There has been a lot of talk in the news recently about gender. Prior to this, people were not really aware of this issue. In my previous post, I mentioned that the victim in the Ufa rape case was systematically called a дознавательница (“doznavatel-nitsa”, “investigatrix”) instead of “doznavatel” (=”investigator”) in the Russian press. Was this use of a feminine suffix meant to put her in her place? Or are feminists going too far in their campaign against traditional languages? Will they incite a backlash among humanoid bipeds who self-identify as “males” of the species? All these questions, and many more, will be muddied forever, as I dive head first into this can of worms!
So, today I have this piece by reporter Denis Nizhegorodtsev. Denis interviewed a noted Linguist, a Doctor of Philology, Maxim Kronhaus, who wrote a book (which I have not read) called “The Russian Language On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown”.
For starters, I know what Scientific Linguistics is, as I studied it myself, back in the day. Never have exactly figured out what Philology is, though… I would reckon that Philology is to Scientific Linguistics as Astrology is to Astronomy; as Alchemy is to Chemistry; as Numerology is to Mathematics… [snark snark]
Putting that aside for now, Kronhaus bursts out of the gate with this quote: “A (Russian) woman doctor would hardly want to hear herself be called a “vrach-ikha” (English equiv would be, like, “Doctorette”), she would prefer “vrach” (“Doctor”). Unfortunately for Russian feminists, the language itself gets in the way.”
Before proceeding with the Kronhaus interview, I feel the urgent need to detour via this piece, which I discovered in the course of my learned research in Linguistic Gender Issues (LGI). The author (“authoress”?) is Ellie Boyadzhieva, and her monograph looks to be a masters thesis probably for the Department of Women’s Studies somewhere. Ellie makes two outrageous claims: (1) That the Russian language is more sexist than English; and (2) The Czech language is the most sexist of all. And then proves both claims! To wit…
How the Czech Language Places Women Beneath Dogs
Ellie reviews the historical Linguistics involved, as Slavic languages inherited grammatical gender from the Indo-European parent. There were 3 grammatical genders in the Mother (Father?) tongue: masculine, feminine and neuter. The Slavic languages and German preserve all 3 genders. The Romance languages got rid of neuter. In the grammatical gender system, every noun (real Linguists call them “substantives”) has a grammatical gender. Even inanimate objects like tables, chairs, etc. And the grammatical endings of the adjectives have to agree with the gender. For example, if a table is masculine, the adjective ending has to be masculine. It goes without saying that animate objects with natural gender (male and female) neatly fit themselves into these categories.
Although it isn’t as cut and dried as one might think; for example German (Mädchen – “young girl”) is grammatically Neuter – go figure! Actually, don’t go figure, I’ll tell you the reason why, Mädchen (“little maid”) is neuter same as Weibchen (“little wife”) because of the diminutive –chen suffix, which is neuter. And knowing that, you may now sing along with Mozart’s gender-bending (and also species-bending) anti-hero Papageno, who wishes for a Neuter Maid or Wife, preferably half-birdwoman, but no oldies or fatties need apply:
Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen
wünscht Papageno sich!
O so ein sanftes Täubchen
wär’ Seligkeit für mich!
Okay, these are just exceptions. Russian also has a few such oddities too. But on the whole, in these “traditional” languages, natural gender is grammatically folded into the systemic gender rules enforced by the grammar itself. And if you are a native speaker of one of these languages, then you have no choice but to abide by the rules. Otherwise people will not understand what you are trying to say!
But what about English, the curious reader inquires? Well, English is also descended from the Indo-European (I-E) group of families, specifically from the Germanic branch. But over the centuries, in the course of its partial Creolization, English lost much of the I-E baggage, including gender. Oh, there is still some relics in the pronouns, “he” and “she”, for example. But on the whole, English is a language that does not degrade or marginalize women over-much. This is how Ellie explosively concludes her thesis, with praise for the inherent democracy of Shakespeare’s tongue:
The language evidence from Slavic languages comes to show that compared to English, they are much more sexist and sexism is an inherent part of the language system. In comparison to them English can be described as a language that is almost free from a sexist bias.
Slavic languages display the same traits that English is accused for: they marginalize women, and create the impression of a male-dominated society; they make women invisible in language and inferior even to male animals; they build inaccurate and biased social stereotypes, and last but not least they treat women as marriage property.
The basic difference between English and Slavic languages is that sexism in English is exemplified through the mechanism of reference and denotation, both of which can undergo corrections through language planning, while in Slavic languages sexism is an intrinsic part of the grammar permeating the whole language system and thus cannot be adjusted to the requirements of political correctness.
The good news for Russian speakers is that Russian, albeit sexist, is not as bad as Czech! See, in Russian (Eastern Slavic dialects in general), at the very least, the plural past tense of verbs does not distinguish between male and female. For example, Russians say, “Po-gulya-li” [“They went for a walk”] and, without additional information, you don’t know if “they” were males, females, or a mixture of both. If this actually mattered (for example, as a witness to a crime), then the speaker could add more details with clarifying utterances.
Compare this to West Slavic Languages such as Czech and Polish. These dialects held on to the use of grammatical gender in plural past tense verbs. With masculine plural ending being -i and feminine plural ending being -y. Examples from Ellie’s thesis:
Chłopcy poszli do kina. (“The boys went to the movie”. – Polish, masculine plural)
Dziewczyny poszły do kina. (“The girls went to the movie.” – Polish, feminine plural)
So far, so good. We already specified “boys” and “girls”, making the verbal gender marker redundant. But what about mixed groups of boys and girls? Here is where the grammatical gender leads to social sexism, to the marginalization and subordination of females.
For example, if you were a Czech person and, for whatever bizarre reason, you needed to utter the sentence: “All the women in the world went for a walk,” then you would say: “Všhechny ženy světa šly na proházku.” (past tense feminine plural)
Now suppose every single woman in the world (all 4 billion of them) plus ONE GUY (let’s call him Larry) decided to go for a walk together. Then the Czech person would be forced to utter: “Larry a všhechny ženy světa šli na proházku.” (past tense masculine plural)
See, Larry, in his maleness, is such a godlike creature that his very presence changes the verb ending from feminine to masculine! Even though he is the only guy in the presence of 4 billion women! Such are the harsh rules of the grammar.
Well, of course Larry is an important guy. Otherwise these women would not have invited him along for their walk. But just to show the ludicrosity of grammatical gender, Ellie pounds the final nail into the coffin with this hilarious example (which I have reworked a bit to make even funnier): ”
“Všhechny ženy světa a jeden pes šli na proházku.” – “All the women in the world and one [male] dog went for a walk.” (past tense masculine plural)
Thus “proving” Ellie’s point that grammatical gender in the language places human women at a status even lower than that of male animals!
[to be continued]