Bridges, gender, and Benjamin Lee Whorf

I’ve long been fascinated by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the idea that the structure of language determines (or at least influences) the way that you think. I first read Whorf’s book several decades ago.

A friend recently pointed me at this TED talk by Lera Boroditsky. After years of being sneered at, it seems that Whorf is back in fashion.

And there’s certainly something to Whorf’s ideas. For example, there is solid evidence that the way that you name colours influences the way that you see them (slightly, anyway). There is some exaggeration in the TED talk, though. Australian aboriginal speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre have a unique way of describing directions (in absolute, rather than relative terms, e.g. “there is an ant on your northern leg”). They also navigate well across their tribal lands. But is there a causal relationship? Do aboriginal people with this linguistic feature navigate better than those without it? No, they don’t.

Even stranger is the idea that Spanish speakers, for whom a bridge is masculine (el puente), are less likely to describe a bridge as “beautiful,” and more likely to describe it as “strong,” than German speakers, for whom a bridge is feminine (die Brücke). There really are way too many confounding factors there – people who speak different languages differ in other ways too. So I thought I’d try a quick-and-dirty experiment of my own.

For a set of 17 languages, I counted Google hits for the phrases “beautiful bridge” (e.g. French: beau pont, German: schöne Brücke) and “strong bridge” (e.g. Greek: ισχυρή γέφυρα, Dutch: sterke brug), divided one set of numbers by the other, and took the logarithms of those ratios. The chart below summarises the results. Languages in pink have a feminine bridge, languages in blue have a masculine bridge, and languages in grey have a bridge which is neither (for example, English has no gender, while Dutch and Swedish have merged masculine and feminine into a “common” gender).

The mean values there are 0.95, 1.14, and 1.60, where positive numbers mean more hits with “beautiful bridge” (i.e. the trend runs the opposite way from the prediction), but none of the differences are statistically significant (p > 0.4). Gender does not seem to influence perceptions of bridges.

Interestingly, if we exclude the international languages English and Spanish, there is actually a statistically significant (but weak) correlation with GDP of the relevant nation (p = 0.029, r = 0.58). On the whole, poorer countries are more likely to describe a bridge as “strong,” and wealthier countries as “beautiful.” That makes sense, if you think about it (although Iceland is an exception to this pattern).

How about you? Is the bridge beautiful, or strong?


Infrastructure in the USA

I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse
I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse (2007)

The American Society of Civil Engineers has prepared a report card on the USA’s infrastructure. It’s a sobering read. They give the nation an overall rating of D+, noting that, for example, 70,000 bridges are in need of repair, and US$3.6 trillion needs to be spent by 2020. The image above, of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge which collapsed in 2007, illustrates the problem. Another bridge collapsed in Washington state in 2013.

Overall Score D+
Energy D+
Schools D
Public Parks & Recreation C−
Transit D
Roads D
Rail C+
Ports C
Inland Waterways D−
Bridges C+
Aviation D
Wastewater D
Solid Waste B−
Levees D−
Hazardous Waste D
Drinking Water D
Dams D

Scores vary from state to state. Texas gets an overall C (mediocre), for example, and Colorado a C+, while Michigan gets only a D (poor). The Flint water crisis is one of the more notable infrastructure problems in that state.

Addressing these infrastructure problems, although expensive, would certainly restore some of the jobs that the USA has lost over the last few years, and would make the USA more globally competitive. The places with the best infrastructure are Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain.

Damaged highway in Vermont
Damaged highway in Vermont (2008)