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Naukowiec or naukowczyni – what’s all the fuss about? Prof. J. Tambor on feminatives

27.02.2023 - 08:30 update 04.05.2023 - 10:20
Editors: wc-a
Tags: językoznawstwo

Pilotka stojąca przy samolocie

A woman piloting a plane – pilotka | Photo by Jordan Heath, Unsplash

| Weronika Cygan |

Language is a living creature that is constantly evolving. The changes taking place in it reflect social changes. All the more, we should make an effort to ensure that the way we address someone is not exclusive to anyone.

Linguistic correctness and language development

“We do not speak the way Mikołaj Rej, Jan Kochanowski or even Adam Mickiewicz or Eliza Orzeszkowa spoke. All these great writers used the language appropriate to their times”, says Prof. Jolanta Tambor from the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Silesia, Director of the School of Polish Language and Culture at the University of Silesia. The linguist emphasises that the fact that a given word did not occur once is absolutely not an argument for considering its use incorrect or inappropriate.

It is enough to look at many terms that we use every day, and which we rarely think of as terms taken from a foreign language. Nothing will probably be able to replace the familiar komputer, dżojstik, lifting or the dropped everywhere okej. In addition to English, in Polish we also come across much older borrowings from German (dach, kelner, szlafrok) or French (parawan, makijaż, żaluzja). Although initially all new words sound foreign and unnatural, it takes only a few or a dozen or so years for them to be accepted and popularised.

Certainly, the same awaits the increasingly used feminine forms, referring to professions, academic degrees and activities performed by women. However, many users of the Polish language still refuse to use feminatives such as architektka [female architect], pilotka [female pilot], ministra [female minister] or naukowczyni [female scientist], claiming that the use of these names is unjustified or incorrect.

Not new, just refreshed

“Not all feminatives raise doubts today. I don’t think anyone will be offended by the words: lekarka [female medical doctor], studentka [female university student], nauczycielka [female teacher], poetka [female poet], artystka [female artist]. However, the reaction is different with psycholożka [female psychologist], doktorka [female doctor], pilotka [female pilot], kierowniczka [female manager or supervisor], architektka [female architect], rycerka [female knight]”, says Prof. Jolanta Tambor and explains that although they may now seem foreign to some, many of them have quite long traditions in the Polish language.

Already in the 19th-century press we can read about adwokatki [female barrister] and docentki [female docents]. We can also find them in older scientific publications, including the mid-twentieth-century dictionary edited by the renowned linguist Witold Doroszewski. It included, among others, pilotka [female pilot], reżyserka [female film director] or doktorka [female doctor] – everywhere adding a description clearly stating that we are talking about a woman practicing a profession or holding an academic title.

“I do not claim that the forms mentioned prove that the use of these names was widespread at that time. I dare say that they were quite common, since Witold Doroszewski, the creator of one of the most important historical and contemporary dictionaries of the Polish language, sanctioned them in such a way”, says the scientist from the University of Silesia. The researcher adds that the departure from feminatives began after World War II, when even those terms that had already settled in Polish, such as profesorka [female professor], dyrektorka [female director] or kierowniczka [female manager or supervisor], became masculinised.

Dibs on that word!

It is not uncommon to hear that female equivalents referring to certain professions and activities do not exist, because after adding a suffix, we get already exiting words with a different meaning. Thus, dyplomatka is not a woman diplomat, but an elegant briefcase for documents, and reżyserka [female director] is a room that is the director’s workplace. Those who argue in this way claim that terms of this type are already reserved and we absolutely should not tinkered with their meaning.

“I would strongly defend myself against such statements. Language cannot reserve anything, and we cannot reserve anything in language. We may want to define certain words precisely when it is a scientific language, because then we want to be understood unambiguously, but in a language common to all of us, common and everyday, nothing can be reserved for anyone”, explains Prof. Jolanta Tambor.

As an example of an effective extension of the meaning of a “reserved” word, the linguist points to reżyserka. Some time ago, this term was unacceptable for many people in this context, but the increasingly strong representation of women directors, led by Agnieszka Holland, led to the effective pushing of the word reżyserka. This word no longer arouses such opposition today.

Word as a manifesto

Today, fewer and fewer areas of human activity can be said to be exclusive to one gender. So, górniczki [female miners] or mechaniczki [female mechanics] should not surprise us, and yet, one can hear the accusation that due to their small presence in these professions, it is not justified to create similar names. Meanwhile, it makes sense, especially on social grounds.

As noted by Prof. Jolanta Tambor:

“There are a lot of women in mining and they want to boast about the fact that they managed to break the monopoly of men. They wanted to do this job, so they emphasise it in the name. They don’t want to be thought of as individuals entering a man’s world. Let them be equal górniczki next to górnicy [male miners].”

The search for new feminine forms (or digging up the forgotten ones) can also improve international communication, which only seems to be a trifle. Many foreign languages ​​distinguish the functions and professions held by women. As an example, the linguist gives the position of a director, which in English has a female form, headmistress. In German, it will be, respectively, for a man and a woman, der Direktor and die Direktorin. When we do not know someone’s name, and the surname is also not a hint, then the appropriate male or female form of the position or title held may be a solution in an awkward situation.

Language is a showcase

Language is supposed to facilitate communication, thanks to it we convey information and ideas, but also with its help we can express respect for someone. Therefore, talking about someone as gościni [female guest] or psycholożka [female psychologist] when that person expressly wishes it is not a sign of smuggling some ideology, but only (and even) proof of respecting the preferences of our interlocutor.

“We use all linguistic and non-linguistic means to show mutual respect. We want to accept the interlocutor’s needs and preferences, because this is an expression of respect for someone else’s autonomy and ability to live together, a testimony to our communicative competence”, points out the scientist who participates in the work on an online interactive publication, a kind of toolkit containing suggestions of forms that are both inclusive and linguistically correct. It is being developed as part of the Gender Equality Plan implemented at the University of Silesia from 2021.

“Let’s try to use names that do not offend others, but indicate recognition of their identity. It costs us nothing to say osoba studencka [gender neutral equivalent of the noun “student”] or zrobiłoś [gender neutral form of the verb “did”], and it can bring many benefits to a specific person – or negative consequences, if we do not consider it appropriate to respect their choice”, says Prof. Jolanta Tambor.

Non-heteronormative people, looking for appropriate forms for themselves, encounter numerous obstacles in the Polish language that people using, for example, English do not have to face.

“In Polish, the form of the noun is followed by adjectives, pronouns, verbs in the past tense and the conditional that adapt to the noun they accompany”, notes the linguist. At the same time, it indicates one of the possible solutions, which enjoys growing support among people who do not define themselves as feminine or masculine. It is the neutral gender, more and more often found in statements on the Internet.

Zrobiłom [gender neutral form of the verb “did”), przeczytałom [gender neutral form of the verb “read”], obejrzałom [gender neutral form of the verb “watched”] may cause confusion in many listeners and readers, but – as in the case of the popular feminine forms mentioned earlier – it is only a matter of time until we get used to them.

“I have the right to want to be profesorka [female professor], filolożka [female philologist], doktorka [female doctor], kierowczyni [female driver], but I also do not think that I have any right to force someone to talk about themselves in this way. It is not linguists who decide how language users “should” speak. The sanctioning of specific forms depends on how people themselves address each other. It is us, together, who decide whether we want to call professions and other women’s roles this or that way”, sums up Prof. Jolanta Tambor.

Article ‘Naukowiec or naukowczyni – what’s all the fuss about?’ was published in the February issue of ‘Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ’ No. 5 (305).

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