Polish Language Blog

Brussels Says – Get Rid of “Pani” and “Panna” Posted by on Mar 18, 2009 in Culture

What is this I’m hearing about the paper pushers in Brussels telling us to not use words such as “Pani” and “Panna”? Or “Madame” and “Mademoiselle”, “Frau” and “Fraulein” and so on… Seriously, does anyone still even bother with those panna/mademoiselle/fraulein forms?

The great majority of people I know never even use the word “Panna” when addressing a young woman. In my family, the only person who was allowed to call us that was my grandpa, when he was still alive. I only identified myself as “Panna” when asked for marital status on official documents. But that was when I was still a single woman. In normal conversations, people have been calling me “Pani” since time immemorial. Even when I was very much a panna at the age of 17.

So, I have absolutely no idea what the EU’s problem is with “Pani.”

Is it their lack of understanding of our beautiful, but convoluted language?

Back in the olden days “Pani” referred to a married matron, that much is true. But these days it’s just a simple, polite expression to address any and all women and has nothing to do with whether these women are married or not. For crying out loud, there are private high schools in this country, where the staff are required to address their students as “Pan so-and-so” and “Pani so-and-so.”

So, the first part of this language directive from Bruksela is utter nonsense, but I must admit I kind of agree with the second part.

They don’t want us to use the feminine forms of certain nouns describing occupations. Oddly enough, this is something I’ve already been doing for years. And I just know this will not endear me to my Polish-speaking readers, who are rather orthodox about preserving the purity of the Polish language. (As if Polish could be pure. Yeah right!)

Instead of saying, for example, “listonoszka” (female mail carrier) I’ve always been saying simply “listonosz” (mail carrier), or if I wanted to be really specific, then: “pani listonosz”.

Same with “policjantka” (policewoman). I just say “funkcjonariusz policji” or “oficer policji”.

What really irks me is the double standard of how we refer to TV weather people. You know, those types who tell you it will be snowing in morning and smile, as if it was the best news ever. The women doing the smiling and telling are commonly known as “pogodynki” (singular: pogodynka). Comes from “pogoda” (weather).

But the guys are “prezenterzy pogody” (singular: prezenter pogody). Why the difference? What? Guys don’t want to be called “pogodynki”? Well, technically, “pogodynka” is a feminine noun, but what’s the big deal? Just call him “pogodynek” instead. But of course, it would be considered goofy and unprofessional. So it looks like it’s OK to call a woman by a cutesy, unprofessional nickname, but not a guy. Not fair.

My system of using the masculine version for both men and women is also very economical, especially when you’re just learning Polish. Because then you don’t have to think too much about: “what the heck do I call this woman with the dental drill”?

Hint: in my world, she would be “dentysta” (dentist, masculine form), just like a man. Or “a torturer”, depending on the situation. (And did you know that modern dental drills can rotate at up to 800000 RPM?)

Here’s the news blurb about this EU decision (in Polish).

And next week, I’ll give you a whole bunch of those masculine-feminine occupations. You’ll have to wait until next week, because on Friday we’ll be drowning Marzanna. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to drown something. Anything to bring on warmer weather!

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  1. russ:

    This is a topic of interest to me, including how many native speakers of a language don’t even notice the sexism and asymmetry in it.

    E.g. the murky ambiguity of the masculine noun also supposedly sometimes being universal. “Pisarz” is, on the one hand, a male author, but if you say someone is “najlepszy pisarz”, people understand it to mean he’s the best author of all authors, not just the best male author. If you say someone is “najlepsza pisarka”, then it just means she is the best woman author, but perhaps/probably some men write better than she does.

    Some other stuff I’ve noticed:

    Female -ka forms of masculine nouns all decline the same way, and are sometimes limited versions of the male job, or other versions, or sometimes can’t even be women but mean some auxiliary thing related to the man:
    chemik (chemist), chemiczka (chemistry teacher)
    historyk (historian), historyczka (history teacher)
    marynarz (sailor), marynarka (coat, presumably like a sailor wore historically)
    pilot (pilot), pilotka (pilot’s hat).
    maszynista (engine driver), maszynistka (typist).
    szofer (chauffeur), szoferka (truck cab; act of driving)
    rysownik (designer, graphic artist), rysownica (drawing board) (supposedly there is rysowniczka, but it doesn’t appear in many dictionaries)

    The feminizing -ka suffix is also often used for cute diminutive forms (herbata/herbatka).

  2. Misia:

    I would never say ‘funkcjonariusz policji”
    If u are referring to a female policewoman, you definately would say policjantka…

  3. pinolona:

    One of our grammar books includes ‘panienka’ (ugh, I just googled that and wish I hadn’t).

    And why is it that (male) Polish grammar teachers are lost for words when you ask them for the masculine version of ‘sprzątaczka’?

  4. Anna:

    I would use “oficer policji” for BOTH male and female cops. The whole point is NOT to differentiate between the sexes. And just after writing this post I heard on the radio the following: “pani policjant.” As Russ pointed out in his comment, native speakers frequently don’t realize just how sexist some expressions are.

    Thanks Russ! That was a very eye-opening comment indeed.

    genderlessly – “osoba do sprzątania”. Which reminds me… I have tons of spring cleaning to do. Ugh!

  5. thomas westcott:

    This is just one more reason to like or at least appreciate English for not having gender on nouns.

    A police officer, teacher, mechanic etc. is just that. That is the name of the occupation with no reference to gender or marital status.

    There are some antique forms for author or poet that indicate gender. One could say authoress or poetess and be indicating that that person is a she but not marital status. That form of adding ess to those words even passed the spell checker.

    The only word that comes to mind that would not make any sense without the gender reference is seamstress.
    So, there are some hold overs in English for gender.

    But, on eliminating all forms of marital status in addressing someone seems to me to be an attack on the basic nuclear family, a diminishing of the married woman’s status. On the other hand I have never understood why the male form was only mister and that form did not indicate marital status.

    One thing that we are seeing here is that ‘we’ (society as a whole and or individuals within) are consciously changing language very quickly and in very directed ways.

  6. Basia Lomnicka:

    Hi Thomas:
    I thought of another profession where gender may still be commonly used:
    “actress” is used a lot although many people resort to the word “actor” these days.

  7. Łowiczanka:

    I always use Pan and Pani when speaking to strangers in Poland. It is only when they tell me not to that I change to the familiar “you.”
    Do the Belgians expect to call people “hey, you?” instead of Sir or Madam? Or Mr. & Mrs.
    Not only is it a form of respect, but a sign of culture.
    In Poland Pan and Pani means Lord and Lady,
    while in Russia, Gospadza and Gospadzin mean Farmer and Housekeeper.
    I would rather be called Pani (Lady).