Grammatical Gender and Anthropomorphism: “It” Depends on the Language
64 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2020 Last revised: 30 Sep 2020
Date Written: May 15, 2020
Consumers often anthropomorphize non-human entities. In this research, we investigate a novel antecedent of anthropomorphism: language. Some languages (e.g., English) make a grammatical distinction between humans (he, she) and non-humans (it), whereas other languages (e.g., French) do not (all objects are gender-marked). We propose that such grammatical structures of languages influence the way individuals mentally represent non-human entities, and as a result, their generalized tendencies to anthropomorphize such entities. Across 10 studies, we provide evidence that speakers of languages that do not grammatically distinguish between humans and non-humans (it-less languages) anthropomorphize more than do speakers of languages that do make this distinction (non-it-less languages). We demonstrate the effects across natural languages (French, Turkish, English) and by manipulating grammatical gender. We show that the effects are observable in naturally occurring consumer contexts (e.g., secondary sales data), and that gender-marking in it-less languages influences consumers’ interactions with brands, even though the gender-markings are semantically arbitrary, and that these effects occur nonconsciously. Our findings have implications for the broader debate on the extent to which language influences thought, and also suggest ways in which managers can leverage nonconscious grammatical anthropomorphism to influence consumer perceptions, attitudes, and behavior.
Keywords: psycholinguistics, anthropomorphism
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