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Cognitive Structures Underlying Gendered Language Usage in Germany: Narration and Linguistic Fieldwork

  • Author(s): Kolar, Meredith
  • Advisor(s): Rauch, Irmengard
  • et al.

This study intends to expand the historical language and gender debate (Chapter 1) by examining the cognitive structures that underlie human beliefs about gender. Although the work does not profess to be a feminist work, it does seek to offer an opinion about how and why linguistic and social change can occur within a population. It examines the current state of gendered language usage and the potential for change in gendered language usage within a Western population. The foundational methods for this study include cognitive linguistic and metaphor theories (Chapter 2) combined with narrative theory (Chapter 3), and the study incorporates Christian theological (Chapter 4) and feminist history (Chapters 1 & 4) as a basis for understanding the cultural conventions about gender in the West.

Narratives are considered to be "Instruments of Mind" (3.6). They consist of systematic structures necessary for all human cognition, principally consisting of metaphorical mappings between source and target domains (2.6). Narrative structures therefore enable us to reason throughout daily life. As a crucial part of our reasoning strategies, narratives point to the details in our moral systems (Chapter 4). A moral system is the coherent foundation of a person's beliefs and choices. Moral systems are culturally shared, but there may be several versions of moral systems in any given culture (4.1). Due to the prolific capacity of metaphorical reasoning, spreading activation in neural structures that enables such reasoning (2.4), and the radial characteristics of real human categorization strategies (2.2, 2.3), no human being reasons with complete consistency. Exceptions abound and point to the blending of moral systems in individuals' reasoning strategies (Chapter 10). Crucially, exceptions indicate both the potential for change and an innate human creativity (2.11, Chapter 10).

We can draw inferences (3.1) about human reasoning structures and individuals' moral systems from the language individuals choose to discuss culturally shared stories. Constellations of words, collocations, phrases, and metaphors point to the values, or moral systems, of each individual. Constellations and collocations (3.4) often demonstrate beliefs in cultural folk models (2.3, 4.1.5). Folk models primarily consist of prototypes and basic-level effects (2.2), and speakers employ these to make speedy and efficient judgments about people, things, and actions in everyday life. Prototype categories, however, are radial categories (2.2, 2.3), which means that membership in a category is based on relationship to the central member, but that categories have indistinct boundaries and allow for unique or novel inclusion radiating from the central members. The capacity for novel usage (2.11) is one of the most salient qualities of human cognition, and it is the quality that allows for both linguistic and social change through cognitive transformation.

The primary folk models in the West point to two moral systems used by speakers to reason about daily, mundane and complex functions and actions. Both prototypical moral systems stem from the Christian heritage: the Strict Father system of morality (SFM) and the Nurturant Parent system of morality (NPM) (Chapter 4). SFM involves hierarchies, strict boundaries, moral strength, and purity, while NPM is based on empathy and dissolves notions of hierarchies. This study demonstrates through interviews with 26 native speakers of modern German regarding stories of Christian saints (Chapters 5-9) that the leading moral system both historically and currently in this Western population segment is SFM (Chapter 10). While many speakers demonstrate occasional features of NPM reasoning, female consultants tend to demonstrate more of these features than male consultants (Chapters 7-10). It appears that women's historical status as a subordinate group under a SFM system may predispose them to the use of empathy (10.1) and therefore to the use of NPM reasoning. Women tend to be the primary instigators of change in gendered language usage.

Finally, the analysis of the study suggests that language and social change occur over time as a result of the creative potential inherent in empathetic cognition, found more often in subordinate groups, due to their perception of a need for alternatives from the norm (Chapter 10). Change rarely occurs "from above", through those who make up the status quo, but originates out of a need by subordinate groups to break down strict boundaries and rigid divisions. Change is always possible, as human cognition is based on fuzzy boundaries and radial categories. Nonetheless, change is a slow process because it requires long-term and often radical alterations in the tenacious narrative and cognitive structures of a shared culture.

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