"Architektka", or what’s the deal with names of female professionals in Polish

The subject of professions (zawody) comes up quite early during most courses of the Polish language . There is a handful of reasons for that –  those words are useful for self-presentation (for most of us, our jobs are a significant part of our lives). Also, many of them are quite easy to remember, being fairly international (I believe you can guess what “architekt” or “ekonomista” means) and they provide good context for introduction of the easiest grammatical case – narzędnik (AKA Instrumental) [1]No, really, someone may tell you biernik (Accusative) is easier, but, considering plural forms, it isn’t. .

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Usually, after learning a few names of professions, students are lead to discover that a small change needs to be made when the professional in question is a woman. It’s nothing complicated – in most cases you should just add the “-ka” ending to the word. So there’s “aktor” and “aktorka”, “kasjer” and kasjerka”, “tancerz” and “tancerka”, “profesor” and “profesorka”, right?  Well… about that last pair… it’s not so simple, but the purpose of this text is to shed some light on this matter.


First – what most Polish native speakers are used to right now: there are some professions, usually linked with a higher social status and/or historically performed only by men, that don’t follow the “-ka” ending rule, and the masculine profession name is used no matter the gender of the actual professional – so we say “profesor Dariusz Zalewski” (he) and “profesor Daria Zalewska” (she); sometimes the word “pani” is added to signify gender (eg. “Pani psycholog zaleca…” – “(Mrs) psychologist recommends…”).

However, lately we can observe a tendency contrary to this linguistic tradition and we can see forms like “profesorka”, “ministerka” and “prezeska” being promoted as a means of emphasizing women’s contributions to society. Some of those forms are new,  while some appeared in the past (eg. in the 1920s), but were later replaced by universal (masculine) forms described in the paragraph above.

This causes heated debates [2]And I mean really heated – in one Facebook group I know, the whole subject is considered taboo and any mention of it is punishable with a ban., and the most common arguments (at least those somewhat connected to linguistics, let’s set political views aside) against such feminine forms are as follows: they don’t sound serious enough and some of them are hard to pronounce. There is a grain of truth in the former argument – the “-ka” ending is multifunctional, and is used not only to create female forms, but also to form diminutives (eg. “lampa” means “a lamp” and “lampka” – “a little lamp”) and names of tools, appliances and other objects ( eg. “pralka” – “a washing machine” from the verb “prać” – “to wash”), and this double connotation may influence the perceived “seriousness” of a word. The latter, phonetic, argument is rather subjective – it is true that even we, Polish native speakers, are not used to the “ktk” consonant cluster in “architektka”, but, as many foreigners struggling with Polish will no doubt confirm, we deal with many other seemingly unpronounceable syllables on a daily basis. And we’re just fine.

How will it all end, which tendency will win? Let me abstain from predictions and offer you a piece of advice instead – try to learn as many of those controversial nouns as possible. If your level of knowledge allows it, observe Polish natives closely while they speak and consciously “fish” for suspicious words. Be aware that the use of certain feminine forms often implies that the speaker is inclined towards the left side of the political compass. But above all – don’t worry if you use an unusual form yourself: it will probably be treated as a slip of a foreigner’s tongue, not a political declaration. And Polish natives are very forgiving of those kinds of mistakes, but that’s a subject for another time.

1 No, really, someone may tell you biernik (Accusative) is easier, but, considering plural forms, it isn’t.
2 And I mean really heated – in one Facebook group I know, the whole subject is considered taboo and any mention of it is punishable with a ban.