Gendered Nouns – Intro/Update #1

My work on this project (abstract) can be roughly divided into three categories: planning and creating the survey, running the study, and analyzing/interpreting the results. As I am close to completing the first category, it seemed like a good time for an introduction/update.

 

The first steps in planning the survey were selecting the nouns and creating a noun-gender database for all the languages I anticipate my respondents being familiar with. I completed these two steps largely in parallel, since one of my main goals was to find nouns that have the same grammatical gender in French, Spanish, and German. These are the languages I expect to see most often, and with the most overlap, so, if there is an influence from gendered-noun languages, it will make analysis more effective if all the influences are working in the same direction. In addition, the nouns I selected have a 50/50 masculine/feminine split, which will hopefully avoid the possibility of giving participants that unpleasant “why is every answer on this test C” feeling.

My original plan was to find 30 nouns that had the same gender in French and Spanish. This seemed like a reasonable goal, since they come from the same language family, but it took longer than I expected (sun, moon, table, and chair are just a few examples of common nouns that I could not use). To further complicate the process, I decided to try to add German into this “prioritized” subgroup. Surprisingly, I was able to accomplish this, though not without including a few more obscure nouns. (My current list of nouns can be found below.)

 

There were a few important considerations that I discussed with Professor Lunden in terms of designing the survey. At first, when we were assuming that I would not be able to find 30 same-gender nouns in Spanish, French, and German, I would have had to include a neuter option to account for those who would be potentially influenced by knowledge of German (or other languages with neuter nouns). Therefore, I would have had to strongly encourage people in the instructions to not just always pick neuter. Since all of my nouns are currently only either masculine or feminine in my included languages, this is no longer as much of a concern. However, I will still include similar encouragement in an attempt to make sure respondents will try to answer every question.

In addition, we decided it was important that respondents be able to easily return to previous questions and change their answers, since, for example, seeing a dog might make them decide that a cat was less masculine than they had originally thought. This was one of the primary reasons we chose SurveyMonkey over other possibilities – it was the only service that clearly stated it had this capability.

Currently, the instructions read: “On the following page, you will see a series of images of nouns. Please do your best to identify each of these nouns as either masculine or feminine. An answer may not immediately come to mind, but try to imagine which gender you most strongly associate with each noun. You may scroll back to an image to change your answer at any time. On the final page, please answer the demographic questions to the best of your ability.”

 

Finally, I have several post-study questions designed to collect the necessary demographic data for my analysis. First, every respondent will fill in their native language(s), defined linguistically as the language(s) they learned and used regularly before age 6. Then participants will be asked whether they speak or have ever studied any other languages. Those who answer no will be done with the survey, and their responses will automatically be counted as those of monolingual English speakers. Those who answer yes will be directed to give more information – which other language(s) they have spoken/studied, for how long, and how recently. I am also considering asking participants to self-evaluate their familiarity with this language(s), or I may stick with an evaluation based on the length and recency of their study. Based on this information, I will be able to create the necessary analytical subgroups of languages and familiarity-levels.

 

Going forward, my next step is to finalize the survey. I have done as much work as I can using the free version of SurveyMonkey, but I will need to add the last few questions and some of the logic elements once I get home from my study-abroad program and buy a month of the full version. Then, most of my time will be devoted to running the study through sharing the link everywhere I can and contacting people personally to ask them to participate. I am planning to report back at the end of this stage, before I begin my analysis.

 

  • ball
  • hand
  • umbrella
  • sky
  • dog
  • cat
  • lamp
  • coin
  • lipstick
  • balloon
  • church
  • plant
  • coffee
  • gas station
  • factory
  • bus
  • library
  • foot
  • street
  • tree
  • pullover
  • fish
  • island
  • crosswalk
  • strawberry
  • flower
  • loom
  • card (greeting)
  • mortar (and pestle)
  • pill

Comments

  1. jmtauber says:

    This sounds like a fascinating project! I’m sure it was difficult to choose thirty nouns with the same gender in those three languages, especially since German is in a different language family. I’m not sure if you would be willing to consider adding a fourth language, but if you are, Italian may be worth adding as it is a relatively influential language in the US. It also has the benefit of being another Romance language, so its gender categories will usually overlap with French and Spanish.
    I do have a few questions regarding your participants: how will you select them? Will they be from a certain region, age group, educational background, etc? Will you attempt to have approximately 1/2 be monolingual and 1/2 be multilingual speakers? What will you do if participants speak a language other than the four you are examining? This could have a significant impact on your results–will you exclude these results or what is your plan?
    Thanks and good luck! I look forward to hearing more about your progress.

  2. slfuhrig says:

    Your research is interesting, and I am excited to see what your results are! In addition to the difficulties of finding nouns of the same gender in the languages you have selected, what other problems do you think may come up in later stages of your research (especially in conducting the survey)? Also, do you have any predictions of what gender certain nouns will predominantly be associated with?

    Thank you!

  3. lgkohout says:

    I am so excited to see the final results from your survey. This is a really fascinating topic that I am looking forward to learning more about.

    I initially was concerned with the sample size being too small, as there is a lot of variation of language knowledge within the public. So, when you split the results up based on the demographic questions to do some analysis, there may be only a few data points within each of the demographic groups. The few data points would make it hard to draw any inferences from the results. However, I think the fact that you are distributing the survey using social media is a great idea! Especially if you get everyone you know to share the link to the survey, you could potentially have a very large sample size with people from around the world.

    The optional demographic questions at the end is also a great idea. That will give you some insight as to different perceptions that may form in different demographic groups. This survey information could even help you answer questions on which demographics have the most knowledge of other languages (if you find that information interesting or helpful in any way). These questions increase the amount of data you are collecting and can help you spot some more interesting relationships.

    The main question I have is what you think the implications are for the results of your survey? I am really excited to see what English speakers’ gender associations are with these nouns. A lot of times gender norms go unnoticed, and I think a project like this could bring them to light. What do you hope to do with the survey results- educate and inform, or possibly persuade your audience?

    I cannot wait to hear about how you collect and analyze your data, and, ultimately, what you interpret from those results. Do you have any hypotheses as to what you are going to see? I am interested to see if your expectations will be similar to what you actually find.

    I hope to be a part of your survey results. Keep up the great work!

  4. klsheridan says:

    I apologize for these extremely late responses – I didn’t realize that I needed to approve all of your very kind comments!

    jmtauber – You’re right, it was somewhat difficult to find 30 nouns that fit my needs. This is one of the reasons I chose to focus on just those three languages. Based on the people I know I will be able to reach personally, Spanish, German, and French are the most likely to come up in my participant pool. If (but really when) other languages are brought into the pool, I will add them to my noun/gender database. I’m essentially crossing my fingers that the genders will just “work out,” and, if not, I will make a note of it and consider any discrepancies in my analysis. Other common languages in my area, such as Vietnamese and Mandarin, do not have gendered nouns, so I don’t need to worry about their influence.

    In terms of selecting my participants, I am just casting as wide a net as possible using social media and personal connections and taking anyone who will participate. I am not necessarily worried about an even 50/50 monolingual/multilingual split, but rather trying to get at least 30 (a standard minimum to run stats) for each group. Of course, the more participants, the better. For the limited scope of this study, I am not really concerned with demographics other than language background.

    I think I answered all your questions, albeit a bit out of order, so thank you for your comment! Good luck with your research as well.

  5. klsheridan says:

    slfuhrig – Thank you for your comment! Speaking from the other side of building my survey, the biggest challenge ahead is getting enough people to participate, particularly for the monolingual group. As I mentioned above, I am planning to put specific effort into finding people who have never studied a language with gendered nouns. Luckily, at least some people in my parents’ generation seem to have finished school before foreign language requirements were as strict, so I’m planning on starting with my friends’ parents and going from there.

    If my original (anecdotal) evidence holds true, then people who speak/have studied a language with gendered nouns will associate the nouns with the grammatical genders from that language, even when taking a survey in English. If this was the only source of influence, then I would expect monolingual people to respond with about an even 50/50 masculine/feminine split for each noun, since there would be no reason for them to pick either way. However, it also seems likely that societal influences could have an impact on any of the participants’ responses, particularly with nouns such as “flower,” “lipstick,” and “loom.” I am especially interested to see if there is a trend towards one gender in certain nouns, but not others, with the monolingual speakers.

  6. klsheridan says:

    Lauren – Hi there! Thank you for your comment.

    Believe me, I am also very worried about the sample size being too small. Most of my efforts for the next few weeks will be focused on getting the survey out to as many people as possible.

    I think I was a bit unclear in my original post – the demographic questions at the end are not really optional (other than the fact that in a survey with human subjects, all the questions are technically optional), but are actually very important for my research. These questions about language background are how I will be able to tell which respondents are multilingual or monolingual, which will allow me to sort them into groups for analysis.

    The main question I’m trying to answer with this research is: Are there things about certain nouns that made different groups all decide to label them as the same gender? The fact that nouns’ genders often differ across languages/language families suggests that the answer is no, but there are still many areas of overlap that I find interesting. A possibility for further research would be to expand the database I’m working on to include many more nouns, which would allow for the possibility of finding shared characteristics between nouns that are “always” masculine or “always” feminine. While I am interested to see if monolingual English speakers share certain biases, I am mainly excited about the cross-linguistic implications.

    If my original (anecdotal) evidence holds true, then people who speak/have studied a language with gendered nouns will associate the nouns with the grammatical genders from that language, even when taking a survey in English. If this was the only source of influence, then I would expect monolingual people to respond with about an even 50/50 masculine/feminine split for each noun, since there would be no reason for them to pick either way. However, it also seems likely that societal influences could have an impact on any of the participants’ responses, particularly with nouns such as “flower,” “lipstick,” and “loom.” I am especially interested to see if there is a trend towards one gender in certain nouns, but not others, with the monolingual speakers.

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