Weaponizing gender: the role of grammatical gender shifts in hate speech

Magda Stroińska, Grazyna Drzazga

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


    In languages that categorize nouns as belonging to distinct ‘grammatical genders’, moving an expression from one class to another implies changes to its status, and is often interpreted as derogatory. In Polish, shifting nouns with human referents from one category to another is usually perceived as having a “downward” orientation. It can therefore be used as one of the means of verbal aggression, especially name calling. Polish, with its gender sensitive morphology, has an array of gender shifting suffixes (cf. Swan, 2015; McConnellGinet, 2014). E.g. the word baba (feminine) is a crude though not vulgar reference to a woman – either one that is rude (e.g. okropna baba – ‘an awful woman’) or a peasant woman (baba ze wsi – ‘a country woman’). It can be shifted to babsko (neuter) or babsztyl (masculine) with progressively negative connotations. A compound baba-chłop (‘woman-man’, a masculine looking woman) is used for name calling towards transgender people. Transgender persons are also rudely referred to as ono (neuter) instead of on (masculine), ona (feminine), or a different preferred pronoun. A neuter pronoun used to refer to a person is not a neutral form of reference and is meant as a hurtful instrument of hate speech. A shift in animacy in order to diminish someone’s position involves the use of inanimate objects with lexicalized negative connotations to refer to people. As all Polish nouns are gendered, such nouns often agree in gender with the perceived sex of the referent, although this is not a rule. Thus, words such as szmata(‘rag’ fem. –derogatory, with reference to morality) are mostly used about women and burak (‘beetroot’ masc., implying lacking intelligence), mostly about men. If used across natural gender lines, the negative connotations become stronger (as in e.g. Szydło to jednak burak, ‘Szydło is indeed a beetroot’ used about former female Prime Minister Beata Szydło). In this paper, we analyse a corpus of Polish newspaper articles online and readers’ comments, as well as the Polish language corpora (unfortunately lagging significantly behind and not reflecting language changes). We analyse the frequency of the gender shifting suffixes and the nouns they attached to, looking at their collocations to identify semantic effects of gender shift. The results confirm the dramatic increase of verbal violence in Polish public discourse. Grammatical gender shift is not a new phenomenon but this seemingly innocent linguistic mechanism triggers immediate, even if unconscious negative associations, sometimes acting as dog whistles. As the current Polish government is engaged in a propaganda campaign against the LGBTQ community, the use of grammatical gender as a tool for hate speech and discrimination deserves some urgent attention. McConnell-Ginet, S. (2014). “Gender and its relation to sex: The myth of ‘natural’ gender.” In Corbett, G.G. (ed.) The Expression of Gender. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter. 3-38. Stroińska, M., G. Drzazga & K. Kurowska (2014). “Translating Grammatical Gender: Current Challenges.” Studia o Przekładzie. Warszawa. 175-190. Swan, O. (2015). “Polish gender, subgender, and quasi gender.” Journal of Slavic Linguistics. Vol. 23.1. 83-122.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages1
    Publication statusPublished - 1-Jul-2021
    Event17th International Pragmatics Conference: The Pragmatics of Inclusion - ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Winterthur, Switzerland, Winterthur, Switzerland
    Duration: 27-Jun-20212-Jul-2021


    Conference17th International Pragmatics Conference
    Abbreviated titleIPRA2021
    Internet address


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