Western Papers in Linguistics / Cahiers linguistiques de Western

Article Title

Gendered Use of Adjectives in Fairy Tales: A Diachronic Study


This study focuses on gender represented in the literary context of fairy tales. It explores the adjectives used to describe the female and male gender diachronically and cross-sectionally over the span of the 19th century. By analyzing English translations of the Grimm Brothers’ “Ashputtel” (“Cinderella”), and “Hans In Luck,” I make observations about variations of adjective use within each text while comparatively looking at a female-centric narrative to a male-centric one. This provides a look into the relatively understudied subject of adjectives as a linguistic means of describing gender within cultural mores and norms.

Nineteenth century data shows that adjectives in a female-centric text remain heavily centered around appearance, and negative adjectives are only used during female-to-female dialogue, with the exception of the protagonist’s father’s negative description of her in the final scene. In the male-centric text adjectives focus on describing characters’ mental states and emotions rather than appearance, where negative adjectives rarely appear and adjectives that denote emotion are far more frequent. The male-centric text is also the only environment where adjective phrases were found to describe characters.

The twentieth century data demonstrates that in the female-centric text adjectives continue to focus on characters’ appearances and the use of negative adjectives remain isolated to female-to-female dialogue. While the total number of adjectives vary greatly in the first century’s data between “Ashputtel” and “Hans in Luck,” the second century reveals an increase in adjectives in the male-centric story; becoming more consistent with the numbers found in the female-centric text. The final significant trend is the increase of female presence in “Hans in Luck” from 0.6 percent in the nineteenth century to 3.8 percent in the twentieth century, a 3.2 percent increase in adjectives for females. In comparison to the male presence in “Ashputtel” increase by 2.2 percent (from 4.7 to 6.9), the “Hans in Luck” trend proves to be big increase in the direction of better gender representation in the story.

This diachronic study provides a quantitative and qualitative look into how adjectival use relates to gender norms and introduces data from 1823 to 2005 in order to track trends and changes in human adjectives found in these two fairy tale stories.

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