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Woman’s Work – Part 2 Posted by on Mar 19, 2012 in language, Russian for beginners

I am pretty sure that most Russians over 30 are familiar with the opening lines of Gianni Rodari’s poem Чем пахнут ремёсла (What jobs smell like):

У каждого дела

Запах особый

(Each trade

Has its special smell)

This short poem mentions quite a few jobs, all using masculine nouns – маляр (painter), стекольщик (windows installer), шофёр (driver), рабочий (laborer), кондитер (baker), доктор (doctor), крестьянин (farmer), and рыбак (fisherman). Even лодырь (idler) is a masculine word. This simply won’t do it nowadays.

First of all, the word ремесло (a trade) is not used much and instead is replaced with профессия (profession):

Профессия шофёра-дальнобойщика считается одной из самый опасных. (A long-haul trucker job is considered to be one of the most dangerous.)

When it comes to jobs, there’s really no rule, as far as I know, for when to use a feminine form and when to stick with the masculine. Instead, we seem to follow some неписаные правила (unwritten rules) of linguistic and cultural etiquette. So you know what to expect now – confusion.

First, there are jobs for which separate words exist for a male worker and a female worker:

Рабочий (male laborer or worker) and работница or рабочая (female laborer or worker)

Артист балета (male ballet dancer) and балерина (female ballet dancer)

Учитель (male teacher) and учительница (female teacher)

Портной (female tailor) and портниха (female tailor)

Медбрат (male nurse) and медсестра (female nurse)

Лётчик (male pilot) and лётчица (female pilot)

Then there are jobs that do not have a feminine version or, if they do, it is usually restricted to разговорная речь (colloquial speech). These are the jobs that historically were closed to women, i.e. various trades and many professional jobs. Even when a feminine version exists, it’s the masculine form that is used in job ads and on resumes.

Шофёр – driver

Пекарь – baker

Столяр – joiner

Плотник – carpenter

Слесарь – mechanic

Дворник – street cleaner

Врач and доктор – medical doctor, although there is a conversional feminine version врачиха and докторша. Also, words for medical specialties, such as хирург (surgeon), невропатолог (neurologist), гинеколог (gynecologist), педиатр (pediatrician) – are always masculine.

Диктор – network announcer, although дикторша (female announcer) is a common conversational word.

Бухгалтер – accountant. The feminine бухгалтерша is often used in conversations.

Инженер – engineer

Фотограф – photographer

Педагог – educator

Посол – ambassador

Technically, you can form a feminine version from almost any masculine one. However, there are two problems here.

The first one is that many such attempts will sound not only strange, but carry пренебрежительный (contemptuous) connotation as in менеджерша (female manager).

The second problem is that forming a feminine version might, in some cases, be confusing. For example, words such as докторша or инженерша traditionally mean a wife of a doctor (former) or of an engineer (latter).

In general, when in doubt, use masculine form to describe a woman’s occupation:

Наталья – специалист по веб-дизайну (Natalia is a web-design specialist)

Екатерина Васильевна – прекрасный педагог (Ekaterina Vasilyevna is a wonderful educator)

Мне участковый врач выписала больничный (The neighborhood doctor wrote me a sick-leave note) – notice that here we know that the doctor is a female because of the endings of the past-tense verb выписала (wrote).

У Лидии двадцатилетний стаж работы бухгалтером на крупном предприятии (Lidia has twenty years of experience as an accountant at a large enterprise)

Моя жена волнуется, что её сократят, но она же незаменимый и высококвалифицированный работник (My wife is worried she might get laid off, but she is an irreplaceable and highly qualified worker)

Пойми, Маша, если не будешь учиться, то вырастешь и станешь дворником (Masha, do understand that if you don’t study now, you will become a street cleaner when you grow up).

Your turn now – tell us what it is you do and, for our male readers, what does your girlfriend, wife, mother, sister or female friend does for a living.

Пример: Моя мама до пенсии работала врачом (Example: My mother was a doctor before she retired).

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  1. trudy ringer:

    I could not get the picture until I filled this out. I have no comment since I have no picture. duh

  2. JohnS:

    Last year in the Crimea, the instructor of an introductory class insisted that she was a преподаваmель. I questioned whether this should be -нитца, as given in dictionaries as the feminine form, but she said no. I wondered if this was due to the subliminal negative connotation you mention. In America, film artists of the female gender refer to themselves as ‘actors’, not ‘actresses’ for that reason, i.e. the former implies not being taken seriously. It seems language changes with evolving social mores.
    (I think Портной should read ‘male tailor’; maybe Столяр is more understandable as ‘cabinetmaker’ or ‘woodworker’). Lots of new words to learn! Спасибо!

  3. Rob McGee:

    JohnS — The ru.wikipedia article about столяр lists изготовление деревянной мебели (“the making/manufacture of wooden furniture”) as the most prominent function of the profession, and also states that Столяр выполняет более точную, тонкую работу, чем плотник (“The stolyar performs more precise, more finely detailed work than a plotnik.”)

    So on the basis of this, I would definitely agree with “woodworker” or “cabinetmaker” as the best translations for столяр — “joiner” being a rather old-fashioned term. (In the strictest sense, a “joiner” was a woodworker who specialized in making high-precision cuts like dovetail joints in order to join two pieces of wood без гвоздей или винтов — “without nails or screws”.)

  4. Rob McGee:

    P.S. One of the coolest столяры on YouTube, showing off a handmade wooden “Marble Machine”:


  5. Rob McGee:

    Екатерина Васильевна – прекрасный педагог

    участковый врач выписала

    она же незаменимый и высококвалифицированный работник

    I find it interesting/surprising that in such contexts, the nouns are still considered to be strictly masculine, even though there’s such a thing in Russian grammar as общий род (“common gender”, aka “dual gender”). For example, the nouns сирота (“an orphan”) and судья (“a judge”) and тупица (“an airhead; a moron”) although all feminine in declension, can take either feminine or masculine adjectives, verbs, and pronouns.

    On the other hand, based on Googling, it appears that Russian nouns traditionally considered to be “common gender” without exception have a “Feminine Type 1” declension. (I.e., nom. sing. ending in -а/-я, gen. -ы/и, acc. -у/-ю, etc.)

    So treating врач or работник as “common-gender nouns” — however logical it might seem in today’s society — has no precedent in Russian grammar, because these nouns have masculine declensions.

  6. JohnS:

    Rob, Thank you for the research filling in supplementary details and examples — very helpful in rounding out a deeper understanding.
    Re: the photo, perhaps we men are not as intelligent as women, who, as the photo seems to demonstrate, know that carring an enormously heavy load on the shoulder is much more efficient than trying to lift it over your head with your hands, trying to balance it, and to pace yourself in sync with other carriers.

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