Is Spanish Sexist?

What Women Really Think
Nov. 10 2009 2:32 PM

Is Spanish Sexist?

Nobody cops to "political correctness" anymore; policing language is what the other guy does. The rest of us are just, you know, telling it like it is . But playing PC-police man officer is a relatively peaceful and noninvasive way to nudge the culture in a particular direction, a form of persuasion in a democracy built on consensus. And according to the authors of a little study in the November issue of the Journal Sex Roles , switching from one form of speaking to another might shift your inner liberal just as quickly.

The study authors wanted to see whether languages that assign gender to nouns, like Spanish and French, might implicitly encourage "opposition or hostility to extending equal opportunity to women, especially in terms of work-related issues." They gave a passage and a questionnaire to randomly assigned high-school students in high-level Spanish and French classes; some got the English version, some got the French or Spanish version. They also randomly assigned questionnaires to bilingual students, again distributing English to some and Spanish to others. They report that students who happened to receive the questionnaires printed in English were significantly less likely to express "sexist attitudes."

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I've no idea whether the finding is valid, but it manages to sound both obvious and absurd. Spanish is sexist? On the other hand, it would seem odd if the practice of assigning gender to every known object, in the context of nearly every expressed thought, failed to reverberate in some dark mindspace.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.