Polish Language Blog

Gender and Occupations, continued… Posted by on Mar 28, 2009 in Culture, Grammar, Vocabulary

Remember when I mentioned that the EU head honchos in Brussels want us to stop using gender specific names for professions? I also said that it was something I agreed with.

Wow! I never thought that that particular post would provoke so many emails. Both for and against.

But you see, we already have many nouns for occupations and professions that are gender–neutral. Or at least they are now, because the same form is used by both men and women.

I have a friend, a female friend, who works on a cargo vessel. She refers to herself as “marynarz” (sailor). Another young woman I know lists her job as “pilot”. And I don’t mean here a tour guide (known in Polish as “pilot wycieczek”), she is a real pilot flying planes for a shipping company.

To that, we can add tons of other women, who can say they are:

  • inżynier – engineer
  • oficer – officer
  • kierowca – driver
  • lekarz – doctor – even though, there is a female form – “lekarka” most women doctors I spoke to agreed they preferred the masculine version – “lekarz
  • weterynarz – veterinarian
  • architekt – architect
  • strażak – fire fighter
  • redaktor – editor – same as with doctors, ladies who do this job, refer to themselves using the male term – “redaktor” and when necessary add “naczelna” making “redaktor naczelna” if they are editors-in-chief. (I actually called several magazines to ask their editors about it.)

Why do they prefer the male noun? For exactly the same reason that Russ mentioned in his comment to the previous post on this subject.
Take the word “autor” for example. It means “writer” or “author” or “male writer” or “male author.”
Autorka”, on the other hand, makes it very clear we are talking about a female.

So if I say that “Moja ulubiona polska autorka to Joanna Chmielewska” does it mean that Joanna Chmielewska is my favorite Polish female writer? Or my favorite Polish writer in general? Or should I rather say that “Mój ulubiony polski autor to Joanna Chmielewska”?

Why do I have to distinguish if my favorite writer is male or female? If I were talking about Bharati Mukherjee for example, we wouldn’t have this problem, simply because most people wouldn’t know anyway. Then why do we do it in Polish? Personally, I would say that “Mój ulubiony polski autor to Joanna Chmielewska”, because I prefer her humorous crime stories to other books by Polish authors, be it male or female. (What can I say? I’m not really into heavy-duty literature. Pity Ms. Chmielewska’s books have not been translated into English yet.)

And then, what do we do with those occupations that have been performed by females for so long that we don’t even think about how they would sound in their male versions? Or if they even have masculine forms at all.

In English it’s simple. A nurse is a nurse, regardless of his/her gender. In Polish, a nurse is definitely female, almost by default – pielęgniarka.
The male form – pielęgniarz just sounds awkward and stiff. I had a hard time finding a male nurse in Poland, but when I finally did, and we chatted on skype last week, I asked him what he preferred to be called.

He said, “you know what Anna, either word is fine, heck, any word is fine, as long as the old ladies in my care would finally accept me as a fully qualified, competent nurse. But still… it must be even worse to be a male kindergarten teacher…”

And yeah, he had a point. Female kindergarten teachers are “przedszkolanki” (singular: przedszkolanka). What on earth do you call a guy? Definitely not “przedszkolak” (kindergartener). 🙂

PS. The male nurse said that most of the time, everybody, his patients and female co-workers call him “rodzynek” (raisin), meaning he’s the only one of his kind.

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