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Cognitive Linguistics

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Volume 26, Issue 2


Culture or language: what drives effects of grammatical gender?

Sieghard Beller / Karen Fadnes Brattebø / Kristina Osland Lavik / Rakel Drønen Reigstad / Andrea Bender
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  • Department of Psychosocial Science, Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen, N-5020 Bergen, Norway
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Published Online: 2015-03-18 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2014-0021


Although investigations of linguistic relativity originated in cultural anthropology, the role of culture in the interplay of language and cognition has rarely been addressed. The debate on whether the grammatical gender of nouns affects how people represent the entity denoted by the respective noun is a typical example of this. A common research strategy has been to compare the gender associations for non-animate entities as a function of their grammatical gender between two languages spoken in different cultural groups. In the study reported here, we try to disentangle linguistic and cultural effects on such gender associations, by focusing on members of one cultural group speaking two language variants that differ in whether or not they distinguish masculine and feminine gender. Participants were asked to assign a male or female voice to nouns from a broad range of semantic categories (animates, allegories and artefacts). Our findings indicate that the gender system does indeed have an impact on voice assignment. However, this grammatical effect is small compared to the variation induced by culturally conveyed associations within and across the semantic domains. In conclusion, we discuss some implications and guidelines for future research on how to control for culture as a problematic confound in cross-linguistic studies.

Keywords: cognition; language; linguistic relativity; grammatical gender; Norwegian


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About the article

Received: 2014-05-20

Revised: 2014-12-01

Accepted: 2014-12-19

Published Online: 2015-03-18

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Funding: This research was supported by a Småforsk grant from the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Bergen to Sieghard Beller (grant/award number: 2013/14054).

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, Volume 26, Issue 2, Pages 331–359, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2014-0021.

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