‘Inferior researchers’

Recently, I was asked by a female colleague to offer feedback on a document summarising her achievements. As I was reading the text, which is in Polish, I was struck by the fact that whenever she described herself, she used nouns in the masculine form. And so, for example, when she described herself as a researcher, she used the word badacz (masculine) and not badaczka (feminine).

An explanation is needed here. Polish, like many other languages, has the grammatical category of gender (here is the Wikipedia take on it). Basically, it means that nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs carry information encoding femininity, masculinity and, in fact, other genders (depending on who you ask, Polish might have up to 7 ‘genders’). It’s important to remember, however, that grammatical gender is not only about referring to males or females, but inanimate objects, concepts or states also have a ‘gender’. And so, in Polish, words for world (świat), country (kraj) or president (prezydent), but also for knife (noż), table (stół) or house (dom) are all masculine. On the other hand, words for fatherland (ojczyzna), person (osoba) or independence (niepodległość), but also for spoon (łyżka), sofa (wersalka) or villa (willa) are feminine. Window (okno), in turn, is neuter – go figure.

Apart from giving my colleague my feedback, I also remarked on the gender of the nouns she used, asking why she referred to herself using nouns in the masculine form. She wrote back saying that she would not change the masculine forms, as the feminine nouns are not perceived on a par with the masculine ones; as she put it, they refer to ‘a different sort of researcher, and probably an inferior one’.  Yes, I asked the colleague for permission to write about our exchange and quote her roughly (though, she will remain anonymous, of course).

And so, having recently written about the ‘default male killer’, this post is about gender again, this time in reference to Polish labels for professions. The problem is that while professions such as teacher, doctor, clerk have both the masculine (nauczyciel, lekarz, urzędnik, resp.) and feminine forms (nauczycielka, lekarka, urzędniczka, resp.), jobs such as president, minister, professor, rector, dean (prezydent, minister, profesor, rektor, dziekan) are either never (president) or very rarely used in the feminine form (professor).  Moreover, despite that the linguistic system allows the forms, they sound ‘strange’, some with negative, belittling connotations. A case in point is the feminine form of ‘professor’ – profesorka, which, because of the suffix ‘-ka’, resembles a diminutive form. This is probably underscored by the diminutive masculine form, profesorek, which is derogative, potentially, insulting and certainly stripping the professor of all her/his ‘professoriness’.  The same applies to the rest of the above words. The feminine form of ‘president’ – prezydentka carries all the connotations of ‘little female president’.

A digression: it is worth noting that the double function of the suffix ‘-ka’ – to diminutivise and feminise nouns is interesting in its own right. As I have barely studied Polish morphology, I cannot really comment on it. However, such a study would not only be important, but also quite interesting.

Now, does it all explain my colleague’s unwillingness to be badaczka (fem. ‘researcher’), despite the fact that the word is in relatively frequent use? Well, not really. Things go further. Let me first tell you that Poland has the Council of the Polish Language (Rada Języka Polskiego). It’s a sort of Council for Verbal Hygiene (to borrow Deborah Cameron’s well-known phrase). As their English page says:

As stipulated in the Polish Language Act and the Council’s rules, the Council’s main responsibility is to provide valuations and assessments on all matters concerning the use of the Polish language in public communication.

Right….No, I am not going to comment on it, sorry. Still, they decided to announce to the world what they thought about the feminine forms of nouns referring to professions or titles. Here is their statement.

I’m afraid it’s is only in Polish and although it’s probably not an argument to learn Polish, the statement is actually worth reading, it’s an interesting social document. The argument goes as follows. The Council members don’t have a problem with feminine forms, the language system allows them. But then they add: they create so many problems! First, they would create homonyms (words that look or sound the same), the potential feminine form of premier (‘Prime Minister’) would be premiera, which sounds exactly like the word for ‘premiere’; they could be also seen as augmentatives, and, to add insult to injury, the forms might be seen as possessive – feminine ministra (fem ‘minister’) is also genitive of masculnie ‘minister’.

Let me say for those not fluent in Polish that this is really one argument made into three (presumably, to make them plenty). Basically, the Council members are complaining about the fact that feminine forms will introduce more homonyms into Polish, and, can you imagine, in three ways. Needless to say, the only response can be: are you for real? Are you really saying that, I don’t know, a hundred new homonyms will crash the Polish language? I mean: really?!

Despite that their voice would have been perceived as a significant contribution to the debate, the Council lost an opportunity to lead. With one person abstaining, the Council decided not to champion feminine forms, rather, they pointed to difficulties and negative perceptions. But what is particularly irritating in the statement is that a social and political problem is passed as purely linguistic. The Council hides behind the screen of the ‘linguistic system’, suggesting that the feminine form will somehow spoil the Polish language, oh, let’s go for it: our beloved ‘father tongue’ (in Polish it is język ojczysty – sort of ‘language of the father’).

Incidentally, as I was writing it, I was reminded of a story I read a few years back about the Polish Nobel Prize winner in literature, Wisława Szymborska. When writing about her work, a very eminent (male) professor of literature explicitly stated his preference for the word autor, (‘author’, masculine) rather than the commonly used autorka (feminine form). He said that only the former form carries enough timeless gravitas. Yes, of course it is complete nonsense, but, unfortunately, the Verbal Hygienists chose not to counter such idiotic statements, in fact, they could be seen to support them!

It’s worth noting, however, that some women-professors (though still very much in minority) use the problematic word profesorka, but the perceptions of this use are negative and the choice is seen as a political statement. Indeed,  a recent study on prejudice (also in Polish only) shows that Poles don’t like feminine forms of words referring to professions and are against using them. The authors also quote a different study which shows that feminine forms result in women being perceived as less competent.

And here we are. Professors are male. My colleague is right – feminine forms are still perceived to refer to ‘inferior researchers’ and in order to be seen as a (‘real’) researcher, she must use the masculine form of the word. It is not my position to comment on her choices, as it is not I who will suffer the consequences. But if she is unlucky enough to encounter a member of the Council of verbal hygienists, such choices are more than likely be noticed, noted and (negatively) viewed. The trap is set by the language and linguistic practices (well, the society as it is) and is sprung by the language guardians.

There is a postscript to be written here, though. There are two other Polish words: przedszkolanka (‘nursery teacher’) and pielegniarka (‘nurse’), which are worthy of note. They are only in the feminine form. Interestingly, the former cannot actually be even changed into the masculine. The system doesn’t allow it, at least not easily. It seems only women can work with and take care of children. Indeed, media evidence, rare as it is, sugessts that Polish men find it very difficult to find a job in nurseries (and there are men who would like to!). There is, however, a masculine form of pielęgniarka. It’s pielęgniarz, but it refers to the job of an orderly. Polish men cannot be nurses. There are no words for it.

  1. I was suggested this web site by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him
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  2. There is also the word ‘sprzątaczka’ (‘cleaning lady’) which does not take the masculine form.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Or sekretarka (‘secretary’) and prostytutka (‘prostitute’), while żołnierz (‘soldier’) or marynarz (‘sailor’) don’t take the feminine form. All these examples show it’s hardly an exclusively linguistic issue.

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