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Grammatical Gender in German Influences How Role-Nouns Are Interpreted: Evidence from ERPs

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Grammatically masculine role-nouns (e.g., Studentenmasc.‘students’) can refer to men and women but may favor an interpretation where only men are considered the referent. If true, this has implications for a society aiming to achieve equal representation in the workplace since, for example, job adverts use such role descriptions. To investigate the interpretation of role-nouns, the present ERP study assessed grammatical gender processing in German. Twenty participants read sentences where a role-noun (masculine or feminine) introduced a group of people, followed by a congruent (masculine–men, feminine–women) or incongruent (masculine–women, feminine–men) continuation. Both for feminine-men and masculine-women continuations a P600 (500 to 800 ms) was observed; another positivity was already present from 300 to 500 ms for feminine-men continuations but critically not for masculine-women continuations. The results imply a male-biased rather than gender-neutral interpretation of the masculine—despite widespread usage of the masculine as a gender-neutral form—suggesting that masculine forms are inadequate for representing genders equally.
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Discourse Processes
ISSN: 0163-853X (Print) 1532-6950 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hdsp20
Grammatical Gender in German Influences How
Role-Nouns Are Interpreted: Evidence from ERPs
Julia Misersky, Asifa Majid & Tineke M. Snijders
To cite this article: Julia Misersky, Asifa Majid & Tineke M. Snijders (2018): Grammatical
Gender in German Influences How Role-Nouns Are Interpreted: Evidence from ERPs, Discourse
Processes, DOI: 10.1080/0163853X.2018.1541382
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/0163853X.2018.1541382
© 2018 The Author(s). Published by Taylor &
Francis Group, LLC.
Published online: 28 Nov 2018.
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Grammatical Gender in German Influences How Role-Nouns Are
Interpreted: Evidence from ERPs
Julia Misersky
a,b,c
, Asifa Majid
d
, and Tineke M. Snijders
a,b,c
a
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands;
b
Centre for Language Studies, Radboud
University;
c
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University;
d
Department of Psychology,
University of York
ABSTRACT
Grammatically masculine role-nouns (e.g., Studentenmasc.students) can
refer to men and women but may favor an interpretation where only
men are considered the referent. If true, this has implications for a society
aiming to achieve equal representation in the workplace since, for example,
job adverts use such role descriptions. To investigate the interpretation of
role-nouns, the present ERP study assessed grammatical gender processing
in German. Twenty participants read sentences where a role-noun (mascu-
line or feminine) introduced a group of people, followed by a congruent
(masculinemen, femininewomen) or incongruent (masculinewomen,
femininemen) continuation. Both for feminine-men and masculine-women
continuations a P600 (500 to 800 ms) was observed; another positivity was
already present from 300 to 500 ms for feminine-men continuations but
critically not for masculine-women continuations. The results imply a male-
biased rather than gender-neutral interpretation of the masculinedespite
widespread usage of the masculine as a gender-neutral formsuggesting
that masculine forms are inadequate for representing genders equally.
Introduction
Gender is a social category we encounter on a daily basis, with gender equality having become an
important sociopolitical issue. Gender has also been described as almost universally present in lan-
guage(Irmen, Holt, & Weisbrod, 2010, p. 133), as the gender of a person can be indicated linguistically
via diverse means. Generally speaking, across languages, referential nouns fall into one of the three
following gender categories: carrying natural gender, grammatical gender, or no gender (genderless
languages; see Stahlberg, Braun, Irmen, & Sczesny, 2007). While lexical information (e.g., woman)can
cue gender explicitly, role-nouns (e.g., mathematicians) often imply gender information too. In natural
gender languages, such as English, role-nouns are not grammatically gendered in the singular or plural.
Only via the use of pronouns and only in the singular can the gender of, for example, the mathematician
be revealed as she or he. In contrast, many grammatically gendered languages, such as German or
Spanish, categorize all nouns as belonging to specific grammatical gender categoriesfor example, as
masculine, feminine, and occasionally also neuter. In the case of masculine and feminine gender
categories, nouns referring to people tend to indicate male or female gender of the referent. Thus, role-
nouns are realized differently across languages, depending on the grammatical system. In German, the
suffix innen marks feminine grammatical gender in the plural, making a reference to females explicit.
Previous research has investigated how role-nouns are understood across various languages. In
the absence of grammatical gender, referent gender is cued by stereotypicality (Gygax, Gabriel,
CONTACT Julia Misersky julia.misersky@mpi.nl Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, PO Box 310, 6500 AH Nijmegen,
The Netherlands.
Color versions of one or more of the figures in the article can be found online at www.tandfonline.com/hdsp.
© 2018 The Author(s). Published by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/),
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
DISCOURSE PROCESSES
https://doi.org/10.1080/0163853X.2018.1541382
Sarrasin, Oakhill, & Garnham, 2008; Sato, Gygax, & Gabriel, 2013). For example, in English, the
noun mathematicians implies male referents because native speakers think mathematicians are
stereotypically male (Misersky et al., 2014), whereas in gendered languages, such as German,
grammatical gender indicates referent gender since distinct forms are used to describe females
versus males. Feminine role-nouns (e.g., Mathematikerinnenfem.) cue specifically for females; the
masculine (e.g., Mathematikermasc.), is used for males but can also be used for a mixed-gender
group (i.e., including both males and females, see also Stahlberg et al., 2007). As such, the masculine
may yield a generic as well as a specific interpretation.
Using a form such as Mathematikermasc. for a mixed-gender group therefore results in
a potential ambiguity in interpretation. Gygax et al. (2008) examined the interpretation of such role-
nouns by comparing English, which has natural gender, to French and German, both of which have
grammatical gender. Participants were presented with a stereotypically male or female role-noun (in
the masculine for French and German) in one sentence and with an anaphoric noun (men or
women) in a second. Participants had to indicate whether the sentence continuation was sensible. In
English, participantsjudgments and response times were linked to the stereotypicality of the role-
noun. There was no such effect of stereotypicality for French and German. Instead, participants
judged continuations with men to be more sensible than continuations with women anaphors. This
was also reflected in response times: Participants were faster to judge men continuations as sensible
compared to women continuations.
Recent studies have found similar effects in German and Dutch primary school children
(Vervecken, Gygax, Gabriel, Guillod, & Hannover, 2015; Vervecken & Hannover, 2015).
Grammatical form was found to affect ratings of status (How important is it to be ___?) and
difficulty (How hard is it to do the job of ___?) associated with job roles. Importantly, children
reported lower self-efficacythat is, they were more likely to think they could not succeed in the job
when presented with a masculine form. In sum, this research suggests that grammatical gender is
relevant for guiding our interpretation of language and may even override stereotype information
(Gygax et al., 2008; Irmen & Roßberg, 2004). Specifically, these examples indicate that despite being
intended for all genders (Stahlberg et al., 2007), the masculine is interpreted as male-specific. However,
because these studies used explicit post hoc measures of language processing, it is unclear whether the
effects found reside in early online language processing or result from later decision-making processes.
The current study used event-related potentials (ERPs) to assess the online interpretation of
grammatically gendered role-nouns in German. We investigated the specific neural signature of how
masculine role-nouns are processed with the view to determine whether the male-specific or generic
interpretation is favored earlier.
Previous ERP studies shed some light on how grammatical gender is processed online and help to
hone the specific predictions. This literature has focused largely on two classical ERP components,
the N400 and the P600. The N400, a negative deflection from 300 to 500 ms after stimulus
presentation, is related to lexical-semantic processing (Kutas & Hillyard, 1980a and 1980b; for
a review see Kutas & Federmeier, 2011); whereas the P600 is sensitive to processing of syntactic
information (Osterhout & Holcomb, 1992) and is characterized by a positive deflection around 500
to 800 ms after stimulus onset. In these studies, researchers investigate how grammatical agreement
between object nouns and their corresponding pronouns, determiners, or adjectives is processed
(e.g., Barber & Carreiras, 2005; Caffarra, Siyanova-Chanturia, Pesciarelli, Vespignani, & Cacciari,
2015;Hammer, Jansma, Lamers, & Münte, 2005). Looking at coreferential pronoun processing at the
sentence level, Hammer et al. (2005) found that for both objects (e.g., der Apfelmasc. the apple) and
role-nouns in the singular (e.g., die Fraufem./female the woman), mismatches between the gram-
matical gender of the noun and the coreferential pronoun elicited a P600 effect. This effect was larger
in the role-noun condition, when there was a mismatch in both the grammatical gender and
biological gender. In a follow-up study again manipulating grammatical gender, Hammer, Jansma,
Lamers, and Münte (2008) found P600 and N400 effects for coreferential pronoun mismatches,
depending on the type of antecedent noun (animate role-noun or object) and the distance between
2J. MISERSKY ET AL.
the antecedent and pronoun. Specifically, they found an N400-like effect only for pronouns following
an animate noun with a short distance between antecedent and pronoun. When there was a longer
distance between animate antecedent and pronoun, a P600 was elicited at grammatically incongruent
pronouns. The authors highlight the relevance of both semantics and syntax in coreferential
processing of grammatically gendered role-nouns and pronouns and suggest that the parser can
flexibly switch between the use of semantic and syntactic information to establish coreference.
Other ERP studies examining the processing of role-nouns with embedded stereotype informa-
tion have found similar effects. Testing English speakers, White, Crites, Taylor, and Corral (2009)
used a match-mismatch paradigm and found word-pairs, which mismatched in gender stereotypi-
cality (e.g., secretaryaggressive) resulted in a larger N400 effect than matching word-pairs (e.g.,
secretarycaring). Similarly, Osterhout, Bersick, and McLaughlin (1997) examined English partici-
pantsprocessing of reflexive pronouns (himself/herself) following a role-noun. Pronouns either did
or did not match an antecedent role-nouns gender definition (e.g., bachelor) or stereotype (e.g.,
doctor). Osterhout et al., (1997) found a P600 effect for both types of gender mismatches, but the
amplitude of the P600 was larger for mismatches between reflexives and definitional role-nouns (e.g.,
bachelor herself) than stereotype ones, suggesting they were considered more anomalous.
Testing German speakers, Irmen et al. (2010) investigated how stereotypicality of role-nouns
affected the processing of a subsequent referent. Their participants read sentences consisting of
a stereotypically male or female role-noun (e.g., computer scientist; stereotypically male), and
a coreferential continuation, which was either neutral (e.g., these people), matching (e.g., these
men), or mismatching (e.g., these women) with regards to gender. An N400 effect across all
continuations following a stereotypically male role-noun was observed. A later P600 effect showed
an interaction between the stereotypicality of the role-noun and the continuation and was taken to
reflect the integration of the two nouns. Irmen et al. (2010) suggest that this is consistent with a two-
stage model of reference resolution (Garrod & Terras, 2000). According to Garrod and Terras
(2000), the first stage (bonding) assumes more superficial processing of the plausibility between
role-noun and continuation. During the second stage (reference resolution), the sentence as a whole
is evaluated against this initially established bond. If the bond appears inappropriate given the
context, processing difficulties occur. Irmen et al. (2010) suggest that initial bonding between role-
noun and continuation based on lexical-semantic information was reflected in the N400, while
difficulties in reference resolution were observed in the later P600 time window.
In sum, two ERP components are most regularly observed in research on gender cuesthe N400
and P600. Both conceptual and syntactic information are relevant to successfully build coreference
(Schmitt, Lamers, & Münte, 2002), and this might be especially true for languages where semantics is
increasingly subject to syntactic constraints as a result of grammatical gender. In German, for
example, the semantic and grammatical gender of words describing human referents (e.g.,
Frauenfem. women) tend to agree (Irmen et al., 2010). This means lexical-semantic and syntactic
processing difficulties may co-occur during the processing of grammatical gender.
In recent years, the use of gender-fair language as a means to advance gender equality has become
grounds for heated debate. While a role-noun in the singular mostly refers to a specific person whose
gender is known, role-nouns in the pluralwhich are frequently used in the media, job adverts, and
the workplacecan be ambiguous about the intended gender. Remarkably, research examining the
online processing of plural role-nouns referring to groups remains sparse. The existing work on
plural role-nouns has approached the issue from the viewpoint of gender stereotypes (e.g., Irmen
et al., 2010; Osterhout, McLaughlin, & Bersick, 1997), yet in gendered languages stereotype and
grammatical information often coincide, requiring a systematic study of these two gender cues
separately. In particular, the role of grammatical genderparticularly of masculine grammatical
genderin reference processing demands further research in order to assess whether masculine
forms are as problematic in their interpretation as behavioral research suggests.
The present study investigates how masculine grammatical gender affects the online processing of
differently gendered human referents. Specifically, the study aims to assess whether the masculine in the
DISCOURSE PROCESSES 3
plural is understood as gender-neutral (i.e., encompassing both females and males) or as specific to
males, when no explicit decision making is required. Stereotypically neutral role-nouns were used to
systematically focus on the effects of grammatical gender. The experimental sentences introduced
a group of people via a role-noun (manipulated as grammatically masculine or feminine) and
a sentence continuation specified the group as consisting in part of men or women.Thismeantrole-
noun and continuation either matched (masculinemen; femininewomen) or mismatched (masculine
women; femininemen) in grammatical gender. Table 1 gives an example of the sentential stimuli.
1
There is a clear grammatical gender incongruency for feminine role-nouns followed by men
continuations. For this condition we expect processing difficulties to be reflected in larger N400 and/
or P600 components when compared to the condition with feminine role-nouns followed by
congruent women continuations. This helps establish a benchmark of the processing of incongruency
between role-noun and continuation. For masculine role-nouns followed by women continuations,
the expected congruency is less clear. Whereas the feminine is only used for female referents, the
masculine is used as a default for both male and female referents. If the masculine indeed allows for
a more flexible gender interpretation, a women continuation will not result in processing difficulties.
If, however, a role-noun in the masculine favors a male-specific interpretation of the referent,
masculine role-nouns followed by women continuations should lead to processing difficulties,
resulting in similar ERP effects as those to men continuations after feminine role-nouns.
Methods
Participants
Twenty-four native speakers of German recruited from Radboud UniversitysSONA system parti-
cipated in this study. The sample size was based on a statistical power calculation using G*Power 3.1
(Faul, Erdfelder, Lang, & Buchner, 2007). The estimated effect size fused for the power calculation
was based on the partial eta-squared provided by SPSS for the N400 effect of role-noun typicality
(Irmen et al., 2010). We calculated the partial eta-squared values using the actual data from Irmen
et al. (2010) that we obtained from the authors (η
2p
= .18, f= .47). The power analysis (F-test,
repeated measures, within factors) revealed a minimum required sample size of 20 participants to
reach 80% power with alpha = 0.05. We tested 24 participants to allow for possible dropout. In total,
four participants were excluded from further analysis (see the following). This resulted in a final
sample of 20 participants (13 female, age range 1929 years, M= 22.3, SD = 2.68). All participants
provided written informed consent and received course credit or payment as appropriate. All had
normal or corrected-to-normal vision and were right-handed. The study was approved by the local
ethics committee (Commissie Mensgebonden Onderzoek, Regio Arnhem-Nijmegen).
Table 1. Example of the Sentence Stimuli and Conditions.
Grammatical gender Continuation Sentence example
masculine congruent
(men)
Die Studentenmasc. gingen zur Mensa, weil manche der Männer Hunger hatten.
The students went to the canteen because some of the men were hungry.
incongruent
(women)
Die Studentenmasc. gingen zur Mensa, weil manche der Frauen Hunger hatten.
The students went to the canteen because some of the women were hungry.
feminine congruent
(women)
Die Studentinnenfem. gingen zur Mensa, weil manche der Frauen Hunger hatten.
The students went to the canteen because some of the women were hungry.
incongruent
(men)
Die Studentinnenfem. gingen zur Mensa, weil manche der Männer Hunger hatten.
The students went to the canteen because some of the men were hungry.
1
Gygax and Gabriel (2008) suggest that using materials with both feminine and masculine forms may amplify the interpretation of
the masculine as specific to males, since the feminine is always specific to females. However, since we regularly encounter
masculine and feminine forms in a variety of contexts, we believe inclusion of both forms in this study provides an appropriate
representation of a real-life situation.
4J. MISERSKY ET AL.
Materials and design
A total of 156 role-nouns were selected on the basis of their stereotypicality rating from a previous
norming study (Misersky et al., 2014). Only role-nouns rated as stereotypically neutral in German
(M= .47, SD = .08), on a scale of 1 (stereotypically female) and 0 (stereotypically male), were included
in the materials. These role-nouns appeared at the beginning of the sentence, and coordinate clauses
were then created. The sentence-initial role-noun introduced a group of people, and the role-nouns
grammatical gender was either masculine or feminine. Later in the sentence, this group was referred
to with a quantifier noun phrase: einige a few/some,mehrere several,manche some,einzelne
single ones,or viele manyfollowed by der Männer of the menor der Frauen of the women; see
Table 1. In addition, 80 filler items were created, half of which followed a similar format. This
included coordinate clauses starting with either a gender-neutral role-noun (e.g., die Eltern the
parents) or an inanimate noun (e.g., der Streit the argument), and continued with either no
coreferential word or a gender-neutral word (e.g., die Gruppe the group). The other half of the
filler items were not coordinate clauses and thus structurally different (e.g., Nach ein paar sonnigen
Tagen konnte man Knospen an den Bäumen sehen.After a few sunny days, one could see buds on
the trees.).
Procedure
Participants were seated in a dimly illuminated sound-attenuating testing booth. They were instructed
to read sentences attentively, as they would have to answer questions about the text throughout the
experiment. These instructions were presented orally by the experimenter, as well as visually on the
testing PC. As eye-movements distort EEG recording, participants were asked to blink only between
sentences or during breaks. Participants could speak to the experimenter using a microphone at any
point during the experiment. The experiment was conducted entirely in German.
Experimental materials were presented using the Presentation software (Neurobehavioral
Systems, www.neurobs.com). Each sentence was presented using word-by-word serial visual pre-
sentation in the center of a 24-inch PC monitor. The background was a dark gray with words
presented in white letters (Helvetica, font size 26). The beginning of each sentence was preceded by
a fixation cross (+). Each word was presented for 380 ms with a blank screen of 145 ms between
words. The second and fourth word of each sentence was presented for slightly longer, i.e., 480ms,
because of its longer length. Sentence-final words were followed by a full stop, then a 1,000-ms
blank. Every 10 sentences, a comprehension question appeared on screen and required a Yes or No
response via button press with the left or right index finger respectively. The question related to the
activity referred to in the sentence; there was no repetition of the role-noun. The inter-trial-interval
(ITI) was 2,000 ms during which the fixation-cross reappeared.
Participants first received nine practice sentences and then had the opportunity to ask questions
about the task. Participants saw each role-noun once, resulting in 39 experimental sentences for each
of the conditions (masculinemen, masculinewomen, femininemen, femininewomen). Together
with the 80 fillers, this made a total of 236 sentences per participant, which were presented in
a pseudorandomized order. The experiment proper was split into four blocks of 59 trials. There were
self-paced pauses between blocks where a drink of water was offered to the participant.
EEG recording
Continuous EEG was recorded from 32 active electrodes (1020 system) attached to an elastic cap
(actiCAP), with a BrainAmp DC amplifier (Brain Products, Gilching, Germany). The signal was
sampled at 500 Hz. One electrode in the cap provided an active ground. Electrooculogram (EOG)
was recorded from electrodes above and below the eye and at the outer canthi of the eyes. Electrode
impedances were kept below 20 kΩ.
DISCOURSE PROCESSES 5
Data analysis
The data was preprocessed using the FieldTrip toolbox for EEG/MEG-analysis (www.fieldtriptoolbox.org,
Oostenveld, Fries, Maris, & Schoffelen, 2011) in MATLAB. Segments ranging from before 200 ms until
after 1,000 ms continuation onset (men, women) were chosen for further analysis. Off-line-filtering
included a low-pass filter at 35 Hz and a high-pass filter at 0.1 Hz. The data were then inspected visually,
and trials showing electrode jumps or drifting were removed in preparation for an independent component
analysis (ICA). ICA was performed to remove remaining EOG and/or ECG artifacts from the data. All EEG
channels were then rereferenced to the average of the signal of both mastoids (Luck, 2014). A baseline
correction was applied in which the signal was normalized relative to a 200-ms stimulus-preceding window.
Trials containing signal exceeding ± 75 μV were removed, and mean ERP amplitudes for the time windows
of interest were calculated. The data sets of two participants were excluded from further analysis, since
fewer than 29 trials per condition (< 75 percent) remained after preprocessing. The average number of trials
keptperconditionfortheremainingparticipantswas34.7(M= 89%, range 34.4 to 34.8 trials across all
conditions). A further two data sets were excluded due to participantsperformance on the content
questions that resulted in accuracy at or below chance. Further analyses confirmed that trial rejection
did not introduce differences between the means for the stereotypicality ratings of the role-nouns in each
condition (range .465 to .468; p= .904).
Mean ERP amplitudes were statistically analyzed in two main time windows after the onset of the
continuation noun; 300 to 500 ms for the N400, and 500 to 800 ms for the P600 (following Irmen
et al., 2010; Osterhout et al., 1997) using SPSS. As in Irmen et al. (2010), nine electrodes in anterior,
central, and posterior positions of the left and right hemisphere and the midline were used (F3/z/4,
C3/z/4, P3/z/4).
The mean amplitudes of the ERPs for the time windows of interest were then subjected to
a repeated-measures ANOVA, with Grammatical Gender of role-noun (masculine, feminine),
Continuation (congruent, incongruent), Anteriority (anterior, central, posterior), and Laterality
(left, midline, right) as within-subject factors. An alpha level of .05 was used for all statistical tests.
Only the effects of Grammatical Gender, Continuation, and their interaction with the other factors
(Anteriority, Laterality) are of relevance for our experimental question, so only those effects will be
reported. When significant Grammatical Gender by Continuation interactions were found, separate
ANOVAs were performed for each Grammatical Gender condition. Where interactions between
Grammatical Gender or Continuation and the topographic factors (Laterality, Anteriority) were
significant, ANOVAs on the relevant electrode groups were carried out separately.
Results
Behavioral results
Participants correctly answered the comprehension questions with high accuracy (M=99.18%
correct, SD = 3.26), indicating they understood the task and read the sentences attentively through-
out the experiment.
ERP results
After both feminine and masculine role-nouns, a positive shift in the ERP was seen for incongruent
continuations compared to congruent ones (see Figure 1 for continuations following the feminine
role-nouns and Figure 2 for continuations following the masculine role-nouns; for illustrative
purposes only, the grand-average ERPs were smoothed off-line using a 5 Hz low-pass filter). As
defined beforehand, the mean amplitudes of the N400 (300 to 500 ms) and P600 (500 to 800 ms)
time windows were compared statistically.
6J. MISERSKY ET AL.
Figure 1. Congruency effect after feminine role-nouns. ERPs time-locked to the onset of continuations (men, women) following
a role-noun with feminine grammatical gender at six electrode sites (F3, Fz, F4, C3, Cz, C4, P3, Pz, P4). Congruent (women)
continuations are in black, incongruent (men) continuations are in blue. Negativity is plotted downward.
Figure 2. Congruency effect after masculine role-nouns. ERPs time-locked to the onset of continuations (men, women)
following a role-noun with masculine grammatical gender at six electrode sites (F3, Fz, F4, C3, Cz, C4, P3, Pz, P4). Congruent
(men) continuations are in black, incongruent (women) continuations are in blue. Negativity is plotted downward.
DISCOURSE PROCESSES 7
300 to 500 ms time window
In the 300 to 500 ms time window there were no main effects of Grammatical Gender, F
(1,15) = 3.718, p= .073, η
p2
= .199, or Continuation, F(1,15) = 2.228, p= .156, η
p2
= .129, but
there was an interaction between Grammatical Gender and Continuation, F(1,15) = 5.828, p= .029,
η
p2
= .280 (see Figure 3, top).
For role-nouns with feminine grammatical gender, responses to congruent Continuations differed
significantly from those to incongruent ones, F(1,15) = 4.783, p= .045, η
p2
= .242. Incongruent
Continuations elicited more positive responses (M= 2.295 μV, SEM = .436) compared to congruent
Continuations (M= 1.180 μV, SEM = .469). The effect was equally distributed over electrode sites,
F
Continuation ×Anteriority
(2,30) = .025, p= .975, η
p2
= .002; F
Continuation × Laterality
(2,30) = .739, p= .486,
η
p2
= .047; F
Continuation × Anteriority × Laterality
(4,60) = .751, p= .561, η
p2
= .048.
For role-nouns with masculine Grammatical Gender, there was no significant difference between
congruent (M=1.231μV, SEM = .418) and incongruent (M=1.185μV, SEM = .365) continuations, F
(1,15) = .019, p=.891,η
p2
= .001, and no interactions between Continuation and Anteriority, F
(2,30) = .028, p=.973,η
p2
= .002, or Continuation and Laterality, F(2,30) = 1.601, p= .218, η
p2
=.096.
500 to 800 ms time window
Analysis of the 500 to 800 ms time window showed a main effect of Continuation, F(1,15) = 5.133, p
= .039, η
p2
= .255. Regardless of the Grammatical Gender of the role-noun, incongruent Continuations
elicited significantly more positive responses (M= 2.094 μV, SEM = .461) compared to congruent
Continuations (M=1.074μV, SEM = .316, see Figure 3, bottom). The effect was equally distributed over
electrode sites, F
Continuation × Anteriority
(2,30) = .811, p=.454,η
p2
= .051; F
Continuation × Laterality
(2,30) = .223,
p=.802,η
p2
= .015; F
Continuation × Anteriority × Laterality
(4,60) = .403, p= .806, η
p2
= .026.
Crucially, there was no interaction between Grammatical Gender and Continuation in this time
window, F(1,15) = .081, p= .780, η
p2
= .005, indicating that the Continuation of women after masculine
role-nouns elicited an incongruency effect that was just as large as the continuation of men after feminine
role-nouns (see Figure 3, bottom). There were also no interactions between Grammatical Gender,
Continuation, and the topographic factors, F
GrammaticalGender × Continuation × Anteriority
(2,30) = .298,
p= .744, η
p2
=.020;F
GrammaticalGender × Continuation × Laterality
(2,30) = 1.366, p=.271,η
p2
= .083;
F
GrammaticalGender × Continuation × Anteriority × Laterality
(4,60) = .752, p= .561, η
p2
=0.48.
Discussion
The present study assessed how grammatical gender affects referent processing. More specifically,
the study focused on how grammatically masculine role-nouns, which are used for malesbut also
for mixed-gender groupsinfluence the processing of differently gendered referents when no
explicit decision making is required. Based on the previous literature, we reasoned that if readers
encounter processing difficulties due to the interpretation of grammatical gender, then this should
result in changes in the ERPs during the N400 and P600 time windows and thereby shed light on the
underlying processing mechanisms. Accordingly, when exposed to an incongruency following
a grammatically feminine role-noun (femininemen), we found a positive shift in the ERPs in
both the 300 to 500 ms and the 500 to 800 ms time windows. Critically, for an incongruency
following a grammatically masculine role noun (masculinewomen), a positive shift was only present
in the 500 to 800 ms time window.
In the 300 to 500 ms time window, incongruent continuations elicited a positive shift for the
men continuations after feminine role nouns only. This positive shift is unlikely to be
a reflection of an N400 response but is possibly a P300-like effect similar to the one that has
been found previously by Siyanova-Chanturia, Pesciarelli and Cacciari (2012). Their study was in
Italian, which is also a gendered language. Using only word-pairs, Siyanova-Chanturia,
8J. MISERSKY ET AL.
Pesciarelli, and Cacciari (2012) examined the processing of pronouns (lei she/lui he) following
stereotypically gendered (e.g., insegnantemasc./fem. teacher) and grammatically gendered (e.g.,
pensionatomasc. pensioner) role-nouns. For female participants, they observed positive
responses to incongruencies between grammatically gendered roles and pronouns and inter-
preted this effect as P300-like.
The P300 has been linked to stimulus evaluation (Kutas & Hillyard, 1980a,1980b) and is sensitive
to the evaluation being task-relevant (Holcomb, 1988). In line with this, Siyanova-Chanturia et al.
(2012) attributed their findings to decision-making processes of the participants required by the
experiment. Unlike Siyanova-Chanturia et al. (2012), the present study used full sentences.
Additionally, participants did not need to explicitly evaluate the continuations but did have to
occasionally answer questions about the sentence content. Upon reading a role-noun in the mascu-
line, participants may have had a broader set of possible interpretations (i.e., the sentence could have
been about males, females, or a mixed-gender group of referents) compared to when they read
a role-noun in the feminine, which always denotes female referents. As such, possible interpretations
may have been narrowed down in the feminine condition already in the earlier time window, leading
to the observed differential processing patterns. For the masculine role noun, the lack of early
processing difficulties suggests a generic interpretation, at least in this early time window.
Regardless of the grammatical gender of the role noun, incongruent continuations resulted in
a more positive response relative to congruent continuations in the 500 to 800 ms time window. This
result likely reflects a P600 effect, indicating participants encountered processing difficulties upon
Figure 3. Top: Topography of differences of ERPs between congruent and incongruent. Continuations for (a) masculine role-
nouns and (b) feminine role-nouns and mean amplitudes for the 300 to 500 ms time window; bar chart reflects the mean
amplitudes in the 300 to 500 ms time window as a factor of Grammatical Gender (masculine vs. feminine) and Continuation (men
vs. women) ± 1 SEM. Bottom: Topography of differences of ERPs between congruent and incongruent continuations for (c)
masculine role-nouns and (d) feminine role-nouns and mean amplitudes for the 500 to 800 ms time window; bar chart reflects the
mean amplitudes in the 500 to 800 ms time window as a factor of Grammatical Gender (masculine vs. feminine) and Continuation
(men vs. women) ± 1 SEM.Black circles give the electrodes included in the statistical analysis.
DISCOURSE PROCESSES 9
reading women when preceded by a grammatically masculine role-noun and upon reading men
when preceded by a grammatically feminine role-noun. This P600 effect is similar to the P600 found
by Hammer et al. (2005) for mismatches in both the biological and the grammatical gender of
singular role-nouns and coreferential pronouns in a sentential context. In Hammer et al.s experi-
ments (2005,2008), the singular role-nouns often mentioned a person whose gender was known
(e.g., die Fraufem. the woman). In contrast, our study focused on role-nouns in the plural where the
referent gender was genuinely ambiguous. Regardless, we found a clear P600 effect similar to
Hammer et al. (2005,2008).
Our stimuli manipulated the syntactic presentation of role-nouns in the absence of stereotypical
gender information. In line with previous research (Hagoort, Brown, & Osterhout, 1999; Van
Berkum, Koornneef, Otten, & Nieuwland, 2007), participants may have had a syntactic expectation
based on the role-noun they read (i.e., a preference for the role-noun and continuation to match in
terms of grammatical gender). Thus, the effects in our study may reflect a violation of participants
preferences for the upcoming syntactic category of the coreferential continuation.
Our results fit well with the Garrod and Terras (2000) two-stage reference processing model (see
also Irmen et al., 2010). During an initial bonding stage, we propose that each continuation was
linked to the role-noun by an automatic process. The positive ERP amplitude in the 300 to 500 ms
time window of the incongruent continuations following a feminine role-noun was likely due to the
feminine effectively constraining processing early on. For role-nouns in the masculine, however, all
continuations were processed similarly in this early time window. The absence of differential
processing in this initial stage could be the result of the masculine form being pragmatically used
to describe mixed-gender groups. Only later, during the reference resolution stage, did incongruent
continuations lead to processing difficulties. Importantly, in this later time window there was no
difference between the two grammatical gender conditions, suggesting that both masculine and
feminine forms were interpreted as similarly specific to men and women referents respectively. The
increased processing difficulties seen in the later time window could be the result of situational
updating during the reference resolution stage (Burkhardt, 2006; Ferretti, Singer, & Harwood, 2013).
Further, these results hark to findings from behavioral studies (Gygax et al., 2008; Vervecken &
Hannover, 2015), suggesting that the processing during this reference resolution stage may underlie
the interpretational decision-making patterns previously observed.
To summarize, the observed pattern of effects suggests that readersinterpretation was guided by the
grammatical gender of the role-noun during the processing of sentences. A role-noun in the feminine led to
differential processing for men and women continuations early in comprehension. The potential mismatch
between women continuations following a masculine went unnoticed during initial processing. This
suggests that the feminine effectively constrains the possible future referents, while the masculine does
not. However, this same mismatch between women continuations following a masculine resulted in
processing difficulties later, when different cues to referent gender have to be integrated (Irmen et al.,
2010). Crucially, the results suggest that women continuations after a masculine role-noun are less easily
integrated than men continuations (500 to 800 ms time window) but might not be perceived as a mismatch
perse(300to500mstimewindow).Soreadersseemto be biased in interpreting the grammatically
masculine form as male-specific, despite it being used regularly to refer to both females and males.
Masculine role-nouns are pragmatically common and regularly used in society for mixed-gender
groups. Indeed, the lack of early processing difficulties speaks against a strong bias in favor of a male
representation. However, the results from the later time window do indicate that participants had
difficulties integrating women with a masculine role-noun. Our findings are thus in line with behavioral
research in this field, implying that the masculine form does not represent genders equally in German.
Acknowledgments
We thank Pascal Gygax (Université de Fribourg) for his insightful comments throughout this project and two
anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on the paper.
10 J. MISERSKY ET AL.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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12 J. MISERSKY ET AL.
... Uno de los fenómenos más estudiados en relación con los sesgos de género en las lenguas es la interpretación del masculino genérico en los nombres de rol 3 . Diferentes estudios psicolingüísticos (Brauer, 2008;Braun et al., 2005;Cacciari y Padovani, 2007;Marchesini, 2019;Misersky et al., 2018;Pinheiro y Freitag, 2020; Ya se encuentra publicado: Stetie & Zunino (2022) sugieren que el masculino genérico parecería presentar un sesgo de interpretación: tiende a ser interpretado con referencia exclusiva a varones. Esto, además, puede interactuar con factores lingüísticos (el cotexto) y no lingüísticos (la estereotipicidad de los nombres de rol, contexto). ...
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... Linguistic research has repeatedly demonstrated that masculine generics in German show a masculine bias (e.g. Gabriel et al., 2008;Gygax et al., 2008;Irmen & Kurovskaja, 2010;Koch, 2021;Misersky et al., 2019;Stahlberg & Sczesny, 2001). That is, grammatically masculine role-nouns such as Anwalt 'lawyer' can refer to men and women but may favour an interpretation in which mostly or only men are considered as potential referents (e.g. ...
... That is, grammatically masculine role-nouns such as Anwalt 'lawyer' can refer to men and women but may favour an interpretation in which mostly or only men are considered as potential referents (e.g. Misersky et al., 2019). However, research on this matter faces two major issues. ...
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Linguistic research has repeatedly demonstrated that masculine generics in German show a masculine bias (e.g. Gabriel et al., 2008; Gygax et al., 2008; Irmen & Kurovskaja, 2010; Koch, 2021; Misersky et al., 2019; Stahlberg & Sczesny, 2001). That is, grammatically masculine role-nouns such as Anwalt ‘lawyer’ can refer to men and women but may favour an interpretation in which mostly or only men are considered as potential referents (e.g. Misersky et al., 2019). However, research on this matter faces two major issues. First, previous studies have used numerous of such masculine generics and their feminine counterparts to gain insights into their semantics without accounting for language external but potentially confounding influences such as stereotypicality. Second, the majority of studies finds the aforementioned masculine bias; however, very few studies offer a theoretical account of its underlying representations (e.g. Irmen & Linner, 2005). To this date, no investigation has been made to discover whether there is a connection between the male bias and the representation of masculine generics in the mental lexicon. The present paper offers a solution to both issues. First, the role nouns under investigation are those for which stereotypicality ratings are available (Gabriel et al., 2008). Language external factors are incorporated in the analysis by such ratings. Second, using the general ideas of distributional semantics (Harris, 1954) as well as naïve discriminative learning (e.g. Baayen & Ramscar, 2015) and linear discriminative learning (e.g. Baayen et al., 2019) the underlying nature of masculine generics and counterparts is investigated. The proposed analysis aims at exploring the following question: How semantically similar are masculine generics and their explicitly masculine and feminine counterparts when taking into account stereotypicality? The following method was employed to tackle this question. An 830,000 sentence (1.7 million words) corpus of contemporary German was created using the Leipzig Corpora Collection (Goldhahn et al., 2012). The corpus included 113 target word pairs which were based on the set of words provided by Gabriel et al. (2008). All target word occurrences were checked for their usage, i.e. whether they were generically or explicitly intended, and annotated accordingly. The corpus was then used to train semantic vectors based on the Rescorla-Wagner equation (Wagner & Rescorla, 1972) as implemented by naïve discriminative learning. Finally, the resulting semantic vectors were then used to train an implementation of linear discriminative learning. Taking a closer look at the semantic vectors as created by the naïve discriminative learning algorithm, one finds that for the singular generic and explicit masculine role nouns are semantically closest with a mean cosine similarity value of approx. 0.98. Explicit masculine and feminine role nouns are less similar (approx. 0.94), and masculine generic and explicit feminine are least similar (0.93). These differences are highly significant (Mann-Whitney-Wilcoxon, p < 2.16e-16) and even more pronounced in the plural. To account for potential influences of stereotypicality, measures derived from the linear discriminative learning implementation were modelled by the stereotypicality measure as provided by Gabriel et al. (2008). As a result one finds that generic and explicit masculines are highly similar in terms of their semantic activation diversity and semantic neighbourhood size, while explicit feminines show higher activation diversities and denser neighbourhoods. Our results indicate that there is a male bias in masculine generics in German as they exhibit highly similar semantic vectors as well as highly similar levels of semantic activation diversity and semantic neighbourhood size, even when controlled for their stereotypicality. Consequently, generic and explicit masculines show similar underlying representations, while the representations of explicit feminines are less similar. Thus, even though the use of masculine generics might be intended as generic, their resonance with the lexicon, that is more specifically their similarity with explicit masculines, leads to an overall biased association towards male referents.
... • however, previous research has cast doubt on the gender-neutral use of masculine generics • most (if not all) behavioural studies on the subject find one overall result → masculine generics are not gender-neutral but show a clear bias towards the explicit masculine reading (e.g. Demarmels, 2017;Garnham et al., 2012;Gygax et al., 2008;Irmen & Kurovskaja, 2010;Irmen & Linner, 2005;Koch, 2021;Misersky et al., 2019;Stahlberg & Sczesny, 2001;Trutkowski, 2018) • even though a masculine generic may be used by a speaker with the intention of considering all genders… • …this intention is not fully translated by the receiver's comprehension system ...
... • the explicit feminine is more similar to the explicit masculine than to masculine generics • masculine generics show a clear bias towards the masculine reading, producing a 'male bias' in the language system itself • thus, our findings confirm the bias found in previous behavioural studies (e.g. Demarmels, 2017;Garnham et al., 2012;Gygax et al., 2008;Irmen & Kurovskaja, 2010;Irmen & Linner, 2005;Koch, 2021;Misersky et al., 2019;Stahlberg & Sczesny, 2001;Trutkowski, 2018) • future research will show ...
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Research of the last two decades has repeatedly shown that masculine generics in German exhibit a masculine bias (e.g. Gabriel et al., 2008; Gygax et al., 2008; Irmen & Kurovskaja, 2010; Koch, 2021; Misersky et al., 2019; Stahlberg & Sczesny, 2001). That is, grammatically masculine role-nouns (e.g. Lehrer, ‘teacher’ / ‘teachers’) can refer to men and women, but may favour an interpretation in which only men are considered as potential referent (Misersky et al., 2019). While previous studies are consistent in finding such a male bias for masculine generics, very few of them offer a theoretical account on the underlying nature of this bias (e.g. Irmen & Linner, 2005). Up to this point, no attempt has been made to find out whether there are connections between the male bias and the representations of masculine generics in the mental lexicon. This is what the present paper offers. Using the general ideas of distributional semantics (e.g. Harris, 1954) as a framework, the following questions are explored: Are masculine generics generic or do they show a bias? If a bias is found, how can we explain it in terms of underlying representations in the mental lexicon? To answer this question, the following method was employed. An 830,000 sentence (1.7 million words) corpus of contemporary German was created using the Leipzig Corpora Collection (Goldhahn et al., 2012). The corpus included 120 target word pairs which were based on the set of words used in Gygax et al. (2008). Target words were grammatically masculine role nouns and their grammatically feminine counterparts. All target word occurrences were manually checked for their usage, i.e. whether they were generically or specifically intended, and annotated accordingly. The corpus was then used to train semantic vectors based on the Rescorla-Wagner equation (Wagner & Rescorla, 1972) as implemented by naïve discriminative learning (e.g. Baayen & Ramscar, 2015). As a general result, the semantic vectors of masculine generics show a bias towards the grammatical masculine, i.e. the masculine specific. Further cosine similarity analyses show that the generic masculine is overall semantically more similar to words denoting males, e.g. Mann, ‘man’. A rank order correlation analysis corroborates this finding. Our results indicate that the male bias of masculine generics in German is due to the underlying representations of masculine role-nouns in the mental lexicon. That is, even though they may be intended to be generic, their resonance with the lexicon, i.e. more specifically with masculine specifics, leads to an overall biased association with male referents.
... Numerous studies using a wide variety of methods show that the use of masculine forms to represent all genders leads readers to predominantly build mental representations of men, the so-called "male bias", while the use of gender-fair language leads at least to a more balanced mental representation of men and women (e.g. Braun et al., 2005;Gabriel et al., 2008;Heise, 2000;Misersky et al., 2019;. There are no studies that include other genders, though. ...
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... Online language processing also activates implicit stereotypical gender knowledge. Studies employing ERPs (Event Related Potentials, a measure used to determine the difficulty of processing certain stimuli) found that comprehending linguistic information consistent with stereotypical gender-expectations (e.g., feminine pronouns with the role descriptor nurse) is more fluent than comprehending inconsistent gendered information (e.g., masculine pronouns with nurse, see Misersky et al. 2019). Role nouns seem to be infused with gendered stereotypes even in the absence of grammatical cues denoting the gender of the referent (Gygax et al. 2008), so that English-speaking participants are more likely to associate mathematician with men than with women, even though the role-noun is not gendered in English (Misersky et al. 2014). ...
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... A large subset of those studies approached this question from an online processing perspective using methods like self-paced reading, eye-tracking, sentence evaluations or event-related potentials (ERPs) (e.g., Garnham & Yakovlev, 2015;Irmen, 2007;Misersky, Majid, & Snijders, 2019). For example, used stimuli such as (3) in English, German, and French. ...
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