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Penguins don't care, but women do: A social identity analysis of a Whorfian problem*

  • Fatemeh Khosroshahi (a1)

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is often implicitly assumed to be true independent of its empirical status. Feminist attempts to eliminate the generic he must assume that language somehow affects thought, since there is no intrinsic harm in the word itself. Research to date has, in fact, shown that generic he tends to suggest a male referent in the mind of the reader. This study asks whether people's interpretation of a generic sentence varies depending on whether or not they have followed feminist proposals and reformed their own language. Fifty-five college students read sex-indefinite paragraphs involving either the generic he, he or she, or they, and made drawings to represent the mental images evoked by what they read. The sex of the figure drawn was the dependent variable. Students' term papers were used to determine whether their own language was “reformed” or “traditional.” He was found to be least likely to evoke female referents, he or she most likely, and they in between. However, regardless of the pronoun, men drew more male and fewer female pictures than women. Moreover, whereas men did not differ in their imagery, whether their language was reformed or traditional, women did. Traditional-language women had more male images than female. Reformed-language women showed the opposite. Results are discussed in terms of the theory of social identity (Tajfel 1981), and it is concluded that the weak, correlational form of Whorf's thesis applies to women, the group that initiated the reform in the first place. (Gender and language, pronouns, social psychology of language, Sapir–Whorf hypothesis)

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