The sin – that’s no question in Germany – is a woman. The mostly very attractive but nefarious broad is subject of numerous German artworks. The Russian painter Repin was baffled about the resoluteness of the German artists in this case. Why not personify the sin as a man? Looking at Repin’s artistic confusion in a multidimensional context, we understand that it might come from a grammatical matter: The noun ‘sin’ is feminine in German (die Sünde) but masculine in Russian (rpex).
Discussions of this kind lead to the old question of the relation between linguistic structure and patterns of thought. Does language influence our way of thinking? Or does our particular perception of the world shape the grammar? Regarding the direction of this relation, it is quite impossible to give final answers by now. But the psychologists Segel and Boroditsky proved the connection between a small quirk of grammar (the gender of nouns) and an aspect of culture (personification in art) on the basis of a quantitative analysis.
They investigated 790 paintings of German, French, Italian and Spanish artists that represent a personification of abstract entities such as sin, love, time and justice. Afterwards they compared the personified gender with the grammatical gender of the artist’s mother tongue.
This is, what they found out: Personified gender matched the grammatical gender in 78% of the cases – including the conflicting grammatical genders between the languages.
In the end, this intercultural comparison shows how linguistic structures are not only reflected mentally but that they are also reified in the material world we create around ourselves. Moreover, it may give answers to German women who always have to wonder why southwestern European men are so much more charming: In Italiy, France and Spain the sin is a man.
Segel, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Grammar in Art Frontiers in Psychology, 1 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244
Image source and copyright: http://www.kunstnet.de/