In an article titled "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?", Guy Deutscher tackles how our mother tongue may or may not shape our thoughts. The state of research as he presents it shows how language affect our relation to the world. Deutscher speaks about gender, space, color and even reality and how those are affected by the language we speak. The article is highly interesting, you should read it. As I have already written about in other posts on this blog, the subject is one that I am constantly thinking about.

The sky, a sun, a moon and a pigeon © Joao Vicente, CC-BY 2.0

In my experience, the most mysterious thing about how language affects the way we think still resides in the use of gender. Deutscher gives extensive examples of how languages differ in how they affect a gender to things. I speak at least three languages which have a completely different approach to gender.

French has two genders for things: masculine and feminine. German has three: masculine, feminine and neutral. English has one: neutral. How do you reconcile all of this in the way you look a the world? As far as I am concerned, learning English wasn't too much of a problem. Neutral does not exist in French, so having to say "it" for everything didn't really bother me. I kept thinking the differences in gender while speaking the "it". The moon is feminine, the sun is masculine, both ofthem can be referred as "it", and basta. But German introduced a whole new way of looking at things. What happens is that many words are of the opposite gender. The sun is a she and the moon a he, which is extremely confusing. And then comes neutral, which in the end, does not really make sense to me. I could understand it in English because it is used across the spectrum, but in German, the neutral seems to be totally random. I mean, a "young girl" (Mädchen) is neutral, go figure.

My way of dealing with this is interesting. There are words for which I don't care. A table is feminine in French, masculine in German, but frankly, that does not keep me awake at night. However, there are some other words I really have trouble with. Sun and moon are of those. But things like the world (feminine in German, masculine in French), or even worse, a letter (feminine in French, masculine in German) I just can't grasp. Or rather, I can't imagine them having another gender than the French one (mother tongue). I realize that with time that I simply put gender aside in German when it clashes too much with my conceptual world in French. This means that when I talk about a letter (der Brief) in German, I do use the masculine, but in my head, it's still a "she".

What I find fascinating today is looking at my daughter growing up learning both French and German at the same time. Her use of gender for things is still a bit off, but I suppose her grasp of the feminity or masculinity of things will be radically different from mine or that of her father, since she'll have learned both at the same time and without one or the other taking prevalence (or will they?). I am curious whether for her, gender for things, in the end, will have the same meaning. Will it be a she-moon? a he-sun? Both or neither? I can't wait for her to be old enough to actually answer this question.