi party of Jobbik and then concluding that speaking Hungarian makes one a Nazi. This isn’t science – this is prejudiced tosh!
To make things even better, the 2011 article, also written by Stephanie Pappas, quoted to support the nonsensical contention about “grammatical gender” also has this gem in it:
Hostile sexism is defined in this study as a dislike of women. Benevolent sexism, in contrast, is the view that women are weak and in need of male protection.
How convenient. No matter what, women must be victims. If no victim can be found, we’ll manufacture one by twisting the language (how ironic) so that people believe us. Mind you, the Basque study was made back in the days of Gender Stalinism in Spain.
Again, this is not science – this is ideologically driven claptrap. If you define “sexism” as “dislike of women” well, lo and behold, if you ask the right questions, you’ll find a certain level of “dislike of women” but that doesn’t say much if you’re only looking at half the picture.
But it gets even worse. Then the article goes on to say:
In other words, our thoughts don’t just shape our language. Our language may also shape our thoughts. For example, one 2009 study asked high-school students to read a passage in English, Spanish or French. English is a “natural gender” language, meaning that speakers use gender-specific pronouns, but nouns do not have gender. Spanish and French are “gendered” languages, in which nouns are assigned as masculine and feminine. In Spanish, for example “la fruita” (the fruit) is feminine, but “el dia” (daytime) is masculine.
Compared with the students who read the passages in English, those who read in gendered languages responded with higher levels of sexism to a questionnaire they took after the study.
The words “higher levels of sexism” lead to the same article Sexism and Racism Linked to Personality. Are you kidding me?
Again, the article Ms. Pappas quotes to support her assertion “those who read in gendered languages responded with higher levels of sexism” has nothing to do whatsoever with either language or comparison of attitudes between individuals who read anything in different languages.
For all we know, that 2009 study may not even exist. But even if it did, the article doesn’t give us a clear reference so we can check it ourselves.
It gets even worse:
Prewitt-Freilino and her colleagues wanted to take a broader look. Using the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which measures inequality between men and women in economics, education, politics and health, they compared nations’ inequality to the type of language most frequently spoken there. Of the 134 countries included in the index, 54.5 percent spoke predominately gendered languages, 9 percent spoke natural gender languages and 19.4 percent spoke genderless languages. Genderless languages include Finnish, which uses the same pronoun for males and females. The remaining countries spoke some mixture of gendered, natural gender and genderless languages. [See Country Gender-Equality Rankings]
The first flaw in this approach is that you have over half of the sample of one type. So of course you’ll have more countries that speak gendered languages in both the most “unequal” (whatever that means) and the most “equal” group.
And if you click on the “See Country Gender-Equality Rankings” you’ll get to this article which proves my point: half of the first 12 “countries with the most gender equality” speak “gendered” languages. In other words, the assertion from the title is just blatantly wrong.
Moreover, that table also flies in the face of the assertion that countries that speak a “genderless” language are even more sexist. How can that be if the leader of the “equal” table is a country that speaks a “genderless” language (Finland, in this case)?
Also, in the top 12 most “equal” nations, there are 2 that speak a “genderless” language and in the top 11 most “unequal” nations, there are also 2 that speak a “genderless” language.
In other words, the article is just an ideologically-driven lie. None of it is even remotely true – not even by their own standards set in the tone of the article which allegedly reports a “correlation” and not a causation. Well, the correlation just isn’t there – by your own data!
Ms. Pappas goes on to say:
On average, countries where gendered languages are spoken ranked lowest on the scale of gender equality, researchers reported in the journal Sex Roles. But surprisingly, genderless languages didn’t fare as well as natural gender languages such as English (though they did fare better than gendered languages).
This is a lie. English didn’t even come up in the top 12 most “equal” nations (again, I’m using their own quoted data) whilst two genderless languages did enter the top 12. In other words, genderless languages, by your own methodology DID fare not only “as well” but actually far better than English.
“There is not a one-to-one correlation between language and equality. Iran, for example, is a predominately Persian-speaking country, and Persian is a genderless language.
“There’s a lot of variability between the countries, which is also what makes it pretty surprising that we still found this difference,” Prewitt-Freilino said.
But you have not found any difference. Half of the languages on this planet are gendered – and half of the countries in the top 12 most “equal” nations do speak a gendered language. You haven’t found anything – you just printed bullocks.
There is also an additional problem with the table – it lists Norway as a country that speaks a “natural gender” language, which is just not true. Norwegian is a gendered language (just like Spanish) and it has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter and they are being used. A book is feminine (ei bok), a horse is masculine (en hest) and a house is neuter (et hus). Sure, there’s also the Bergen dialect which has only common and neuter gender (just like Swedish) but to say that Norway speaks a “natural gender” language is nothing more than a bald-faced lie. It’s just not true.
Now, once we corrected all the flaws in this article’s narrative, we might as well re-write it since virtually nothing in it even comes close to the truth.
And if you think the problem is only with Ms. Pappas, who incorrectly reported and referenced her piece, think again. The study itself has major flaws. On page 8 it asserts that Norway is a country in which a “natural gender” language is being spoken – which is simply not true. On page 11 it asserts that the difference between the “gendered language” group and the “natural gender” group when controlled for “economic participation” (presumably of women) approached significance as countries in which a “gendered language” is being spoken scored lower in economic participation than countries in which a “natural gender” language is prevalent. What is that significance? 6% (see page 11).
So in other words, 54.5 percent of the nations evaluated spoke predominately gendered languages whilst 9 percent spoke natural gender languages. So 6 times more nations that speak a gendered language were evaluated – and yet when mixing Germany with Yemen and comparing with Finland you got only a 6% lower participation rate? I would say that’s not “significance” – but rather a good thing given how many statistical outliers are in the large group compared to the small group (i.e. the “natural gender” group).
This is not science, this is just drivel. Ideologically driven drivel, to be more precise.
Oh, and one last thing: The table quoted by Ms. Pappas ranks South Africa as the 5th most “equal” nation – ahead of Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and many others. Can Ms. Pappas explain how the country with the highest rate of rapes per capita is more “equal” than say Denmark? I’m just curious.
Seriously, LiveScience, just stop spreading lies – and learn a thing or two about the languages you talk about before printing drivel. Just a thought.