Thinking as an artist, of course not. Thinking as a scientist, of course yes. This certainly reflects a difference in approach, but I don’t think there’s a true disagreement. Rather, the response depends mostly on how the question is interpreted: does my moon mean what the moon means to me or is it the moon in the sky that I see.


Somewhere between physical stimulus and mental concept lies perception. Does how I perceive the moon depend on whether I am German or Spanish, male or female? A fascinating (and amazingly readable) paper by Lera Boroditsky, Lauren Schmidt, and Webb Phillips (Dept. of Psychology, Stanford) suggests that it might. The authors didn’t study the effect of biological gender, but I suspect it could play a role because the language/culture seems to be related to grammatical gender. In German der Mond is masculine, while in Spanish la luna is feminine.

I won’t describe the research blow by blow; just a highlight will have to do. A crucial point is that the study was carried out with participants who were native speakers of Spanish or German, but everything was done in English (in which they were also proficient). The most interesting experiment to me was one in which participants were asked to provide the first three adjectives that came to mind for each of a list of objects: key, bridge, etc. These were words that had different grammatical gender in the two languages. A third group of English speakers (all groups were independent; none knew the purpose of the study) then rated the alphabetized list of adjectives as to how “masculine” or “feminine” they were. The result: for both languages, the nature of the adjectives reflected the grammatical gender of the described object in the native language. From the paper:

There were also observable qualitative differences between the kinds of adjectives Spanish and German speakers produced. For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word for “bridge,” on the other hand, is feminine is German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said the were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

There is much to be considered carefully here, and it’s an unjustified stretch to simplify to the point of saying that different cultures “perceive” differently. But it seems likely that what we notice about something we observe, as well as what we later associate with it, is affected by the whole of our experience in ways we are not aware of. Clearly there are implications for how artists make art.

Perhaps this should not be such a shock; it does seem to fit with other things we’re learning. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis may be regaining favor in a more nuanced form. Though it’s always been obvious that there are cultural differences in art, I’m coming to believe there are deeper and more tangled reasons than I thought. Is anyone else surprised? Does it make sense to those of you who speak languages having grammatical gender?