Поэт или авторка: Gendered Names of Occupations in Russian Posted by Maria on Apr 17, 2019 in Culture, grammar, language
Russian is a gendered language, which means that nouns have a grammatical gender (род): feminine (же́нский), masculine (мужско́й), or neuter (сре́дний). True, it can be confusing to grasp why a table (стол) is masculine and a river (река́) is feminine, but it should be much simpler with names of people’s occupations, right? In theory, yes, as a gendered language, Russian should have a separate masculine and feminine form for each profession. (It gets much murkier with gender-neutral terms, but that’s a whole different story.) In practice, however, talking about occupations is fraught with the traditional division of labo(u)r, people’s preferences, and the limits of Russian grammar itself.
Each Noun Has a Gender
As mentioned above, every noun (и́мя существи́тельное) in Russian must have a built-in gender. This applies to names of occupations, too. For instance, here are some pairs of masculine and feminine counterparts:
- студе́нт — студе́нтка (university student)
- продаве́ц — продавщи́ца (person who sells you stuff; depending on your English variety, they may be called a shop assistant, associate, etc.)
- иссле́дователь — иссле́довательница (researcher)
Often, the feminine form is constructed by adding suffixes to the “baseline” masculine form, which leads us to our next problem…
Masculine Forms Are Neutral, Feminine Marked
Because the masculine form is perceived as the neutral name of the occupation, adding the feminine suffix may be seen as drawing extra attention to the fact that the professional in question is female. Compare it to things like “female doctor” in English. Some women’s solution is to insist on the “neutral,” masculine name. For example, Anna Akhmatova (А́нна Ахма́това) did not like being called поэте́сса (poetess) and preferred поэ́т (poet).
Complicating matters is the fact that many feminine forms referred not to professionals working in a certain area but rather to the wives of such professionals. For example, генера́льша was the wife of a генера́л (general), and до́кторша was the wife of a до́ктор (doctor). In addition, feminine forms are perceived as informal and sometimes derogatory — if you call your physician врачи́ха rather than врач, listeners may think you are not happy with her services.
Reclaiming the Feminine
Recently, the opposite trend has emerged in Russian society—namely, normalizing feminine forms by using them whenever talking about a female professional. A lot of these words are accepted by most speakers and dictionaries. Here are some common feminine-masculine pairs:
- преподава́тельница — препода́ватель (instructor)
- писа́тельница — писа́тель (writer)
- учёная — учёный (scientist)
- убо́рщица — убо́рщик (janitor)
- певи́ца — певе́ц (singer)
At the same time, the proposed feminine names for some occupations are new, ambiguous, or not widely accepted. I will be using an asterisk (*) with nouns that may cause objections. Examples include such forms are а́вторка* (author), води́тельша (driver), and президе́нтка (president). As you imagine, there’s been considerable pushback against this, with detractors saying feminists are distorting the language out of political correctness (политкорре́ктность).
An interesting observation is that adding the feminine suffix -ка is a fairly typical for Russian nouns with stress on the last syllable, like юри́ст>юри́стка*, lawyer, or анархи́ст>анархи́стка, anarchist. Words like а́вторка* sound “weird” in part because nouns where the last syllable is unstressed (а́втор) don’t usually add the suffix -ка. So, if I decide to call myself a female blogger, I would be better off saying бло́герша* rather than бло́герка*. 🙂
What do you think? Are feminine names of occupations a good idea, or should we stick with the presumably neutral masculine?
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