Scholarly article on topic 'Communicating Gender in Slovak and Czech: Evaluations Based on Behavior and Life Style'

Communicating Gender in Slovak and Czech: Evaluations Based on Behavior and Life Style Academic research paper on "Sociology"

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{"Gender symmetry" / "gender asymmetry" / "lexical gaps" / "parallel designations" / "with a semantic difference" / behavior / Slovak / Czech}

Abstract of research paper on Sociology, author of scientific article — Marcela Michálková

Abstract This study explores exceptions to symmetrical linguistic encoding of maleness and femaleness in the semantic category Evaluations based on one's behavior and life style. In particular, the mapping of lexical gaps onto the system of nominal lexicon is discussed. The analysis focuses on Slovak data obtained from Krátky slovník slovenského jazyka (Concise Dictionary of the Slovak Language) and - when applicable – contrasts them against Dickins's findings on Czech animate nouns. While ideological ramifications of the interrelation between grammatical gender, linguistic androcentrism, and societal sexist assumptions are not the primary goal of this article, they are considered and discussed when relevant.

Academic research paper on topic "Communicating Gender in Slovak and Czech: Evaluations Based on Behavior and Life Style"

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Procedía - Social and Behavioral Sciences 236 (2016) 95 - 100

International Conference on Communication in Multicultural Society, CMSC 2015, 6-8 December

2015, Moscow, Russian Federation

Communicating gender in Slovak and Czech: evaluations based on

behavior and life style

Marcela Michálková*

Presov University, ul. 17. Novembra 1, Presov 08078, Slovakia


This study explores exceptions to symmetrical linguistic encoding of maleness and femaleness in the semantic category Evaluations based on one's behavior and life style. In particular, the mapping of lexical gaps onto the system of nominal lexicon is discussed. The analysis focuses on Slovak data obtained from Kratky slovnik slovenskeho jazyka (Concise Dictionary of the Slovak Language) and - when applicable - contrasts them against Dickins's findings on Czech animate nouns. While ideological ramifications of the interrelation between grammatical gender, linguistic androcentrism, and societal sexist assumptions are not the primary goal of this article, they are considered and discussed when relevant.

© 2016 The Authors.Publishedby Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI (Moscow Engineering Physics Institute). Keywords: Gender symmetry; gender asymmetry; lexical gaps; parallel designations, with a semantic difference; behavior; Slovak; Czech

1. Introduction

There seems to be a cross-cultural social agreement on perceiving men through the prism of authority and strength, and women through the optics of the aesthetic. Male bias has existed in evaluating women (and sometimes children), especially with respect to their appearance and behavior. Such bias is palpable in the following Slovak (henceforth Sk) and Czech (henceforth Cz) negative evaluations: pobehlice (Cz) 'wanton', koketa (Sk) 'coquette, flirt', rafika (Sk) 'deceitful, mendacious woman', macecha (Cz) 'malicious, cruel woman, lit. stepmother', fapa (Sk), kaca (Cz) 'dumb woman, silly goose, judy'. Notice that all aforementioned lexemes are assigned feminine

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +421-51-757-0837. E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

Peer-review under responsibility of the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI (Moscow Engineering Physics Institute). doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2016.12.041

grammatical gender. Characteristically, no male/masculine counterparts exist in Slovak for the examples above. Moreover, men's negative behavior seems to judged more mercifully by society than women's; for instance, the sexually loose behavior of men might even carry connotations of achievement. Naturally, in the course of time, some stereotypical assumptions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of certain social roles for men and women can change, a fact that tends to be reflected linguistically in both contemporary Slovak and contemporary Czech.

The problem of linguistic encoding of maleness and femaleness at large has been receiving growing attention. In some cases, research attempts to demonstrate the inherent inequalities in the linguistic treatment of women and men (e.g., Holmes and Meyerhoff, 2005; Holmes, 2006; Pauwels, 1998; Romaine, 1998). Many works in contemporary gender linguistics argue that the linguistic feature that contributes to 'androcentrism', 'reinforcement of male dominance and social prestige', 'the unequal status of men and women', 'the marginalization of women', 'invisibility of women' should be eradicated.

This study does not primarily attempt to evaluate ideological ramifications of the interrelation between grammatical gender, linguistic androcentrism, and societal sexist assumptions. Instead, the main objective is to explore one particular way in which gender asymmetry gets mapped onto the system of nominal lexicon related to one's behavior and life style in Slovak, and compare collected data with Dickins's (2001) Czech examples.

2. Data and methodology

The lemmas1 under investigation belong to the semantic category Evaluations based on behavior. They denote individuals in terms of social behavior, and, marginally, life style. Evaluations based on behavior is one of sixteen semantic categories established and examined within a more complex gender-related research project conducted by the author (see Michalkova, 2010, 2014a, 2014b).

The Slovak data corpus for the research is chiefly drawn from Kratky slovnik slovenskeho jazyka [Concise Dictionary of the Slovak Language], hereafter CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003). Despite being a "concise dictionary, CDSL includes over 60,000 entries, including 6,133 personal nouns identified to form the material of our corpus. CDSL is a prescriptive monolingual dictionary of the codified standard language published by the recognized authoritative arbiter of language questions, the Eudovit Stur Institute of Linguistics of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. This dictionary has acquired importance as a prestigious and normative book among the general population. The strictly delimited but ample number of items collected from CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003) is sufficient to establish an accurate picture of the gender differentiation in Modern Slovak and to confirm the validity of our conclusions. The Slovak nouns that constitute the core of this study all denote human beings. Out of 6,133 lexical items in CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003) identified as personal nouns, 943 lexemes refer to one's behavior (15.38%). The semantic category Evaluations based on behavior which is the subject of this study has the third strongest representation in our corpus. It is proceeded by Identity as defined by vocation and avocation (1,754 lexemes related to the area of employment and leisure-time activities (28.6%)) and Descriptions denoting agents of specific actions or activities (987 lemmas expressing agents of specific activities (16.09%)).

Czech data come from Dickins's (2001) three informants (two women and one man), cross-checked with the non-corpus based eight-volume Slovmk spisovneho jazyka ceskeho [Dictionary of the Standard Czech Language] (1989), henceforth DSCL (Havranek et al., 1989) and three largest written-corpora based Czech frequency lists.

1 Even though the terms word, lexeme, lemma, dictionary entry, and noun are used more or less interchangeably in this study, the units predominantly examined are to be understood in the strict sense as lexemes, i.e., items in the lexicon, represented as dictionary entries. Crystal (1996:199) [7] defines a lexeme as an abstract, minimal distinctive unit in the semantic system of a language, as opposed to the term word, which refers to the phonological, grammatical and lexical levels. Lexemes are characterized by Cruse (1986: 80) [8] as families of lexical units, where "a lexical unit is the union of a single sense with a lexical form; a lexical form is an abstraction from a set of word forms (or alternatively - it is a family of word forms) which differ only in respect of inflections." Lexemes are the units which are typically alphabetically listed in dictionaries as separate entries under their citation-forms. In CDSL, the nominative singular of nouns and adjectives is used to represent all the inflected forms of the lexeme.

The practical impact of dictionaries and normative books should not be overstated or regarded uncritically. As Dickins (ibid.) points out an individual's linguistic choices do not necessarily depend on dictionary entries. Nevertheless both Slovnik spisovného jazyka ceského (Havránek et al., 1989) and Krátky slovník slovenského jazyka (Kacala, Pisárciková, and Povazaj, 2003) carry an unparalleled authority, represent linguistic tradition, set the standard, and have a symbolic significance.

3. Personal nouns describing individuals in terms of their behavior and life style: analysis of data

3.1. Gender symmetry, gender asymmetry

In languages like Slovak and Czech, human/personal nouns, including descriptions relating to one's behavior, are specified for grammatical gender (grammatical gender being an inherent and invariant property of the noun, in contrast to the categories of number and case; grammatical gender controls agreement between the noun and some adjacent elements both inside and outside the noun phrase.) Grammatical gender in Slovak and Czech is usually interpreted sexually: the so-called referential gender links linguistic expressions with non-linguistic reality of femaleness or maleness.

There are two types of correlation between grammatical gender and referential gender: symmetry (symmetrical relationship) and asymmetry (asymmetrical relationship). Gender symmetry refers to the equal representation of both sexes through pairs of lexemes differentiated by grammatical gender, such that male referents are conveyed by masculine forms and female referents by feminine forms. Lexical gaps, parallel designations for women and men, with a semantic difference, as well as double gender nouns and epicene nouns represent four types of gender asymmetry. Only lexical gaps are discussed in this article. The plane of content should be differentiated from the plane of expression here: the same concept on the plane of content has two forms on the plane of expression; these words are virtual synonyms distinguished only by the sex of the referent.

The semantic category Evaluations based on behavior contains 943 lemmas. Masculine forms overwhelmingly dominate the group; there are 623 of them (66.07%), 232 of which co-exist with feminine counterparts (37.2%). Sixty-one nouns are feminine only (6.5%), and there are also 16 neuter nouns (1.7%). One noun is, according to CDSL (Kacala, Pisárciková, and Povazaj, 2003), both masculine and feminine, and 10 nouns (mostly augmentatives) are assigned both masculine and neuter gender. Interestingly enough, in comparison with other categories, the category Evaluations based on behavior has a much higher number of expressive and pejorative terms than any other category in our classification.

3.2. Symmetrical relationships

Less than one half of all Slovak entries related to one's behavior and/or life style participate in gender symmetry, e.g., altruista (m.)—altruistka (f.) 'altruist', cert (m.)—certica (f.) 'devil', divoch (m.)—divoska (f.) 'wild person', and márnotratník (m.)—márnotratnica (f.) 'extravagant, wasteful person'. A vast majority of feminine forms are derived from masculine nouns (e.g., mamonár (m.)—mamonárka (f.) 'mammonist'), but some are parallel derivations (e.g., lajdák (m.)—lajda (f.) 'sluggish person'), and some masculine forms are derived from feminine bases (e.g., citlivka (f.)— citlivkár (m.) 'emotionalist', jezibaba (f.)—jezibábel' (m.) 'witch'). Following Dickins (2001, p. 238), in Czech, only about 30% of this group of nouns listed in DSCL are engaged in masculine-feminine symmetry. Among the factors which Dickins claims account for the exceptionally low percentage of paired nouns is the adjectival derivation of many of the nouns, e.g., zbabélec (m.) 'coward' - 0 (f.) from zbabély (m.)/ -á (f.) 'cowardly'. The adjective seems to fulfill the same semantic function as the noun therefore there is limited need for a feminine derivative.

3.3. Asymmetrical relationships: lexical gaps

Lexical gaps, along with epicenes, double-gender nouns, and parallel designations, with a semantic difference, represent gender asymmetry. Lexical gaps in the most general sense concern the absence of some words for women

or men. Most of them occur in the semantic category Identity as determined by physical appearance or other physical characteristics. Based on Slovak data in CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003), the category Evaluations relating to behavior contains a limited number of positive evaluations of women, e.g., dama 'lady, a cultured woman with good manners'. On the other hand, it is comprised of a large number of exclusively feminine terms that are used as pejoratives for female referents. This includes a class of feminine nouns derived from proper nouns that denote women by describing them metaphorically as acting like the eponyms: harpya 'harpy' ("a rapacious, plundering, or grasping person; one that preys upon others"; in Greek and Roman mythology, "a fabulous monster, rapacious and filthy, having a woman's face and body and a bird's wings and claws, and supposed to act as a minister of divine vengeance" (Oxford English Dictionary, henceforth OED)), xantipa 'Xantippe' (after Xantippe, the wife of Socrates, "an ill-tempered woman or wife, a shrew, a scold" (OED)), furia 'fury, ferociously angry or malignant woman' (in Greek and Roman mythology, one of the avenging deities, "dread goddesses with snakes twined in their hair" (OED)), rebeka 'cunning, ugly, ill-tempered or dirty and untidy woman' (from Rebecca, the wife of Isaac in the Old Testament), madona 'chaste woman' ("a woman regarded as resembling the Virgin Mary, especially with respect to chastity" (OED)), and amazonka 'female warrior, strong, masculine woman' ("Amazons, pl. a race of female warriors alleged by Herodotus, etc. to exist in Scythia" (OED)).

Five nouns in this semantic category classify women negatively by describing them as sexually loose or suggestive: cundra (f.), fl'andra (f.), svandra (f.) 'slut, tart, hooker, tramp', andpobehlica (f.) 'wanton', zenstina (f.) 'hussy'. The list of Slovak insults aimed at women which focus upon their sexuality is actually more extensive; it includes obscene and/or taboo expressions that are diligently avoided not only by lexicographers but by Slovak linguists in general and are to a great extent an oral phenomenon. My primary source, CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003), only contains the given five nouns that devaluate women for their supposedly inappropriate sexual behavior; it is significant that none of these words has a masculine counterpart. Unlike the remaining four nouns, zenstina is a lexical gender noun, but still lacks a masculine counterpart. As Braun (2001) virtuousness points out for Turkish, such terms "are not only used in their literal sense (i.e., to express doubt of a woman's), but also to voice any kind of discontent." This observation also applies to Slovak, where sexual pejoratives can be used, for instance, during arguments unrelated to a woman's sexual behavior.

It is interesting (though not unexpected) that the implications of loose sexual behavior are different for man and women. While cundra, fl'andra, svandra, pobehlica, and zenstina carry a social stigma and are clearly negative evaluations, semantically related terms for men found in CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003), e.g., frajerkar (m.) 'womanizer, philanderer [literally, one who has (many) girlfriends]' and suknickar (m.) 'womanizer, philanderer [literally one who chases (little) skirts]'), while still disapproving, also imply an achievement, success, or even social prestige. Clearly, the promiscuity of men is considered socially more acceptable than that of women.

Another common notion related to women in this semantic class is vanity. Koketa (f.), koketka (f.) is a woman who actively seeks admiration and affection of men, not for sexual pleasure, but for the gratification of vanity. A man is never labeled *koket. However, koketnik, a masculine counterpart of koketnica, koketnicka 'coquette, flirt', can be used metaphorically of men. Koketnik was not attested in any of my dictionaries, but a Google search identified several instances, e.g., N&fp=3bccae0d3da5e39d, accessed 08.12.2009.

The negative pejorative evaluations fiflena (f.), frnda (f.), and frndula (f.) are used for foppish, dressy women who have an unrealistically high opinion of their own appearance and try to gain the admiration or affection of men. Of course, indulgence in dressing up is not an exclusive quality of women; however, the notion of a man striving for perfect looks is viewed much more positively than that of a woman. In fact, two different aspect of the same conduct are emphasized for men and for women. While the terms for females stereotypically imply the process of dressing up, spending long hours in front of the mirror (and are, presumably, derived from archaic verbs, which no longer exist in modern language), the similar (but not parallel) masculine-only terms ficur (m.) 'gallant, dandy' and svihak (m.) 'gallant, beau' focus on the results—elegance, fashionable and neat appearance, and exquisite taste—and are outrightly positive evaluations.

There is less asymmetry in the terms that classify people as mean, malicious, spiteful, and deceitful. Here dozens of neat masculine-feminine pairs exist in Slovak, e.g., zlomysel'nik (m.)—zlomyselnicka (f.) 'malicious, spiteful person'. Nevertheless, in CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003) there are three feminine-only terms that exclusively refer to women exhibiting these qualities: mrcha (f.) 'jade, puss', rafika (f.) 'deceitful, mendacious

woman', and macocha (f.) 'malicious, cruel woman [lit. stepmother]'); there are no masculine-only counterparts to refer to male persons. Three other feminine-only denotations classify women on the basis of behavior thought to reflect lack of intelligence: t'apa (f.), t'apsa (f.), kaca (f.) 'dumb woman, silly goose, judy'. (The last of these terms may stem from a hypocoristic of the proper name 'Catherine', perhaps because of a fairy-tale character; likewise, there are two male/masculine-only hypocoristics d'uro (m.) (from 'George') and kubo (m.) (from 'Jacob' denoting stupid males). Another possibility is that kaca is derived from the term for 'duck' (modern Slovak kacica, kacka). Cf. English goose. A dumb, silly, thoughtless man can also be referred to as chren (m.) 'blockhead [lit. horseradish]'.

The list of twelve masculine nouns which only have male referents exhibiting certain behavior, as attested in CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003), includes frajerkar, suknickar (m.) 'womanizer, philanderer', ficur, svihak (m.) 'gallant, dandy, beau', d'uro (m.) (George), kubo (m.) (Jacob) 'dumb, sill, thoughtless man', chren (m.) 'blockhead, [lit. horseradish]', faun (m.) 'faun, lustful man, pleasure seeker', etc. It is indisputable that even male/masculine-only and female/feminine-only expressions can sometimes be used metaphorically to refer to the opposite sex. However, it is necessary to note that the metaphoric use of a feminine noun to refer to a man ascribes a female quality to him, which tends to be evaluated as negative. When a woman is metaphorically referred to by a male/masculine-only noun such as stryko (m.) 'a sedate, serious-minded man [lit. uncle]', the female referent tends to acquire an additional male - albeit not necessarily negative - quality.

Curious examples of lexical gaps in Czech include metaphorical uses of the nouns zabec 'little gir [lit. frog]', pulec 'girl [lit. tadpole]', and babec 'little old woman'. In all three of them, while referents are female, grammatically, zabec, pulec and babec are masculine nouns (examples are from Cummins (1998, pp. 2-3) and Dickins (2001, p. 226)). Grammatical agreement in all three instances above takes precedence over semantic agreement. Dickins (ibid.) points out that the use of pronominal, adjectival and past tense agreement is mandatory, and striking, especially where the noun occurs as the subject nominal or predicand, e.g., ten (m.) nas (m.) maly (m.) zabec (m.) tam nebyl (m.) 'that little girl of ours was not there'. No examples of this type are attested in CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003).

Several loan compound forms (identical in Slovak and Czech) with final -man or -boy (-boj) exhibit interesting behavior. As previously discussed, these compounds can be feminized by adding the suffix -ka while preserving the male lexical gender stems -man and -boy. As a result, we get pairs such as dzentlmen/ gentleman (m.)— dzentlmenka/ gentlemanka (f.), superman (m.)—supermanka (f.), and plejboj/playboy (m.)—plejbojka/playbojka/ playboyka (f.), despite the availability of female-specific counterparts for borrowing (gentlewoman, superwoman, playgirl, respectively). The gender contradiction in which lexical 'man' or 'boy' become a part of female/feminine nouns can be explained by the fact that the original morphological structure of the compound forms is opaque to Slovak and Czech speakers. In other words, some kind of selection mechanism prefers borrowing only one form to borrowing the ready-made pair.

4. Conclusion

Based on the data drawn from CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003), the semantic category Evaluations based on behavior is comprised of 943 lemmas. Masculine forms (623) constitute 66.07% of all lemmas; 232 of all masculine forms (37.2%) participate in masculine-feminine symmetry; i.e., out of 943 lemmas, 464 (i.e., 49.2%) occur in masculine - feminine pairs. While Dickins's (2001) delimitation of Czech data and taxonomy of semantic classes do exhibit one-to-one correspondence with our Slovak corpus and its classification, certain parallel tendencies and some differences can be observed. In Czech, Descriptions denoting types of people or relating to life style and behavior (the second biggest semantic class, constituting almost 16% of all entries) is the category in which masculine nouns are next least likely to engage in symmetrical masculine-feminine pairing. (The masculine nouns least prone to feminize are Descriptions relating to mythology, sorcery, and astrology and/or to the deity and the non-physical word (in our study on Slovak, this category corresponds to several other classes)). For instance, Slovnik spisovne cestiny pro skolu a vefejnost (Filipec, Danes, Machac, and Mejstrik, 1994) contains only just over 30% of masculine-feminine pairs of this class of animate nouns (cf. the aforementioned 49.2% symmetry in Slovak evaluations based on one's behavior). According to Dickins (2001), the low percentage in this semantic

class results from the following factors: the arbitrary omission of feminine nouns (by lexicographers), the adjectival derivation of many of the nouns, the tendency to reduce people to stereotypical representations, as well as the fact that certain nouns, both masculine and feminine, are so closely associated with a particular sex that it is difficult to conceive non-gender specific applications for them. Another interesting difference between the two languages is that no masculine nouns referring to an exclusively female person are attested in CDSL (Kacala, Pisarcikova, and Povazaj, 2003), while Dickins (2001), following Cummins (1998) identifies two instances of Czech masculine nouns applicable to women only: babec (m.) 'little old woman' and zabec 'little girl [lit. frog]'. On the other hand, Slovak lexical-gender noun chlapina 'he-guy', which may take either masculine or feminine agreement, only refers to men.


The current article is part of the following research grant projects: KEGA 007PU-4/2015 Virtual interactive encyclopedic English-Slovak and Slovak-English dictionary of general linguistics and KEGA 030PU-4/2014 English Stylistics (Discourse Analysis) - A blended-learning course.


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