What's In A Name? Quite A Lot, Says Science

NPR reports that Shakespeare was wrong: a rose by any other name may not smell as sweet. As rose by the name of Bill, for example, might smell strong, or maybe thorny.

Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University, has found that the language we speak may fundamentally change the way we see objects. If your first language is one with masculine and feminine nouns, then you very well may ascribe certain gender characteristics to inanimate things. Spanish speakers, for whom bridge is a masculine noun, are more likely to deem bridges "strong," "powerful," or "towering," while German speakers tend to call bridges "elegant," "slender," or even "fragile."

Boroditsky observed the same phenomenon with the work "key," which is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers were more likely to call the key "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated" and "useful." Spanish speakers came up with the adjectives "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny" and "tiny."

To test whether or not this would work on speakers of gender-neutral English, Boroditsky created her own language, called "Gumbuzi." She assigned various nouns with the prefix "oos" (masculine) or "soos" (feminine). Boroditsky taught a group of students — who spoke only English — her language for a single day. At the end of the day, she found that the students had already begun to internalize the grammar of her fake language. They started to attribute stereotypically feminine traits to the feminine nouns, and masculine attributes to the masculine things.

And this all happens without our knowing it. "You have no idea this is happening to you. You just think you are learning a way of talking, but really you are learning a whole way of seeing the world," Boroditsky said.

Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong [NPR]