Is it OK to use the word murzyn to refer to a student from Africa? Or Mohammedan for a Muslim? What is the correct terminology for describing sexual minorities?
Should a female professor be referred to as profesorka, using the feminine -ka ending? And if she teaches psychology, is she a psycholożka? Or Pani psycholog?
Polish, it seems, is a minefield – particularly in the academic setting. The University of Warsaw has attempted to respond to some of the biggest linguistic quandaries by publishing a set of “Recommendations Concerning Non-Discriminatory Language” for its staff and students.
The guide’s authors, a team of three linguistics professors, say they are encouraging thoughtful use of language: “Our guidelines are only a suggestion which we think could make our contact easier…Which words and expressions can be used to avoid – often unconscious – stigmatisation?”
Introducing the guide on its website, the university mentions the increasing diversity of its academic community, noting that this brings many benefits, including the opportunity to exchange knowledge and experiences from different points of view, but can also cause problems with communication.
Professor Jadwiga Linde-Usiekniewicz, one of the authors, said, “We decided to make our advice descriptive, concentrating on potentially dangerous areas and inviting the academic community to reflect on the words and forms we use,” reports Gazeta Wyborcza.
Along with her fellow linguistics professors Mirosław Bańko and Marek Łaziński, Linde-Usieknewicz begins with a number of examples of “non-discriminatory language”, warning of potential pitfalls that could catch out careless academics and students.
A particular area it draws attention to are feminine forms of names, terms describing ethnicities and religions, and descriptions of sexual and gender identities, as well as older people and those with disabilities.
The second part of the recommendations provides a list of general comments on careful usage to avoid offence, warning against stereotypes, old-fashioned terminology and ribald jokes.
The word murzyn, sometimes translated as “Negro”, is still common in Polish, and often regarded as neutral. The guide, however, suggests avoiding it as it is “heavily loaded with stereotypes” and “seen as offensive by Africans living in Poland”.
The word czarnoskóry (“black-skinned”) is preferable, although users should also consider whether it is always necessary to draw attention to the colour of a person’s skin.
'Negro children are born white. Then they take on [their] color [by] bathing in such [dirty] water every day,' wrote the deputy mayor of Gdynia on Facebook.
He's apologised, but only to those offended by the word 'negro' (murzyn), not the rest of the post https://t.co/AJ5SlMVy1H
— Notes from Poland ?? (@notesfrompoland) July 24, 2019
The recommendations also suggest Romowie (Roma) rather than Cyganie (Gypsies) and note that muzułmanie should be used for “Muslims”, and not mahometanie (Mohammedans) or islamiści (Islamists).
As for sexual identity, gej (gay) is OK, as is lesbijka (lesbian), but osoby homoseksualne (homosexual people) is better than homoseksualiści (homosexuals), and some terms are certainly offensive and should not be used, such as pederasta (pederast), which “formerly meant an adult man maintaining sexual relations with boys”.
The question of correct and inclusive use of feminine forms is an increasingly topical (and political) concern. The guide recommends generally sticking to the standard form profesor rather than profesorka (“female professor”), unless the person in question prefers it, but also avoiding confusion where appropriate and being open to forms such as socjolożka (“female sociologist”) and reżyserka (“female director”).
But recommendations also suggest that the academic community write “studentki i studenci” to encompass female as well as just male students.
The question of such “feminatives” is a minor battleground in Polish society. Some people – women and men – insist on sticking to masculine forms as universal terms, such as nauczyciel (teacher), while others prefer nauczycielka to refer to women.
The debate surfaced in parliament in the wake of autumn’s elections, as some new left-wing MPs demanded the right to use the feminine form posłanka rather than poseł to describe their position.
A group of female MPs have won the right to officially be named as "posłanka", the feminine term for their position, rather than "poseł", the masculine form that is normally used to refer to all MPs regardless of sex https://t.co/zRQfYymZli
— Notes from Poland ?? (@notesfrompoland) November 26, 2019
Gazeta Wyborcza asked the authors how they would respond to allegations of excessive political correctness hypersensitivity. Prof. Linde-Usiekniewicz says that it is up to the speaker to ensure good communication by being sensitive to the recipient.
“Use of non-discriminatory language means shifting linguistic politeness from the individual to the inter-group level,” she adds.
Main image credit: Minimus/Wikimedia Commons (under public domain)
Ben Koschalka is a translator and the assistant editor at Notes from Poland. Originally from Britain, he has lived in Kraków since 2005.