Grammatical Gender and Inferences About Biological Properties in German-Speaking Children

Authors


should be sent to Henrik Saalbach, ETH Zurich, UNO C14, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland. E-mail: saalbach@ifv.gess.ethz.ch

Abstract

In German, nouns are assigned to one of the three gender classes. For most animal names, however, the assignment is independent of the referent’s biological sex. We examined whether German-speaking children understand this independence of grammar from semantics or whether they assume that grammatical gender is mapped onto biological sex when drawing inferences about sex-specific biological properties of animals. Two cross-linguistic studies comparing German-speaking and Japanese-speaking preschoolers were conducted. The results suggest that German-speaking children utilize grammatical gender as a cue for inferences about sex-specific properties of animals. Further, we found that Japanese- and German-speaking children recruit different resources when drawing inferences about sex-specific properties: Whereas Japanese children paralleled their pattern of inference about properties common to all animals, German children relied on the grammatical gender class of the animal. Implications of these findings for studying the relation between language and thought are discussed.

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