The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states, briefly put, that linguistic structures affect cognitive processes. I am interested in finding out how much is known about the development of gender identity from this point of view. That is: Do the gender-related structures of each language influence the way children develop such an identity? Ideally, I would like to know about recent empirical studies comparing the development of gender identity in, say, Semitic languages (heavily gendered), Indo-european languages (gendered) and finno-ugric languages (completely genderless, as far as I know). I am aware of some works in these field, and also about some other very interesting empirical works in relation to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, like Everett's field work on Pirahã language or this work about absolute spatial description in the Yimithirr's language, but I have not found anything similar (empirical) concerning recent studies on the construction of gender identity for speakers of families of languages which treat (very) differently the gender.

One fascinating example (perhaps completely irrelevant in a linguistic discussion, though, but at least thought-provoking) that I have in mind is the existence of third gender or inter-gender persons, such as the Mahu of Hawai'i and Tahiti or the fa'afafine of Samoa, which were common in pre-colonial polynesian cultures, which precisely possess genderless languages. Could this somehow, to some degree, be related to the language and be related to linguistic relativism? Has this been researched?

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    Not an article, but there is a very insightful TED talk by Dr. Lera Boroditsky on the topic: ted.com/talks/…
    – alephreish
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 14:09
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    I've deleted a series of comments criticizing the use of the term "gender identity". Whatever the answer to the question might be, it's a known anthropological fact that various cultures across the world have various different ways of categorizing people (often based on sex), and that individual people align or conflict with these categories to different extents. Asking how or whether these categories interact with linguistic noun-class systems seems like a perfectly reasonable, and empirical, question to me.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 19:30

1 Answer 1


Ok. Let's go with what linguists think of the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis: that it is false or largely has a minor effect on people's cognitive habits. J. Lyons in his book Semantics gives some example of how owning separate words for certain hue can help to better remember which of two objects (identical in all but color) a person saw. It should be clear that having separate words or not for different hue of color does not affect one's ability to distinguish them visually, it only slightly influences one's memory of the objects (the experiment considered monolinguals in Zuñi and bilinguals in Zuñi and English and objects of yellow and orange color. Zuñi language use the same word for both colors.)

Honestly, I doubt very much that too many linguists believe that the process of identity construction has anything to do with the categories of the mother tongue. It seems that sociologists, social psychologists or anthropologists are more willing to consider that sort of thing than the vast majority of linguists.

  • This represents one opinion, there is empirical evidence in favor of language shaping thought. A random article on the topic: web.stanford.edu/class/linguist156/Boroditsky_ea_2003.pdf
    – alephreish
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 14:07
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    @alephreish Maybe we can agree that the evidence is controversial, there are many studies denying the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis, specially inside linguistics: brill.com/view/journals/jocc/8/3-4/article-p335_8.xml. In particular, Boroditsky is not a linguist, she is a cognitive scientist particularly insistent that there is evidence in favor of linguistic relativism. I do not dispute his work, but it is outside the mainstream of linguistics.
    – Davius
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 14:33
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    Unfortunately, this does not even touch the core question on grammatical gender and gender identity. Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 9:31
  • Lingustic relativism is about "speakers' worldview or cognition" as Wiki puts it, it's within the realm of cognitive science.
    – alephreish
    Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 22:23

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