A paradigm shift

It’s time for a change.

My original plan for this linguistics experiment was to use sentences about animals, because animal nouns have no inherent gender, but in practice we assign animals genders all the time, like in “that squirrel lucked out, he almost got eaten by that dog” (a quote from actual, unprompted speech… thanks Jack).

So I wrote a bunch of sentences about animals doing reflexive actions:

The dog licks himself clean every afternoon on the back porch.

But then I realized that my experiment requires alternating out the non-gendered nouns with gendered nouns, so I was going to end up with sentences like…

The man licks himself clean every afternoon on the back porch.

Yeah.

Then I realized that, hang on, there are plenty of human nouns that don’t have inherent gender, like “child” or “student” or “baby”.

So I’ve got a whole new paradigm for my sentences now, which are all about humans doing human things and keeping the sentences nice and natural. Those ungendered nouns above seem pretty neutral, but I’ll still need a pilot study to see if people really do think those nouns are free of any inherent gender. It turns out that with a lot of nouns that describe stereotypically gendered professions, the human brain responds as if they were gendered even if they technically aren’t. Take “firefighter” – firefighters can be any gender, but they’re stereotypically male, and “The firefighter licked herself clean” causes a disruption in reading time just like “The man licked herself clean” would.

So hopefully the pilot study tells us that “child” and all the other ungendered nouns are actually ungendered.

Fingers crossed?

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