Ol’ Man River – how gendered language shapes the way we see the world

But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along!

Is water male or female – and does it really matter? Unlike languages such as French, Spanish and German, English does not allocate gender to words. Although some things, ships and countries for example, often have feminine associations, there are no grammatical rules to make something either male or female.

Cognitive research has suggested that language and the way people use it has a profound influence on how we see the world. Water, for example, is often more associated with concepts of femininity – the river Ganges (Ganga) is well-known as a feminine sacred symbol of Indian culture in addition to being a central source of survival – but in the famed Hammerstein and Kern song, Ol’ Man River, the river Mississippi is portrayed as a man.

The feminine Ganges symbolises faith, hope, culture and sanity – and, since the beginning of time, “she” has been as a source of livelihood for millions of people. By contrast, the endless, uncaring flow of the “old man” Mississippi is seen as a metaphor for the struggles and hardships of the men forced to work on it.

The allocation of a specific gender to an object or feature of our landscape might not be a result of conceptual categorisation and this is supported by an examination of noun classes and “gender shifts” across different grammatical systems. Is a French car (female) different in any way to a Spanish (male) car or is it just a question of grammar without connotation or semantics?

Read more: The Conversation

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