press release
Published: 02 May 2018

How does gender emerge in language?

Two University of Surrey academics have been awarded more than £500k for an interdisciplinary research project seeking to discover how gender emerges in different languages.

The world map showing different languages and speakers

Surrey academics Professor Greville Corbett, Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, and Dr Alexandra Grandison, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, will be working alongside Dr Mike Franjieh, who is currently a Research Associate at Cardiff University. They have been awarded £534,213 in funding from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) for their project, which looks at the origin and nature of gender from a psycholinguistic perspective. The research will take place over three years and funding will be split across Language & Literature and Psychology.

The research study aims to establish how and why languages adopt a rigid, apparently unmotivated gender system over a seemingly more useful, meaningful classificatory system. How do these varying systems impact our understanding? To answer these questions, the research team have developed an innovative method for investigating how grammatical categories like gender come to exist. By combining experimentation with linguistic fieldwork, they can test theories that would otherwise be out of reach. A range of techniques including card-sorting, storyboards, eye-tracking and category training will be conducted to access speakers' judgements and reaction times in order to assess the mental effort required for each system.

Professor Corbett said: “The very existence of gender is a source of confusion. For example, why in Russian is 'elbow' masculine, while 'knee' is neuter and 'bone' is feminine? Why do some Dutch speakers distinguish three genders, and others only two? The origin of grammatical gender is a major question in linguistics and the issue of how entities are categorised by speakers of different languages is a key question in psychology.”

To demonstrate the origin of gender fully, the team will track the rise of a completely new gender system across a group of closely related languages, and they will need sufficient speakers of each language to investigate their systems of classification psycholinguistically. A group of six languages in the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia have been identified as meeting all of these requirements, exhibiting intriguing signs of this grammatical development.

This research will provide insight into the way in which humans categorise entities in the world, and how this categorisation is incorporated into the workings of language. These two aspects of research provide a rare opportunity to investigate how the mind codifies human experience. At the end of the project, the research team aim to provide an experiment toolkit which will provide a template for conducting experiments in other areas.

Dr Grandison said: “Our findings will provide the foundations for new hypotheses about the development of categorisation more generally. The different language communities will benefit from literacy materials detailing the use of the different classifier and gender systems found, which will aid language education efforts for this tricky area of language.”

The ESRC is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK's future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.

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