Gender and its endings

Over the last few weeks, more and more public attention and debate has focused on how we, Poles, use linguistic gender in how we speak and write. In particular, the debate, sometimes very heated, has been about words which refer to women. I’d like to offer some comment.

Before I start, I need to offer a short crash course into gender in Polish. 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. It’s often pointed out that grammatical gender cannot and should not be associated with social gender, let alone biological sex. This is because, depending on who you ask, Polish has up to 7 genders. This includes three masculine genders and two plural genders which have nothing to do with how gender is understood.

Crucially, however, grammatical gender is not only about referring to humans or animals, 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), milk (mleko) or wheel (koło) in turn, are neuter – go figure. It’s worth adding that when I first learnt German (which also has grammatical gender), I was shocked to learn that the genders between the two languages do not match. And so, when you not only learnt the new words, but you also learnt their genders.  I must admit that a spoon which is masculine in German (der Löffel) continues to sound  strange, as in Polish (I so want to say obviously) it is feminine (łyżka).

Now, at one level the current debate in Polish is another iteration of discussions about Polish labels of 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 (minister, 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. And even though the linguistic system allows making other forms, they are also perceived as problematic. For example, instead of profesorka (with its connotations of diminutiveness), you could create the word profesora. Much as, say, rektora, dziekana, dyrektora (feminine forms for professor, rector, dean, director, respectively). These forms, however, are likely to be taken as augmentative and through this be perceived negatively.

The arguments against such forms are mainly linguistic. That is to say such words wreck the language, they are unnatural and what have you. Indeed, almost a decade ago, the Council of the Polish Language (Rada Języka Polskiego), a sort of Council for Verbal Hygiene (to borrow Cameron’s well-known phrase), made a similar argument. While the feminine forms are allowed by the system, they introduce much ambiguity by creating homonyms/-phones. For example, the potential feminine form of premier (‘prime minister’) would be premiera, which would sound exactly like the word for ‘premiere’; to add insult to injury, the forms might be seen as possessive – feminine ministra (fem ‘minister’) is also the genitive case of ‘minister’.

Needless to say, the argument is really lame. The word pilot is as much a word for the remote control as it is for the male pilot, and the Council is hardly complaining about it. The word premier (‘prime minister’) is also homonymous with the genitive case of premiery (‘premieres’) and the Polish language has not crashed either. Polish lekarka or nauczycielka (feminine forms of ‘doctor’ and ‘teacher’, resp.) are commonly used and the diminutiveness of the suffix is hardly an issue.  It’s perhaps worth saying that such words as sprzątaczka (‘cleaner’) or sekretarka (‘secretary’ but only in reference to someone who today is referred to as ‘personal assistant’) do not have an obvious masculine equivalent and, again, the language survives.  All in all, I think it is fairly clear that the resistance towards the feminine labels has a source somewhere else than the linguistic system and language is only used as a smoke screen for such a source. I will come back to it.

But this time the debate went much further (here is an account, in Polish). It was started by a female Polish MP who decided to correct herself and create a feminine word of the word gość (‘guest’). The reaction was immediate. Another MP, male, berated her for it. Her neologism, he tweeted, was deviance, cancer, and an attack on normalcy (and more). But the exchange opened a new perspective. Should every word which refers to a person  have both a feminine and masculine version? For example, if gość should have both versions, perhaps also, say, niedowiarek, przechodzień, widz (‘disbeliever’, ‘passer-by’, ‘viewer’), which currently do not have feminine equivalents and, systemically, they would sound as very odd,  as the above-mentioned neologism gościa.

Of course, you could make an argument that the fact that there are many such instances of words referring to people without feminine equivalents are a linguistic reflection of social assumptions behind the ‘default male’ perspective in language (a great account of this can be found in Debbie Cameron’s blog). But does it now mean that ‘we’ should start creating a feminine version of words for guests, viewers, spies, hooligan, lazybones and  any other word used to refer to a human being?

Do we also go the other way? I think it’s relatively easy to answer questions whether to create masculine versions of ‘nurse’ (pielęgniarka) or ‘nursery teacher’ (przedszkolanka). But what about ‘person’ (osoba). Interestingly, even the word for ‘man’ (mężczyzna), which is said to have masculine gender, has a feminine ending and its declension is actually feminine. Is that a problem?

Marcin Napiórkowski in his blog (re-posted in a longer version here, also in Polish) answers in the affirmative. Yes, feminine versions will sound strange, will even be difficult to pronounce (try pronouncing architektka or chirurżka), but so be it. This is the way we, speakers of Polish, fight the default male perspective. Indeed, Napiórkowski relates a very convincing argument based on the dominant male perspective in car safety research and industry.

As I said, it’s a good argument, but I am not entirely certain that the conclusion is very useful. Yes, of course, ‘we’ can use the feminine endings, but as much as I am sceptical about policing language in the case of suicide, I also tend to be sceptical of imposing a ‘new language’ on a society. In fact, when I was looking for examples for masculine-only professionals labels, I couldn’t find so many. To a considerable extent the society has taken care of the language. And it continues to do so. The issue, rather, is that women themselves don’t want to use them (here is a report) and suffer a backlash when they do (here is another report). And we can use all those forms all we want, and in academia we probably will, until they are perceived as ‘normal’, it’s very hard to simply impose them. Indeed, when I tell friends that a female dean started using the form dziekana (fem. ‘dean’), they’re sceptical, they don’t like it. It is the masculine version that carries the ‘real deanship’.

This is because I think that the whole debate about words referring to men and women is not linguistic at all. Equally, the source of resistance to the new vocabulary (which, historically, is not new at all, in fact) is not linguistic (even if it pretends to be). This is a debate about ideology, about the way the society is founded, it is about gender, gender assumptions and beliefs. It is about women, men, their social positions, relationships and their power. Language reflects it and, yes, of course, it also reinforces it, but I really don’t think changing a few dozen nouns will change the society. Yes, it is likely that the symbolism of the new nouns will be important, but in my view, it is considerably more important to create a space for a different kind of way of talking, not space for a different kind of vocabulary. In other words, the debate should be about so much more than only about nouns.


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