‘Polszczyzna’ & the Revolutionary Feminine Suffix
#language & literature
default, Contestants in a 1926 women’s athletics competition in Kraków, including Halina Konopacka (at left) and Helena Woynarowska; photo: www.audiovis.nac.go, center, lekkoatletka-nac.jpg
As Polish women made their way into universities, fought for their right to vote and even learned how to drive tractors, Polish linguists grappled with the question of the ‘feminine suffix’. But has the language ever really caught up to the reality?
Unlike in English, every Polish noun has its own gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter. For example, the moon, ‘księżyc’, is masculine; a star, ‘gwiazda’, is feminine; and the Sun, ‘słońce’, is neuter. Although there are exceptions, the gender of any noun is typically distinguished by its ending. Because of this – and given that many public roles have historically only been open to men – these names have often only held masculine forms.
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As women increasingly stepped into such positions, the need arose to adapt professional titles and distinctions to the gender of their new holders. This article tells the fascinating story of the ‘feminine suffix’ which may be added to masculine nouns to render them feminine.
To be or not to be – a woman
The word ‘kobieta’ (‘woman’) has been present in Polish since the end of the 16th century, and most scholars, led by Aleksander Brückner, attach a negative meaning to it. They trace it back to the Old Polish ‘koba’ (‘mare’) or ‘kob’ (‘pigsty’).
Others, such as Franciszek Sławski and Krystyna Długosz-Kurczabowa, detect Proto-Slavic roots – dividing the word into another ‘kob’ (telling fortunes on the basis of birds’ movements) and ‘veta’(a woman fortune-teller). Back in the 16th century, however, it wasn’t the gentry who dealt in the telling of fortunes, but rather the common people. ‘Kobieta’ was a term referring to peasant-women and female servants.
The neutralisation of this word, then, must have taken place in later centuries. Some consider the turning point as the Enlightenment, with Ignacy Krasicki’s Myszeida (The Mouseiad):
Despite the great merits of our sex / We rule over the world, but women over us.
‘Mimo tak wielkie płci naszej zalety / My rządzim światem, a nami kobiety.’
Others, including Marek Łaziński, indicate the questionable character of the context of this phrase in order to point towards the 19th century, invoking the words of Adam Mickiewicz’s Telimena in Pan Tadeusz:
Enough with this – she interrupted – I am not a planet / May the Lord have mercy, stop, dear Count: I am a woman.
‘Dość już tego – przerwała – nie jestem planetą / Z łaski Bożej, dość, Hrabio: ja jestem kobietą.’
If I were a … man
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Irena Solska as Zych in 'Nawojka' by Stanisław Rossowski at the Miejski Theatre in Lviv, 1901; pictured: Adela [author of the original], Henryk Hermanowicz; photo: Forum / Historical Museum of the City of Kraków
Soon, there was only one condition a woman had to fulfil in order to enrol at a university: be a man. It is believed that the first woman to attend a Polish university was Nawojka – who, disguised as a man, entered the Academy of Kraków around the year 1414. It took a full three years for her to be discovered, which happened just before final exams. Nawojka was followed by Zofia Stryjeńska, who studied for a year at the Munich Academy of Arts, pretending to be a ‘Tadeusz Grzymała Lubański’.
Courses for women organised by Adrian Baraniecki in 1860s Kraków were a poor substitute for university studies. In Warsaw, there was an underground academy known as the Flying University, which counted Maria Skłodowska-Curie among its graduates. Polish women were also interested in studies abroad – especially in Switzerland, Belgium, England and France – but few could afford it.
Polish universities opened their doors to women at the end of the 19th century. The new students were divided into three categories: observers (who could take part in classes, but were not allowed to take exams), special students (who were allowed to get a teacher’s certificate), and regular students (who could graduate with a proper diploma). Thanks to the efforts of Kazimiera Bujwidowa, who made use of existing regulations, aspiring candidates flooded the university officials with requests.
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In this way, the first women began to audit classes in 1894, during lectures organised by the Faculty of Pharmacy at Jagiellonian University. Their names were Jadwiga Sikorska, Stanisława Dowgiałło and Janina Kosmowska. Three years later, women were permitted to pursue the standard programme of the Department of Philosophy.
The law and arts faculties were able to defend themselves from the ‘mobs of women’ and an ‘invasion of female students’ – as they were called in the press – for the longest. But even they had to yield to the pressure exerted by emancipatory movements once Poland regained independence in 1918.
The first women doctors, assistants and professors brought linguistic concerns along with them. As far back as at the beginning of the 20th century, a reader who signed his letters ‘X.M.J.’ asked the Poradnik Językowy (Linguistic Guide) magazine if using the masculine-gendered term ‘doktor’ would be correct in reference to a woman.
The editor replied that the creation of a feminine form is necessary – and that it should be‘doktorka’, following the pattern used by the masculine ‘aptekarz’ and feminine ‘aptekarka’, even if it were against the likings of those directly affected. The magazine declared that:
As women are allowed to pursue university studies, we might be also forced to create the word ‘magisterka’ and maybe even ‘adwokatka’. We will not back away from what the gender difference demands from the logic of language.
In 1904, the same periodical printed a mass protest by readers ‘against the violation of the Polish language and using the title of Dr [from ‘doktor’] instead of Drka [from ‘doktorka’]’ with women’s names. The editors took a similar stance in 1911, when they accused women of ‘a lack of civil courage to admit that they are women, being ashamed of their femininity and attempting to disguise themselves in a masculine overcoat’.
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Fragment of the title page of 'Młodzież Żeńska i Sprawa Kobieca' (Female Youth and Women’s Interests) by Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit, Warsaw, Circle for Female Work, 1906, photo: National Library / Polona
During the Interwar period, people would write of ‘lawlessness’ and ‘barbarity that would not be entertained by any cultural language’. The 1930s, however, introduced some leanings towards a compromise: the masculine form in official use, and the feminine in colloquial language. Even before WWII, Witold Doroszewski – the long-standing editor-in-chief of Poradnik Językowy – had predicted that the term ‘pani profesor’ (or ‘madam professor’, a term commonly used today) might become popular, but he stressed that Polish has a natural tendency to inflect nouns.
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In turn, Kazimierz Nitsch, who headed the team publishing Język Polski (Polish Language) magazine, pointed towards the ‘passion’:
with which some correctors of language attempt – against our long-standing tradition, but in accordance with their pedantic grammatical sense of order – to create atrocities like ‘posłanka’ or ‘więźniarka’.
Both ‘posłanka’, or a female Member of Parliament (as opposed to ‘poseł’) and ‘więźniarka’, indicating a prisoner who is a woman (instead of ‘więzień’), are commonly used today.
‘Poślina’ or ‘poślica’? Difficult choices
As far back as the 1880s, Paulina Kuczalska-Renschmit spoke about women’s access to education and paid work. Ten years later, she became the editor and publisher of Ster (Helm) magazine, where activist women working for the cause of gender equality published their articles.
On its pages, they discussed the following terms for women: ‘muzyczki’(for ‘musicians’ who are women, instead of ‘muzycy’) and ‘skrzypaczki’(for ‘violinists’, rather than the masucline ‘skrzypkowie’) or ‘skrzypicielki’(but this form didn’t catch on). There were also ‘gimnazistki’(‘middle-schoolers’, as opposed to ‘gimnaziści’), as well as ‘wyborczynie’(‘voters’, rather than ‘wyborcy’), and ‘prezydentki’(‘presidents’, as opposed to ‘prezydenci’) – although women only actually held these prominent roles abroad at the time.
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Birthday of Paulina Reinszmit-Kuczalska, as she receives honours from women delegates from various cities and villages; 1911; photo: Marjan Fuks / Forum
After they had secured their place in the universities, the next step for women was gaining the right to vote.
Despite Józef Piłsudski’s concern that women would not be able to ‘use voting rights properly’ because they were ‘by nature conservative and easy to influence’, the Chief of State bowed down under pressure from protesters gathered before his residence. On 28th November 1918, he signed a decree stating that ‘every citizen of the state, regardless of gender, can vote in parliamentary elections’. Polish women had a shorter wait for the vote than their counterparts from countries including the United States (although some states had given voting rights to women earlier), Sweden, Spain or France.
When the first parliamentary elections in Independent Poland took place on 26th January 1919, women were more than willing to take part in them. In Warsaw and Kraków, almost 58% of voters were women, and Łódź counted only a slightly smaller percentage. But the high turnout didn’t result in a greater number of female representatives in Parliament. The first Legislative Sejm of the Second Republic of Poland counted only 8 posłanki. During the entire Interwar period, there were 41 posłanki and 20 senatorki (women working as senators, as opposed to ‘senatorowie’). But were ‘posłanki’ and ‘senatorki’ really the proper terms to use?
These doubts were shared by a Poradnik Językowy reader, who, in April of 1919, asked about the correctness of terms such as ‘poślina’ (a technically correct way to refer to a ‘posłanka’, but similar to ‘ślina’, which means ‘saliva’) and ‘poślica’(also an arguably proper term for ‘posłanka’, but uncomfortably close to ‘oślica’, or ‘donkey’ in the feminine). The magazine’s response was quite unexpected, stating:
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It is not possible to create feminine forms of all of the nouns, even in the case of animal names, which require inflection most often. […] If, however, we feel the need to differentiate a masculine ‘poseł’ from a feminine ‘poseł’ (as Warsaw magazines have begun to write), we must look for analogies, similarities. So, if there is ‘orzeł-orlica’ [for an eagle of either gender], ‘karzeł-karlica’ [similarly, for little people], there should be ‘poseł-poślica’. ‘Horribile dictu!’ How could one call a Member of the Parliament such a thing?
Someone reached a questionable compromise and created the form ‘posełkini’. Even though it is not derived from ‘poseł’, but from the non-existent ‘posełek’, which would stand for a tiny ‘poseł’, it would still be better, if it were to catch on, than ‘kobieta-poseł’. ‘Poślina’ is unacceptable, because it does not denote a different gender, but something inferior in kind, like ‘szewczyna’ [lesser than ‘szewc’, shoemaker], ‘pisarzyna’ [lesser than ‘pisarz’, writer], ‘chłopina’ [lesser than ‘chłop’, colloquial for man], etc. The Slovaks call the poseł ‘ablegat’, from Latin, and its feminine form could be ‘ablegatka’. Maybe this would catch on in Poland?
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A meeting of the parliamentary club of the Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation With the Government. A group of the Bloc’s 'posłanki' in the back room – visible, among others, are Janina Kirtiklisowa, Eugenia Waśniewska, Zofia Moraczewska, Maria Jaworska and Halina Jaroszewiczowa; 1930; photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
A few years later, magazines would write that the term ‘posłanka’ was becoming common, and that ‘only the careless journals continue to write “poseł”’. (Social acceptance of the form ministra [for a woman who is a minister] was still a thing of the future.) Those same magazines would also point out to the spreading ‘barbarity among the [masculine] titles women receive in offices’, including the masculine ‘sekretarz’(for ‘secretary’), ‘kancelista’ (‘scribe’) and ‘starszy referent’ (‘senior clerk’).
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Women sorting tobacco at the National Factory of Cigars and Tobacco Products in Kraków, 1926, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The two world wars and the preceding national uprisings led to the enlistment and death of many men, forcing women to replace them in offices, factories and the transportation industry. The rising employment of women fuelled the economic crisis: With men unable to support their families alone, it turned out that women could simply be paid less. In the Interwar period, the number of women working in the mining and heavy metals industry alone nearly doubled (240,000 female employees in 1921 versus 519,000 a decade later), and a similar phenomenon emerged in commerce and insurance (144,000 women employees vs. the later figure of 297,000).
The predictions Poradnik Językowy made in 1901 about the need to create the term ‘adwokatka’ were revealed to be true. In the 1918 Dziennik Ustaw (Journal of Laws), it can be read: ‘All Polish citizens, regardless of their gender, can become attorneys’. The files of women’s political clubs are full of regulations dealing with how to elect women as their ‘członkinie’(‘members’, as opposed to ‘członkowie’), ‘prezeski’(‘presidents of clubs or associations’, rather than ‘prezesi’), ‘sekretarki’ (‘secretaries’, and not ‘sekretarze’) and ‘skarbniczki’(‘treasurers’, in contrast to ‘skarbnicy’).
An illustrated weekly for women from that time called Bluszcz (Vine) contains many articles that feature the feminine words ‘inspektorki’(for ‘inspectors’, versus ‘inspektorzy’), ‘biuralistki’(‘office workers’, as opposed to ‘biuraliści’), ‘kierowniczki’ (managers, rather than ‘kierownicy’), or ‘ławniczki’ (‘jurors’, and not ‘ławnicy’). There is, however, some inconsistency in Bluszcz, as per the example of ‘kobiety burmistrze’ (‘women mayors’).
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After the devastation of World War II, the country was in dire need of labourers. Thus, the new authorities used emancipatory slogans to promote the idea of women’s labour. They directed women to the tractors with Magdalena Figur, the head of the first women’s brigade, who looked out at passers-by from a famous poster. In an attempt to get rid of the feminine suffix, however, they portrayed it as an expression of conservatism – or, as Eugeniusz Pawłowski put it in Język Polski, one of ‘narrow-minded scientific pedantry and backward-mindedness’.
Witold Doroszewski wrote about an almost universal tendency to ignore the physical makeup of the individuals represented by classificatory names. Propaganda viewed masculinisation as a synonym of progress and as a form of social empowerment for women (according to Antonina Obrębska-Jabłońska). Zenon Klemensiewicz argued that ‘grammatically, feminine titles would be tainted by some kind of inferiority’ and added that ‘the distaste towards feminine titles is growing, because it is men who advocate for them, and it appears that men are trying to preserve their privilege by means of these titles’.
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A scene from the play 'Emancypantki' (Emancipationist Women); directed by Adam Hanuszkiewicz; 1975; Television Theatre; pictured: Barbara Sułkowska, Janina Nowicka, and Barbara Burska; photo: Zygmunt Januszewski / TVP / East News
The term ‘linguistic sexism’, denoting the depreciation of women by means of language, has long since become commonplace in English-language publications. The more common expression in Poland, however, is ‘gender-sexual asymmetry’. Let’s now examine a few examples of masculine predominance in the Polish language.
Both Władysław Reymont in Chłopi (Peasants) and Wojciech Bogusławski in Krakowiacy i Górale (Cracovians and Highlanders) actually portrayed entire social classes – and not only men, as the masculine forms of their titles might suggest. By contrast, Bolesław Prus’s book Emancypatki (The Emancipationists, in the feminine form) is explicit in pointing out that its protagonists are women. One of Łódź’s biggest streets is called, using the masculine form, Włókniarzy (Textile Workers) Avenue – even though, as Marta Madejska reminds us in her story Aleja Włókniarek (literally Women Textile Workers Avenue), it is predominantly women who have historically worked in the textile industry there.
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In Polish, it is masculine-gendered forms that refer to groups composed of both men and women. They are also the standard in most other situations. For example, in the Polish equivalent of the saying ‘the customer is always right’, it is the so-said ‘klient’ that has the upper hand in any argument, and not the ‘klientka’.
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Parliamentary elections in 1930 in Warsaw, Halina Konopacka-Matuszewska votes at a polling station at Nowowiejska Street, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Some linguists see ‘splitting’, which is the use of both masculine and feminine forms at the same time, as the remedy for this situation. Bärbel Miemietz writes in a 1993 article Kto to Jest ‘Człowiek’? (Who Is a ‘Man’? [or Who is a ‘Person’, as notably, człowiek may be translated as either word in English]):
We have to ask, who is responsible for the stark asymmetries in dictionary entries? Is it ‘autorki’ and ‘autorzy’ [‘authors’ of either gender] of the dictionary? Is it the ‘użytkownicy’ and ‘użytkowniczki’ [similarly, ‘users’] of the language? ‘Autorki’ and ‘autorzy’ of the selected works (or the perspective of the ‘retro’ lexicography)? It seems that all are to blame.
Ewa Woźniak writes that this dualism in form can be observed in official documents and press articles dating as far back as the Interwar period. This tempting solution, however, would go against the standard that language should be as economical as possible.
Let us go further. In Polish, we refer to our aunt and uncle as ‘wujostwo’(a word derived from ‘wuj’, or ‘uncle’) and never ‘ciotostwo’(which would be derived from ‘ciotka’, or ‘aunt’). It was also common, until quite recently, to refer to wives and daughters by using the profession or the name of their husband or father: If he was a ‘professor’(‘professor’), his wife would be called ‘profesorowa’and his daughter ‘profesorówna’. The wife of Odo Bujwid was called Kazimiera Bujwidowa (such last names are usually common only in academia).
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But what about the creation of regular nouns? Certainly, the masculine form of ‘malarz’ (for ‘painter’) existed before ‘malarka’, as with ‘aktor’ (‘actor’) before aktorka. ‘Mistrzyni’(the feminine for ‘champion’) is derived from ‘mistrz’. But ‘wdowiec’ (‘widower’) came after ‘wdowa’and ‘gąsior’ (‘gander’) after ‘gęś’(‘goose’).
Unfortunately, the meaning of words used to refer to women has sometimes changed from neutral to pejorative. ‘Lafirynda’used to be a name for an elegant woman who blindly pursued Parisian trends in fashion, but today, it stands as a derogatory term for a sex worker who is a woman. ‘Kurtyzana’ functions in the same way, although itonce referred to a lady-in-waiting. ‘Kobieta’, as shown before, is an exception here.
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A suffragist demonstration, 1912, Berlin, photo: AKG-Images / East News
As we’ve seen, it’s easy enough to change the gender of a name with a suffix – but not everyone will accept the results. Today, some are offended by the feminine term ‘naukowczyni’ (scientist), as opposed to ‘naukowiec’ – even though the suffix -ini/-yni is common and unambiguous in Polish. The popular suffix ‘-ka’ doesn’t surprise anyone, even though there are some reservations; ‘reżyserka’ can be both a woman who is a director and a director’s room; ‘dziekanka’ can mean a woman who holds the position of dean, but also a dean’s leave of absence.
‘Sekretarka’ carries less distinction than ‘sekretarz’ (typically used as in ‘secretary of state’, or ‘secretary of the editorial office’). What’s more, this suffix can be used to create diminutives, as well as the names of actions, places and tools. Anyway, ‘poetka’, the feminine for ‘poet’, remains more popular than the ‘poetessa’(with French origins), which is associated with female poets of the early 20th-century Young Poland period.
‘Filolożki’(the feminine for ‘philologists’) and ‘dramaturżki’(for ‘playwrights’) are, according to the ‘autorki’ of Kultura Języka Polskiego (The Culture of The Polish Language), more often than not, exposed to ridicule. Feminine forms such as ‘socjolożka’(for ‘sociologist’), ‘psycholożka’(‘psychologist’) and etnolożka (‘ethnologist’) were registered in 2006 in the Uniwersalny Słownik Języka Polskiego (Universal Dictionary of the Polish Language) by Stanisław Dubisz, albeit qualified as ‘colloquial’.
At the same time, Mieczysław Szymczak’s 1971 Słownik Języka Polskiego (The Dictionary of The Polish Language) lists ‘architektka’(the feminine form of ‘architect’) without any qualifiers, even though it is much more difficult to pronounce than ‘architekt’. On the other hand, the feminine ‘adiunktki’(‘assistant professors’) will just have to be patient.
All of this said, men don’t necessarily have it easy in Polish. As Małgorzata Karwatowska and Jolanta Szpyra-Kozłowska show in Lingwistyka Płci (Linguistics of Gender), there are many more masculine- than feminine-gendered words used in the context of excessive alcohol use (also, the masculinity of the non-drinkers is often questioned) – as well as for people who are aggressive, who have run-ins with the law, who struggle to do well in life, or who lack intelligence (a number of harsher expletives form part of this last category).
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It can be said that language reflects reality, but social and cultural change moves faster than any dictionary can keep up with. Feminine professional names are better represented in 19th- and early 20th-century dictionaries than in their later counterparts. Only in the mid-1990s did the ‘masculine suffix’, once promoted by the communist-era authorities as universal, begin to fall out of fashion.
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Still, there are more and more feminine nouns used in Polish, and those that haven’t been used for many years are beginning to reappear. A group of Wrocław-based linguists who are women made a large stride towards the reintroduction of linguistic symmetry when they created the 2015 Słownik Nazw Żeńskich Polszczyzny (Dictionary of Polish Feminine Names), the first in Polish lexicography. Here, they note forgotten, common and previously unregistered ‘feminitives’, such as: ‘menedżerka’(‘manager’), ‘house menedżerka’(‘homemaker’), ‘slamerka’ (‘poetry slam contestant’), ‘freelancerka’(‘freelancer’), ‘ghostwriterka’ (‘ghostwriter’) and subiektka (‘shop assistant’) – which was used by the writer Bruno Schulz interchangeably with ‘panienki sklepowe’ (literally, ‘shop ladies’).
In 1907, Baudouin de Courtenay, known as the father of Polish linguistics, claimed that language isn’t an untouchable deity, but ‘a tool and a practice’ – meaning that ‘we not only have the right, but also the duty to better this tool according to its purpose’. In the end, the masculine ‘język polski’ (the Polish language) has a noble ring, but doesn’t the feminine alternative, ‘polszczyzna’ sound that much better?
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, Oct 2018; translated by MW, edited by LD
Sources: ‘Lingwistyka Płci: Ona i On w Języku Polskim’ by M. Karwatowska, J. Szpyra-Kozłowska, Lublin 2010; ‘O Panach i Paniach: Polskie Rzeczowniki Tytularne i Ich Asymetria Rodzajowo-Płciowa’ by M. Łaziński, Warsaw 2006; ‘Równe Prawa i Nierówne Szanse. Kobiety w Polsce Międzywojennej’, edited by A. Żarnowska and A. Szwarc, Warsaw 2000; ‘Język a Emancypacja, Feminizm, Gender’ Dissertaion of Language Committee of Łódź Learned Society, vol. LX, 2014; ‘Poradnik Językowy, Język Polski and Słownik Nazw Żeńskich Polszczyzny’, edited by A. Małocha-Krupa, Wrocław 2015.