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Поэт или авторка: Gendered Names of Occupations in Russian Posted by 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.

woman painting

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

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:

  • студе́нтстуде́нтка (university student)
  • продаве́цпродавщи́ца (person who sells you stuff; depending on your English variety, they may be called a shop assistant, associate, etc.)
  • иссле́довательиссле́довательница (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.

woman working in a cafe

Photo by Wenni Zhou on Unsplash

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:

  • преподава́тельницапрепода́ватель (instructor)
  • писа́тельницаписа́тель (writer)
  • учёнаяучёный (scientist)
  • убо́рщицаубо́рщик (janitor)
  • певи́цапеве́ц (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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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


Comments:

  1. Doug:

    Very interesting.
    When an accepted feminine marked form of a profession exists, is it considered offensive or odd to use the neutral form when referring to a woman? Or does this vary from person to person?
    I assume that the usage of the marked forms varies by generation, but I was curious whether there are any occupations for which even the younger generations expects the marked form when referring to women.

    • Maria:

      @Doug I’d say it does depend on the person and also on the occupation. For example, female actors are usually called актриса rather than актёр, whereas with words like учитель/учительница the form will depend on the speaker’s preference (the masculine may be used for women, too).

      • Sue:

        @Maria Yes, I agree with Doug. It seems like usage of masculine or feminine could vary, depending personal preference and probably generation. I guess it’s most important to know which things NOT to say so as not to offend.

        • Maria:

          @Sue Sue, that’s a good approach. Probably anything that’s in the dictionary and not marked as dated (устар.) or derogatory (уничижительное) should be safe to use. If the person prefers, say, писатель over писательница, they will let you know.

  2. Raymond:

    As an older American, who was taught English grammar (which had been used for many decades — maybe, even centuries — prior), my thought is, “Why change rules that aren’t broken?” Really, it is an unnecessary revision to grammar rules that does not provide additional clarification, especially with respect to occupation identification. That’s my opinion; yours May differ. [Note: I believe it is okay to have differing opinions!]

    • Maria:

      @Raymond Thank you for your comment, Raymond! This makes sense. In the case of Russian, it may be that the language is a little behind where the society is. Names of occupations came to be before women were widely employed outside the house, which leads to odd sentences like Региональная политик посетила выставку (The regional [fem.] politician [masc.] visited [fem.] the exhibition). In this case, the adjective and the verb do not agree with the noun in gender. Because we usually use feminine verbs to talk about women, I see why in this case someone would advocate for having a feminine verb for a politician rather than using a masculine adjective and verb. What that noun would look like I don’t know. 🙂 Политичка? Политиканша? Политикесса? These don’t really sound good, either.

  3. samonen:

    I was somewhat surprised to learn women in Russia might prefer to be called, say, учитель. On the one hand, forms being marked (feminine) can be avoided depending on personal preference; on the other, marked forms (feminines) are seen as feminist, ones striving towards equal recognition of women in certain positions? Too complex an issue for me to take any stance, but it certainly is interesting, raising questions – if not eyebrows.

    I just learned recently that, in Frech, the female form “écrivaine” (writer, author) is not a universally accepted word – accepted as in being a dictionary entry. I was certain I had heard it used many times, and, lo: it is used, with feminist, political overtones.

    (On a side note to -ша, the most bizarre form I have encountered so far is the one used by Russian teens in Estonia: “eestikeelша”, one’s female teacher of Estonian, from “eesti keel” (эстонский язык) + -ша. They probably don’t use it in writing, so this is is my spelling, as “eesti keel” really cannot be rendered in Russian Cyrilic adequately. Maybe it highlights the oddity…)

    • Maria:

      @samonen Samonen, I’m with you in that I see the merits of both approaches, but I’m not sure if either of them is a perfect solution. Personally, I used to always call myself переводчик (translator) rather than переводчица and преподаватель (instructor) rather than преподавательница because I did not want to emphasize my gender. However, after reading the reasoning behind using feminitives, I am now reconsidering.
      I love the blended Estonian-Russian word! Very creative.


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