A New Basic Word Order: VOV—Arnold P. Fasnacht Son of Lingua Pranca Contents Great Moments in Linguistic History

On Being Polite to Women in Slavic Languages*

Émil Schouwiniste-Pigge

The present paper is concerned with the linguistic reflections of the innate and divinely determined superiority of men over women. In many languages, in order to show politeness to a person, one ascribes to that person a higher status than that to which he is actually entitled: thus all German waiters are addressed as Herr Ober (literally ‘head waiter’), all Polish journalists are addressed as panie redaktorze (literally ‘editor’).

In many Slavic languages, in order to show politeness to a woman, one raises her status, linguistically, to make her a male. Thus in Serbo-Croatian, the polite plural (i.e. morphological plural addressed to a single person) is automatically masculine, even when the addressee is a woman (Javarek & Sudjić 1963:34, 43), e.g.

(1)    Vi ste dobri (masc.)/*dobre (fem.).
‘You are good.’

(It is assumed that the addressee is singular; this sentence with dobre is grammatical if it is taken as a real-world familiar form plural, with no particular respect shown.) The same phenomenon may be observed in many Polish dialects (Makarski 1973:30), e.g.

(2)    Wyście widzieli (masc.)/*widziały (fem.).
‘You saw.’

Another area where male superiority is reflected is in the distinct masculine and feminine forms for the names of certain occupations in Russian, or at least the possibility of such a distinction, with loss of the distinction in certain cases. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, most occupations were reserved, quite properly, for men only, and so they had no corresponding morphological feminine form, whereas nouns that could refer to people of either sex did have distinct gender forms (e.g. angličanin ‘Englishman’, angičanka ‘Englishwoman’). Some specifically male occupations did have corresponding feminine forms, e.g. general’ša from general ‘general’, doktorša from doktor ‘doctor’, but these referred not to a woman exercising the profession (a ridiculous idea!), but to a woman married to a man exercising the given profession, thus indicating, quite correctly, that a woman’s social status is determined by that of her husband.

During the twentieth century this situation changed sadly. Partly as a result of labor shortages, and partly as a result of the Bolshevik policies of the Bolshevik government, women increasingly entered industry and even higher professions. In certain cases, new feminine forms of the existing occupation names were formed, in other cases the masculine form was used with reference to women too (for the data, cp. RJaSO 11:191-213; Comrie & Stone 1978: ch. 6). However, the choice of distinctive feminine versus epicene masculine form is not independent of the status of the occupation in question, thus providing evidence of the naturalness of both class and sex discrimination, despite Bolshevik propaganda. Thus many words that have the masculine suffix -ist and denote ordinary industrial occupations form feminines in -istka, like traktoristka ‘tractor-driver’; but if we take a high-prestige profession with the same suffix, like slavist “Slavicist’, then we find that the masculine form is used with reference to either sex, and a form like *slavistka is considered either incorrect or, at best, insulting. For those occupations to which one shows respect, a woman must be shown respect by use of the masculine form, the specifically feminine form being considered simply insulting. If one takes the word sekretar’ ‘secretary’ in the sense of a shorthand-typist, then one can use the feminine form sekretarša; but if one means an office-holder in some organization, then only the masculine form is appropriate: sekretar’. Many specifically feminine forms applied to higher-prestige occupations are only admissible in ‘careless speech’, where in particular the speaker is not concerned with the etiquette of what he is saying, e.g. naučnaja sotrudnica (fem.) ‘scientific co-worker’, preferably naučnyj sotrudnik, even if referring to a woman.

Examples of this type demonstrate both the use of masculine forms to raise the status of females, and the inappropriateness that is felt intuitively in women’s occupying such positions.

Although the examples in this paper have been restricted to Slavic languages, I feel sure that similar examples can be found from other languages, and would be grateful if any such examples could be forwarded to me (or to the aforementioned Bernard Comrie, who will no doubt attempt to pervert the data in accordance with his own pet theories). I have attempted to describe some aspects of a linguistic situation, and to interpret them in accordance with their social origins. Of course, the real task of reactionary sociolinguistics in neither to describe, nor to interpret the old world, but to conserve it.


* I am grateful to Bernard Comrie, of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, for help with the Slavic data. Needless to say, this does not imply that I am in agreement with the platitudinous liberal sex-egalitarian hogwash that he has been known at times to spout.

This article first appeared in Pragmatics Microfiche 1.3 (1975), and is reprinted here with the editors’ permission.


Comrie, B. & Stone, G. 1978. The Russian Language since the Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Javarek, V. and Sudjić, M. 1963. Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat. London: English Universities Press.

Makarski, W. 1973. Konstrukcje pluralis maiestatis w gwarach Rzeszowszczyzny. Poradnik jȩzykowy 1:30-34.

RJaSO Russkij jazyk i sovetskoe obščestvo. M. V. Panov (ed.), 4 vols. Moscow, 1968: ‘Nauka’.

A New Basic Word Order: VOV—Arnold P. Fasnacht
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