Default masculine

How the Russian language has become a battleground in the country’s culture wars

Default masculine

Activists during an International Women’s Day rally in St. Petersburg, 8 March 2018. Photo by Igor Russak / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

There is an ongoing struggle in some sections of Russian society over whether and how best to feminise certain terms in the Russian language to better represent women, an idea that many conservatives have been very vocal in resisting.

While similar trends are visible within other linguistic communities speaking languages with grammatical gender, such as French and German, the opposite, if anything, is happening in the Anglosphere. Whereas second-wave feminists pioneered the use of gender-neutral terms such as firefighter or flight attendant in English, a remarkably gender-neutral language, the opposite dynamic is at play in heavily gendered Russian.

Rather than find terms that are applicable to men and women equally, Russian feminists have instead attempted to popularise feminised versions of existing words — known in Russian as feminitivy or feminitives — a form of linguistic activism that aims to emphasise the presence and role of women in society and end the default to masculine as the neutral form.

Feminitives are perhaps unsurprisingly vilified by conservatives in Russia who often pointedly refuse to use them, and their use was even cited by the country’s Supreme Court as being a distinctive feature of the “LGBT movement” in its November ruling that deemed queer rights activism “extremist”.

Brass tacks

While Russian has three grammatical genders, most nouns used to describe professions are masculine, meaning that when you say the word for doctor, politician, lawyer or manager, it sounds to a Russian ear as if you are talking about a man, despite the fact that the male form can be used to describe both a man and a woman.

This isn’t true for all professions, however. Some nouns that refer to professions “traditionally associated with women” are feminine by default or have a widely accepted female version, such as the words for cleaner, nanny, or nurse.

You can sometimes get round this by adding the word woman to specify the person you are talking about while using the gender-neutral masculine form of a noun, but just as the terms “woman pilot” or “female doctor” can sound laboured and even patronising in English, they can sound very odd in Russian too.

It was in the hopes of challenging this linguistic sexism that Russian feminists began using feminitives, which are usually formed by adding a feminine suffix such as -ka, -inya or -essa to an existing masculine noun. There’s even a website to help you know how to do so.

Feminine nouns have existed in Russian for centuries, of course, and their use has evolved over time. This explains why certain feminitives sound more “normal” to a Russian ear than others. It tends to be when a recently coined feminitive sounds “unusual” that strong feelings are provoked.

Puritans & politics

Russia’s Supreme Court cited specific examples to support its claim that the use of feminitives is often a sign that a person is a supporter of the “global LGBT movement”. This is somewhat true to the extent that a person who uses feminitives is also likely to feel a natural solidarity or sympathy with the LGBT cause.

The specific words the court cited were those that sound “less normal”, by which it meant the use of suffixes that sound unnatural, even though there is no formal rule.

“There are unwritten rules about how words combine, many of which have not even been identified, permeating the language at all levels,” wrote Irina Fufayeva, a linguist who studies the origins and uses of feminising language, in a 2018 article on the subject. “Suffixes combine with various stems in complex ways, and words do too.”

Feminists and LGBT activists often deliberately use words that sound wrong to provoke an emotional response from the reader. In this sense the use of feminising words is frequently ideological or political.

The topic has been contentious for years, and even within the feminist community there is no consensus on whether these words should be used. Some women still prefer to go by gender-neutral male nouns. 

This does not, however, make the Supreme Court’s decision any less absurd. There is a plethora of feminised words in Russian, and distinguishing between “extremist” and “non-extremist” ones seems rather futile considering the fact that language is in a constant state of flux.

Mind the gender gap

Some other forms of linguistic activism present in Russia include the use of gender gaps. Gender gaps are a tool to illustrate that a plural of a word, formed from a masculine stem, actually reflects the feminine, too. It uses a root of a word, then a gap, and a feminine plural ending (студент_ки).

Gender gaps are also used in other languages, for example, German (Bürger_innen).

In Russian, it’s still rare to see people use gender gaps, but it’s already an established practice in some communities. Gender gaps are often used with the feminised words, therefore existing as an extension of the practice.

Despite the Court’s ambiguous wording, lawyers tend to think that the use of feminising language is not going to be considered a crime in itself.

“Their use can only bring specific people to the attention of law enforcement,” Maksim Olenichev, a lawyer, told Novaya Europe.

“The whole Supreme Court text, including the demonisation of feminitives, is a chaotic collection of illiterate, superficial, contradictory and absurd theses, clumsily pulled from various internet sources,” feminist activist Lölja Nordic told Novaya Europe.

“Even if we assume that the text refers to specific feminitives that irritate many conservatives … it is still unclear how they intend to make this clearer. Will they create a list of permitted and prohibited feminitives?” Nordic asked.

Artificial violence

Attempts to feminise the Russian language are controversial and have become a huge source of debate. Even though the use of feminitives is often associated with those who identify as progressive, there is no consensus on the matter even among them.

Some, including teacher and education specialist Natalia Soprunova, do not reject the idea out of hand but prefer to use more standard terms when referring to themselves.

“Feminitives feel like artificial violence to the language,” Soprunova told Novaya Europe. “But I recognise the right of others to use them, if it is important for them to emphasise when they are talking about a woman.”

Soprunova says that for her, standard terms don’t carry “a negative connotation of masculinisation, but on the contrary, of respect.”

Researchers, including Russian psychiatrist and science writer Viktor Lebedev, believe that there are two main reasons people dislike the use of feminitives: language and ideology.

For those who fall into the first category, this type of language is perceived either as grammatically incorrect or jarring to the ear, and their objection is not necessarily a political one. For the second, feminising language heralds unwelcome change. Just as someone with a conservative bent is likely to be resistant to change in social matters, a change in language triggers a similar response.

“Openness to new things is closely related to cognitive flexibility, the ability to assimilate and apply new knowledge in practice,” Lebedev told RBC. “Obviously, cognitive flexibility and learning ability usually decline with age, so it would not be surprising if conservatism also increases with age. Not in terms of political views, but rather as a desire for stability in one’s surroundings and inner world.”

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