The Context of Feminization in Russian

Julia McAnallen, University of California Berkeley

Feminization is the linguistic process where a Russian noun of masculine gender adds “a distinct feminizing suffix” (Gurevich et al., forthcoming) creating a masculine/feminine noun pair. Men can only be referenced with the masculine noun form, but women can be referenced with either the masculine or feminine form. Previous research has used almost exclusively formal grammatical factors to predict when feminization occurs in Russian (Comrie et al, 1996, Krysin 1976, Mozdzierz 1999, Rothstein 1973, Wierzbicka 1992). However, examination of contexts where both masculine and feminine noun forms can be used for reference to women shows that contextual factors such as style and genre are more accurate predictors of when feminization occurs than formal grammatical factors. Additional relevant contextual factors include the topic of discussion, the proximity of the referent to the text (central versus auxiliary figure in text), and the purpose of the text.

Analysis of a sample of masculine/feminine noun pairs referencing women from the worldwide web has led to several preliminary conclusions. For example, in the noun pair учитель/учительница, which characterizes a professional role, the feminized form учительница can be used to separate or mark a referent. If the text has an informal style, a casual or patronizing tone, or if the woman is the focus of the passage, the feminine form is prevalent.

The noun pair оптимист/оптимистка characterizes an abstract quality of a person rather than a defined role in society or a profession. When a speaker uses the feminine noun form to separate or mark a referent, the contextual conditions are comparable to those listed for учитель/учительница:  casual or patronizing tone and informal style, but the feminine form оптимистка is also used if the purpose of the passage is to evoke emotions, e.g., sympathy, from the reader.

Although the contextual factors listed for the above noun pairs are not exhaustive, they represent a substantial portion of the contexts relevant to feminization. This paper surveys several other contexts where choice of masculine versus feminine form differs systematically between these pairs of nouns, and concludes that semantic classes of nouns and the speaker’s voice (male versus female and first versus third person) are also among the conditioning factors in predicting when feminization occurs.


Comrie, B., G. Stone, et al. The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century. Oxford. New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Gurevich, O., McAnallen, J., Morabito, E., Nichols, J., Perelmutter, R., Platt, J., Timberlake, A. Feminization in Russian:  Lexicon and Context. Seminar paper for Slavic 280, Fall 2003, University of California, Berkeley. (Forthcoming).

Mozdzierz, B. M. “The Rule of Femininization in Russian.” Slavic Gender Linguistics. Ed. M. H. Mills. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins (1999): 165-81.

Rothstein, R. A. “Sex, Gender, and the October Revolution.” A Festschrift for Morris Halle. P. K. Stephen R. Anderson. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1973): 460-66.       

Wierzbicka, A. Semantics, Culture, and Cognition : Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.