Friday, May 12, 2017

Small linguistic victories

I was talking at the board, describing some imaginary scientist that does some imaginary experiments, and I referred to this scientist as "she".

This sure does not sound like an achievement: of course there are women scientists! My science classes are typically between 80% and 100% female after all. But for me every time it feels like a small breakthrough, for a very different reason. The thing is, while I teach only in English, inside my head I still think a little bit in Russian, at least to some extent. And in Russian all nouns are gendered (they are either masculine, feminine, or neutral). So for me, at a very intuitive, subconscious level, all cells are "she", while all neurons are "he". Neurons are dudes, cells are lasses, while nuclei don't care - nuclei are "it" (neutral). For me, mitochondria are always maternal, and not just because they carry mDNA and can prove maternal lineage, but because they are feminine, while receptors and channels are clearly masculine. It is probably ridiculous, but it's true, and follows the patterns described in the literature (there are some famous studies, one on bridges, and one on kitchen utensils)

And so, "of course" (sarcasm here) "a scientist" (учёный, ucheny) is masculine in Russian. But it's worse than even that: "a scientist" in Russian, while grammatically a noun, does not read or sound like a typical noun, but has all signs of an verbal adjective that is used as a noun. It's somewhat similar to English nouns like "grown-up", "initiate" or "trainee": essentially a "grown one", "initiated one", or "trained one" respectively. So in Russian the word for "scientist" is literally "the learned one"; and this "one" is grammatically male. In Russian, "A scientist" etymologically means "the learned male". Only think of it. "The learned male!". It's bizarre!

It is a very curious case, and seems to be almost an exception. Most words for professions and occupations in Russian are not like that: "a teacher", "a professor", "a student" are all normal nouns; some are masculine but can be used for females without a grammatical collapse; some have both masculine and feminine forms. All of them are more or less OK. "A scientist", however, totally hurts my brain. On several occasions, when I tried to make my writing in Russian more gender-inclusive, I was attacked by Russian speakers (women and men alike!) for ruining the grammar. Because if you write in Russian something like "When a scientist is tired, she takes a break", it short-circuits the grammar. It reads like "When a well-learned male man is tired, she takes a break", which is seriously weird.

And no, there's no "learned female" form for this word (like for German der Professor / die Professorin). If you try to forge a "feminine form", it sounds very unusual, and is completely unheard of. I gather with some effort it should be possible to introduce a "feminine version" by force, kind of how notation "they" was re-introduced in English for the purpose of gender inclusiveness, but so far nobody bothered to even start playing with these possibilities. And probably the society will be very resistant to changes like that, for quite a while. And even then, the controversy would probably remain, as it remains in German, as having two different words for male and female people in a profession is a bit weird.

But in my private life, for my private brain, this whole strange situation means that while I work mostly with female scientists, it is still curiously hard for me to refer to an imaginary "placeholder" scientist as "she" in speech. Because grammar representation in late life bilinguals is weird. Even after years of training, it feels that I have to consciously override some circuit in the Broca area to make it happen.

If you are a native English speaker and cannot relate to this story at all, try to imagine that you learned a language where the words for "scissors" or "pants" are singular, and not plural, as they are in English, and you now need to say something to the effect "my scissors is red", or "give me a pants". Would not it feel weird? I bet it would! Even though you would know perfectly well what you are talking about, and how to properly say it, you would still have to consciously override something in your brain to use "trousers" as a singular.

So, here you go: small linguistic victories.

1 comment:

  1. I knew people who say something like this: "Дай мне этот брюк"
    And they feel themselves perfectly well. =)
    Does it mean that Uzbec or Tadzic language contain pants as a singular? I'm not sure.

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