Ukrainianw are debating how to make gendered languages more equitable
Originally published on Global Voices
Along with news that Ukraine had lost control of the town of Soledar near Bakhmut, the most contested battlefield area of the last months, Germany’s reluctance to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and a new Russian rocket attack killing dozens and damaging power generating facilities, there was something else to occupy Ukrainian social media users in the first week after Christmas: feminitives.
Feminitives are feminine forms of words, but the most recent debate was related mostly to the names of professions and occupations. Like the rest of the Slavic languages, Ukrainian is grammatically gendered into masculine, feminine, and neutral forms. There is, for example, “vchytel” (вчитель — a male teacher), and “vchytelka” (вчителька — a widely accepted feminine form for a female teacher). But for the majority of professions and occupations, only the masculine gender is applied, and only a few — often the least prestigious — are found solely in the feminine, like Ukrainian analogs of a cleaner or a nurse.
It was a Facebook post of a young psychologist Katerina Zinass claiming that being called psykhologynia (a woman psychologist) causes her pain and is sexist, as are the rest of feminitives. She continued to lament the emphasis “on gender, not a profession.” Zinass suggested that to address a female professional politely, people should use the title “Pani” (the Ukrainian analog of Miss or Mrs) instead. Her post gathered around 19,000 likes, 6,800 comments, and was shared about 2,700 times.
The comments section devolved into controversy as people debated her argument. Below are some of the interesting comments and screenshots from the conversation.
Debating visibility but also decolonization
Discussions about the usage of feminitives have raged in Ukraine for years. Many feminitives cannot be found in dictionaries, including those of relatively new professions or spheres where women have been usually absent or underrepresented. For example, zastupnytsia (заступниця — meaning any deputy role), ministerka (міністерка — female minister), matematykynia (математикиня — female mathematician). For those who support their usage, the issue is about the presence and visibility of women in public spheres like the economy, government, science, and art industries.
But another reason the debate is so popular is that it’s rooted in decolonization: the Ukrainian language and culture are distancing themselves from the language and culture of Russia, which dominated the region for centuries.
For much of history, local languages were regarded as low status in the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union. In the 19th century, the imperial authorities made several attempts to restrict the usage of Ukrainian. The Soviets continued this trend, leading to a perception that everything Ukrainian was backward and rural — unfit for a modern urbanized society.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union and years later, in the part of Ukraine which belonged to the Russian empire, the Ukrainian language continued to be perceived as a rural language, while a large share of the population remained, and still remains, Russian-speaking. In 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian language dramatically disappeared from public discourse, as the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians started to perceive the language as a political signal.
And so many of those using feminitives believe that these more equitably gendered forms are natural for Ukrainian and were excluded from it relatively recently within the wider Soviet efforts to suppress the Ukrainian language, culture, and identity.
But Zinass is far from being the only one who prefers to use the masculine form, perceiving it as being the most neutral, and free of any social connotations. For many, some of the new feminine forms feel clumsy. The following are two screenshots of comments from Katerina Zinass’ Facebook post.
This really hurts the ears so much! Personally, I will never get used to it. When they issue something like “mystkynia” (мисткиня — female artist), this is grotesque alltogether, or “chlenkynia” (членкиня — female member of something), I want to kill myself! To befoul the language such a way!
I entirely agree with you because the word “chlenkynia, likarka (лікарка — female doctor), psykhologynia” and a lot of others hurt the ears a lot, so these words do not beautify our language, not at all. Why do they hurt the ear? For me, “pani professor, pani likar” sound much better than psykhologynia, medykynia (медикиня — female medic). We should be more modern and, possibly, change something, but not this way. Listen to how it sounds. Sorry, but it is a bit disgusting to me, and not melodic. I am agains such words and changes.
Some also see feminitives as foreign powers’ attempt to force their rules and values onto Ukraine as western donors to Ukrainian media often require an increase in women representatives in their coverage — in content, but also in language.
Even among language professionals, there is no consensus. Some recommend relying on the established normative language, but the normative language is already far behind what is used in public discourse. And in the last decades, a lot of new or revived old forms have already been added to Ukrainian.
Oksana Zabuzhko enters the debate
Oksana Zabuzhko, a veteran of Ukrainian post-Soviet literature and prominent feminist, reacted by calling those who oppose feminitives, “people of Russian culture.” Zabuzhko insisted that while in Russian feminitives sometimes have a derogatory meaning, in Ukrainian, their meaning is neutral. She wrote that in Ukraine, women have always enjoyed more freedom than in Russia and that the way feminitives are used in each language actually demonstrates the cultural gap between the two nations. Zabuzhko called the defense of feminitives and the defense of Ukraine on the battlefield “in a certain sense, the same war.”
Zabuzhko’s Facebook post also went viral, with 6,400 reposts and hundreds of comments, of support as well as anger and condemnation. Some, including many Ukrainian posters, were outraged by being connected to Russian culture only for disliking the new feminine form. In addition to what many described as her generally impolite, haughty tone, Zabuzhko possibly triggered anger given that in today’s climate, suggesting someone is connected to Russia is often used as the last — and lowest — tool in an argument. Several users also immediately pointed to historical and etymological mistakes in her claims. Last but not least, one user posted a recent recording of Zabuzhko’s interview in Ukrainian when she constantly called herself a writer, author, and literator in the masculine.
In reality, the Russian language also used to have a lot of feminitives. Their emergence or disappearance in both languages reflected the development of both societies, which had been very closely connected in the era of economic, political, and social transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Russian intellectuals have led the same discussion, and Russian feminists have fought the same fight. Yet for Russians, the question has rarely turned into an issue of gender equality and women’s rights and freedoms.
For some Ukrainians, though, the main point of the discussion is actually about flexibility and inclusiveness of their language in opposition to Russian.
When speaking in Russian, there are two ways to say “in Ukraine” — one uses the preposition “na” which means more “on the surface,” the other uses “v” which means “inside, in.” The former is still used in Russia officially, while inside Ukraine when speaking Russian, “na” is considered a colonial form while “v” is the politically correct form.
So, Ukrainian can adopt what Russians cannot. From new spellings of foreign words breaking traditions common to both languages, new grammar rules, and the introduction of new or forgotten words and feminitives. One thing is clear, Ukranians will continue to grapple with how to adapt to an ever-changing linguistic landscape.