Can a genderless language change the way we think?

Written by: Laura Pitel
Published on: 9 Oct 2019

There were many things I loved about The Idiot, a quirky novel by Elif Batuman about a Turkish-American girl navigating love and linguistics at Harvard in the mid-1990s. But one of my favourite aspects was its insightful observations on language.

Ms Batuman’s bilingual heroine, Selin, is fascinated by the relationship between language and thought. She muses on the special Turkish suffix that is used to relate information acquired second-hand, and how it means always having to contemplate your “degree of subjectivity” in a way that doesn’t happen in English.

The book brought to mind another feature of Turkish: the absence of grammatical gender. Turkish has just one word — the simple “O” — to mean he, she or it. Verbs are not gendered. Nor are nouns such as “teacher” or “actor”. When someone talks about an unnamed friend, it is possible to listen to an extended discussion without knowing if they are female or male. I wondered what Turkish could teach longstanding efforts by feminists to remove inbuilt sexism from English and, more recently, campaigns to promote gender neutral pronouns.

Turkey may at first seem to be no great endorsement of the benefits of erasing grammatical gender. On one hand, there are many prominent businesswomen and the proportion of female Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates is the second highest in Europe.

But Turkey has the lowest rate of female workforce participation in the OECD, and patriarchal structures run deep. Those who do eschew classic gender roles or heterosexual norms — including transgender people — face discrimination and sometimes violence. There seems little evidence to show that removing bias from language has a meaningful impact.

Research on Turkish by Friederike Braun, an expert on linguistic gender, seems to support this view. She found that even when gender is not marked grammatically, certain terms still contain “covert gender”. In surveys, respondents assumed that “nursery school teacher” referred to a woman and “police officer” to a man. Even neutral terms such as “person” and “humankind” came with an inbuilt assumption of masculinity.

Yet, Ms Braun remains an advocate of efforts to make language more inclusive. “A neutral language doesn’t ensure people will think neutrally,” she told me. But she added: “I’m convinced you can change the way people think at least a little bit by using language differently.”

Today, she works with political parties, local government and faith groups to help write publications in German, which is heavily gendered, in a “gender fair” way. “It’s important to make women visible in language,” she said. “There’s a huge body of research showing it makes a difference.”

For another perspective, I went to see an Istanbul performance artist known as Madir Oktis, who identifies as “unidentifiable”. They told me that the lack of grammatical gender makes Turkish-language stories, songs and poems more “universal” than their English equivalents. “Even if it’s a heteronormative person writing that story, you cannot find things to exclude you,” they told me. “You can find yourself in that story.”

The 27-year-old believes Turkish speakers go through a different thought process when constructing sentences. “You do put genders on people, but not as the first thing.”

That idea gained weight in my mind when I thought about Turks I know who speak flawless English, but frequently get muddled between “he” and “she” — “I went to see my friend Lucy and he took me to this new café.”

I asked my friend Deniz to explain what was happening in his brain at these times. He struggled to articulate the process. “It’s as if I don’t put people into a gender box unless I actively engage with the idea,” he said. “It’s easier if the person I am talking about is sat here in front of me, or I’m looking at a picture.”

In The Idiot, Selin finds her Harvard professors are dismissive of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — a linguistic theory that argues the structure of your native language determines the way that you think. Yet she remains convinced she thinks differently in Turkish and in English. She believes her tutors are wrong “not because thought and language were the same, but because different languages forced you to think about different things”.