“I Have Two Sons and A Child”- Gender in Substandard Central South-Slavic

Danko Sipka, Arizona State University

This paper provides lexicological and psycholinguistic account of gender role construal in the substandard vernaculars of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniacs. The problem addressed here concerns linguistic markers of gender, a topic that has commanded strong interest in recent years (see in particular contributions to Mills 1999).

The discussion draws upon two of the author’s longitudinal research projects, i.e., Serbo-Croatian - English Colloquial Dictionary (Sipka 2000) and Obscene Words in Serbian (Sipka 1999). Central to the design of the former project was the application of selected elements of cognitive and cross-cultural linguistics (Langacker 1991; Wierzbicka 1992) to trace metaphorical extensions and represent them in the dictionary microstructure. An important segment of the latter project, in turn, was a psycholinguistic survey of the attitudes toward obscene words and curses.

Areas of inquiry comprised linguistic markers (metaphorical extensions, lexical frequency, morphosyntactic parameters) and psychological indicators of gender role construal. Both kinds of markers clearly demonstrate almost exclusive androcentricity of the substandard. The following facts are used to corroborate this claim.

Among the ten most frequent semantic extensions, as attested by statistical data from Sipka 2000, the following three are related to the construal of the women:

These three metaphorical links feature an extreme androcentric perspective while metaphorical extensions with males in such roles are only sporadic.

Similarly, sexual intercourse is construed as an act of violence with a male in the active role. In addition, unlike in English, the most common verb referring to sexual intercourse can only be used in the form He f-ed her, not *She f-ed him; i.e., the female is always assigned a passive role. In a similar vein, the English idiom ‘to get laid’ (of men) does not have an equivalent. In the corpus data over there are over three hundred instances of the verbs for sexual intercourse which can be applied to males only, thirty instances which can be applied to both sexes, and only three used of women.

Androcentrism is furthermore demonstrated in the fact that both the pilot investigation (performed in the early 1990s) and the main psycholinguistic inquiry (late 1990s, both inquiries with equal number of male and female subjects) reveal that curses involving mother and sister (literally: I f-k your mother! and I f-k your sister!) score considerably higher on the scale of obscenity than other curses and any obscene words taken in isolation. Furthermore, curses exhibit, in a statistically significant manner, as confirmed using Pearson correlation coefficient, higher levels of obscenity than obscene words taken in isolation. This cluster of data shows that women are construed as men’s possessions and that obscenity is related to aggression. The aforementioned curses can then be interpreted as a kind of trespassing on and alienation of one’s property.

Statistical data and examples of all phenomena addressed are provided throughout the presentation.

The final portion of this discourse is devoted to reflections about a broader socio-cultural framework of linguistic construal of women in the Balkans, including the phrase that serves as the title to this presentation. Particular attention is devoted to differentiating universal substandard features from those pertinent to the region.


Langacker, R. Concept, Image, and Symbol. The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Berlin, 1990.

Mills, M. H. (ed.) Slavic Gender Linguistics. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins, 1999.

Sipka, D. Opscene reči u srpskom jeziku [Obscene Words in Serbian]. CPL - Prometej, Belgrade, 1999.

SerboCroatian - English Colloquial Dictionary. Springfield: Dunwoody Press, 2000.

Wierzbicka, A. Semantics, Culture and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992