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9 April 2009

Do Germans love bridges like Latins love ladies?


On Monday morning, I was struck while listening to Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong, a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition about how language effects perception. In its essayistic online version the story begins with a picture of what looks like San Francisco’s Golden State.

Yes, this is a bridge. Look at it for a moment and ask yourself, “What three descriptive words come into my head when I look at a bridge?” This bridge, or any bridge. (You only get three.)

…words — such as beautiful, elegant, slender — were those used most often by a group of German speakers participating in an experiment by Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University.

She told the group to describe the image that came to mind when they were shown the word, “bridge.”

The second batch of words — such as strong, sturdy, towering — were most often chosen by people whose first language is Spanish.

What explains the difference?

Boroditsky proposes that because the word for “bridge” in German — die brucke — is a feminine noun, and the word for “bridge” in Spanish — el puente — is a masculine noun, native speakers unconsciously give nouns the characteristics of their grammatical gender.

Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way?” she asks in a recent essay. “It turns out that it does.”

The capacity of language to shape experience never ceases to amaze. The world is not just how it looks or smells or sounds. Rather our experience of it reads like a book in which all the words are biased. It feels how thousands of years of linguistic history have intended it to feel. The relative importance of how structure shapes experience cannot be overemphasized. There are no answers, only particular methods of framing a question.

This story made wonder: Do beautiful bridges equate to a German proclivity for engineering? To an attraction to rigorous thought patterns? To Kraftwerk’s motorik rhythms? Or to Bernd and Hilla Becher‘s systematic photography of industrial buildings?


Is there any other culture as readily equipped to find bridges quite so beautiful?


Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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