Ideology in Inflection? -
Sexism in a Russian Declensional Class

Tore Nesset

Can sexist ideologies be reflected in inflectional classes? On the basis of a detailed discussion of the Russian a-declension, the present paper answers this question in the affirmative. More specifically the central claims are:

Russian nouns are inflected according to one of three declensional classes. The present paper explores the class of nouns ending in -a in the Nom Sg (the "a-declension" for short). These nouns may denote inanimate objects, animals or persons. The present paper focuses on nouns of the latter type, which can be divided into three subcategories (with some nouns belonging to two subcategories simultaneously and a modest number of exceptions not belonging to any of them):

  1. Female persons, e.g. dama 'lady', zhenshina 'woman', baba 'woman (coll./pej.)', deva 'maiden', vdova 'widow'
  2. Persons engaged in an intimate relationship to the speaker, e.g.
    1. Hypocoristic forms of first names: Vanja (<Ivan), Dima (<Dimitrij), Jura (<Jurij)
    2. Relatives: papa 'daddy', djadja 'uncle', dedushka 'grandfather'
  3. Exponents of (mostly) negative characteristics, e.g.p'janica 'drunkard', skrjaga 'miser', plaksa 'crybaby', brjuzga 'grumbler', ubijca 'murderer'

The subcategories constitute a radial category with metaphorical extensions and a general schema. [OTHERNESS] is proposed as the general schema, because both subcategories (b) and (c) involve persons that stand out from the multitude by virtue of their special properties or relationship to the speaker. This schema also encompasses subcategory (a) since from the point of view of men, women are the "other" or "second" sex. Given that the general schema invokes the Idealized Cognitive Model of women as the second sex, the Russian a-declension reflects sexist ideologies.

Among the metaphorical extensions in the category, two seem particularly important. SIN AND VICE IS A WOMAN relates the negative characteristics in subcategory (c) to women in subcategory (a). The metaphor CUTENESS IS A WOMAN provides a connection between women and hypocoristics in subcategory (b). Not all so-called hypocoristic forms in Russian involve endearment. However, the metaphor seems relevant for at least hypocoristic forms with a soft (palatalized) consonant in stem final position (e.g. Vanja), for which Wierzbicka (1992:245) assumes the semantic component "I want to speak to you the way people speak to people whom they know well and toward whom they feel something good, and to children". The metaphor also applies to so-called "double diminutives" in -ochka which according to Wierzbicka (1992:260) display a similar meaning. The simultaneous association of women with positive and negative properties reflects a dualistic understanding of woman, which may ultimately be an instantiation of the cultural stereotype of woman as Madonna and whore.
The semantic component cited above invokes the image of a child, and this image is in various ways relevant for several expressive derivations in subcategory (b), including suffixes like -ka, -ochka and -usha. Although a metaphorical comparison of women to children may be at stake in the category, it is argued that the relationship is largely metonymical in nature. Women give birth to children, and - according to traditional sexist practice - they also are responsible for their upbringing. The association of women with children reinforces the dualistic understanding of women described above. On the one hand, children represent positive qualities like pureness, innocence and spontaneity, but on the other hand the image of the child also relates women to negative properties like infantility, immaturity and the inability to take care of oneself and decide over one´s own life.

Cognitive linguistics seems particularly well suited for an analysis of the Russian a—declension. Without cognitive linguistics' emphasis on cultural grounding and radial category structure, it is even hard to see how one would both accommodate exceptions and capture the relationship between the Russian a-declension and sexist myths about women.

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