Slavic Saturday

Last time we were talking about grammatical cases, and whilst Slavic languages are not lacking in those, they fall far behind the Finno-Ugric ones in this gregard. But what Slavic languages lack in cases, they more than make up in genders.

Lets talk a bit about gender then.

Czech language does not have a distinction between the words “sex” and “gender” the way English does. Our ID’s have a category “pohlaví” which means “sex” in the biological sense and is therefore sex assigned at birth. For trans people it is their chosen sex assigned after transition, but sex assigned at birth before transition (the legislative process has a lot to be desired, but since I am not trans, I leave the discussion about how to improve it to trans people).

This  property of my native language has caused me some trouble in understanding articles written in English, because I have seen words “sex” and “gender” as synonyms and it took me awhile to understand that this is not the case.

However what helped me finally in understanding is the fact that the only way Czech language has gender in it, it is very, very obviously a social construct, specifically a linguistic one. It translates as “rod” and means grammatical gender (in one context).

Czech has four genders, or three with one of them being split into two distinct categories, depending on the specific linguist’s opinion. I was taught in school that there are four:

masculine animate – refers to humans and some animals

masculine inanimate – refers to some inanimate objects and some plants

feminine – refers to humans, some animals, some inanimate objects and some plants

neuter – refers to some animals, some inanimate objects and some plants

The gender of a noun defines not only how the noun itself inflects depending on the case, it also defines conjugaton and declension of verbs and adjectives. For example a sentence “black bear climbed a tree”,  can be “černý medvěd vylezl na strom” for a male bear or “černá medvědice vylezla na strom” for a female one (word order in the CZ is identical to the EN version, only difference is “a” which does not translate – “na” means “on”). Each of the four genders has multiple groups defining said declensions and conjugations and learning it all is a nightmare for Czechs and literally impossible for any but the most dedicated foreigner.

Czech is also very strongly gendered with regard to people and there is no universal gender neutral way to refer to a person. The language is built around gender binary, even simplest sentences like “I woke up.” are mostly gendered – “Probudil jsem se” for masculine and “Probudila jsem se” for feminine. There are some simple phrases (mostly present tense) that can be expressed in gender neutral way, but to be honest I cannot imagine a whole story being written in a gender neutral way in Czech language. It might be possible, but likely not in a way that will seem natural and not forced, and definitively not easy to do.

This feature of our language has one unfortunate consequence – Czech transphobes, sexists and gender-essentialists (which includes unfortunately both most prominent czech sexologists) have much easier job defending status quo. Language very strongly influences how we think and because everyone is since childhood forced to choose from the binary for every single statement they make about what they have done or plan to do, everyone thinks that this linguistic binary reflects accurately the reality. And people who think that because we have only x words categorizing something that there are only x neatly distinct categories of said something are unfortunately everywhere.

On the other hand understanding that gender is a social construct and not something set in stone was made easy for me when I learned German, where the genders of different words do not allign with Czech at all and a thing that is masculine in Czech can easily be feminine or neuter in German. There is no logic or sense to it – why is “hrnec” (pot) masculine, but “konev” (kettle) feminine? Why is “klacek” (stick, staff) masculine, but “hůl” (cane, staff) feminine? Etc.  And there are languages that lack grammatical genders altogether.

To me this illustrates that languages are but very poor and imperfect tools for communicating about the infinitely rich reality surrounding us. They are not perfect or complete descriptions of said reality and  argumentum ad dictionarium is a very silly logical fallacy.

Slavic Saturday

Lets put Christ back in Christmas, shall we? Christ is the reason for the season, after all! That’s why it’s called Christmas!

Whenever I hear this nonsense from American Christians, I am reminded how shallow and uninformed their view of the world is. They actually really think that English language is prescriptive of how reality works and that Christians invented solstice celebrations.

So lets today just briefly look at the Czech term Vánoce. It is not actually slavic word in origin. It comes from German word “Weihnachten”, which probably just means “holy nights”. We borrowed quite a few words from our neighbors over the centuries. The original Slavic word was possibly “god” or “gody”, which has nothing whatsoever to do with any deity, it is a word for a celebration, holiday and/or feast.

Like I mentioned, there are no written records from old Slavic cultures, but something can be ascertained from what others wrote about them, especially christians before and when they started converting Slavic pagans to Christianity around 800 A.D. From this it seems that on the night of solstice Slavs celebrated the death and rebirth of a god Dažbog (Daž – give, bog – god), who was the sun-god. The celebrations consisted of having a huge bonfire lasting from sunset to dawn and feasting (without meat foods) around it. The feasting has lasted for a few days, cookies ornated with crosses and swastikas were a part of it, as well as going around singing carols and receiving/giving gifts. Note that these were de-facto celebrations of a new year – old man Dažbog has died on the evening, and he was re-born in the morning to grow (spring), gain strength (summer) age (fall) and die again next solstice. Whilst Dažbog was alive, world was safe. But during the night he was dead the chaos and evil could enter the world – thus the bonfires to keep his strength in the world and people safe from chaos through the night.

I won’t go into details, because I do not know them – I am not an expert, just a guy who read something about these things now and then throughout his life. And even experts must rely a lot on extrapolations from linguistic and still living traditions. There might be mistakes in what I wrote and it by no mean is comprehensive. Whole books are written about it. However one thing is sure – these traditions were old, predated christianity (at least here) and many of them never died.

Similar traditions at this time of year were also held by Germanic (hence christmas trees) and Celtic (mistletoes) pagans.

Christian missionaries were fully aware that trying to eradicate such traditions is akin to pissing against a hurricane, so they co-opted them. Instead of re-birth of the sun-god, it was told Baby Jesus was born. You can keep your crosses and your feasts, but instead of holding a wake at a bonfire, go to a mass at midnight etc. etc. at bleeding nauseam.

Christ was never the “reason for the season”. The sun was.

Slavic Saturday

In the spirit of the season I would like to mention one Czech tradition today. This week, Thursday December 6. was Saint Nicholas day. Name of the saint is in Czech “Mikuláš” and the evening before Saint Nicolas day Mikuláš travels through the country with an angel and a devil to reward children accordingly. Good children get sweets, bad children get coal etcetera. Santa Claus is nothing else than a poorly written spinoff.

The trio is usually either paid actors or volunteers who go from door-to-door for arranged visits to children, there are also visits to Kindergarten and to lower classes in School. Children are sometimes expected to recite a rhyme to Mikuláš to prove they are good, some children opt to being tongue-tied or hiding behind their mother.

I remember, as a pre-school child, being absolutely terrified by the whole trio. My parents never taught me that devils are real or anything such, nevertheless I still to this day remember how I was supposed to say a rhyme to Mikuláš but not being able to get anything out of me but a bawling scream of horror. I do not remember being confronted with the trio for the rest of my childhood afterwards.

Two of my friends have two beautiful, intelligent and lively sons, three and four years. When they were preparing them for Mikuláš’s visit at the kindergarten, they explained to them carefully and patiently that the visitors will be only actors, ordinary people dressed up and pretending. They also explicitly forbade the teacher to tell them otherwise and to scare the children. Even so, both boys were clearly afraid of the devil and in awe with Mikuláš and the angel and the experience was something for them to talk about afterwards.

Children’s power of make-believe at this age is so strong that lying to them is not necessary for them to enjoy (or being terrified by) the holiday at all.

Slavic Saturday

Slavic people are today mostly seen as “white” to the point that a Polish game developer was in USA criticised for making the computer game Witcher 3 without any people of color that could be recognized as such in modern world. Similarly a few years later a Czech developer was criticised for the same thing in a game Kingdom Come: Deliverance, deliberately set in medieval Bohemia and made as historically accurate as possible.

Whilst I understand all the arguments for the importance of diversity in representation, I think all these critiques were misguided, because they were targeted at the wrong target – they criticised products of one culture from the perspective of another culture with entirely different roots.

Slavs are indeed white when you look at the color of their skin, and by Gob do we have an awful lot of white supremacists and neo-nazis today. However a white nationalist or even a neo-nazi Slav makes about as much sense as white nationalist or neo-nazi (or Trump loving) Jew.  After all, Jews have white skin too. And after all, how many Jew-hating Arabs and Arab-hating Jews know that both Jews and Arabs are in fact semitic tribes? I would venture a guess that many do not, or they do but don’t care. People are perfectly capable of being misguided, misinformed, bigoted and downright willfully ignorant and hold contradictory ideas in one head, so there is that.

Historically Slavs migrated in the Europe from east and north, displacing come celtic and germanic populations. As a result they lived mostly in the woodlands and mountains of north, central and East Europe and they were comparatively poor. They had no written language that we know of, so very little is in fact known about their culture or religion. Some knowledge can be derived from linguistics, some from written reports by neighbouring nations, some from archeology, but Slavs established themselves in Europe during the dark ages and knowledge is therefore scarce.

However it is sometimes alleged that their own name for themselves – Slovan (originating from the word sloviť=to speak) might have been the origin of the word sclavus (Lat), and later on Sklave (Ger) and  slave (En) . Because these poor people were popular sources of cheap slave labor for neighbouring Germanic and Italic tribes through the early history of Europe way over to the Ottoman Empire in Middle East later on.

And even apart from slavery, a lot of the time right from Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages until very recently most Slavic nations were second-class citizens in countries led by people of other nationalities. Only Russians have managed to be oppressors and not oppressed in this period, and ironically they mostly oppressed and sometimes even tried to exterminate other Slavs. Both Czechs and Poles did not have any independency right until the end of WW1, after which they had few short decades to get the taste of self-determination before being swept into the bloody cauldron of WW2.

Under the Third Reich the Slavs were seen as barely people. They were not targeted for outright extermination like Jews and Roma, but the intent was to put them back into their proper place – slavery (that is why I think that a neo-nazi Slav is an ignoramus and a completely daft person – if nazis got their way, he would think scrubbing floors with his own toothbrush is a posh job).

After the WW2 all slavic nations ended up being wrapped behind the Iron Curtain under the not-so subtle hegemony of USSR. This time at least it was not overtly attempted to obliterate local cultures and languages (not here anyway). But whilst the Russian rule did try and manage to instill some sense of Pan-Slavic belonging, they also managed to instill some anti russian sentiments along the way (in Poland on top of the hundreds of years long grudge Poles held against Russians from the time of the Russian Empire). And the sense of always being second class, not being allowed anything truly ours, pervaded.

In this sense, sprouting of some nationalism after the fall of the Iron Curtain was perhaps inevitable, what with the nations trying to finally re-assert themselves for good. I do think white nationalists are going about the business the wrong way, proclaiming your superiority over others is not the right thing to do and it is also demonstrably false. But I also think that Polish game developers who make a PC game packed with people who bear the typical facial features of contemporary Poles, with architecture and ornaments of medieval Slavic kingdoms and based on Slavic mythology, or Czech game developers making a game set in a very distinct and specific area of medieval Kingdom of Bohemia with focus on historical accuracy are doing nothing wrong and are indeed going about it the right way. And even though these works of art have managed to succeed on an international stage, their creators were in no way obliged to fall in step with USA culture and reflect USA racial make-up.

Those who criticised these two games for a lack of representation of POC have failed to realize that they were essentially trying to bully others into giving their own culture away and let the USA to appropriate said culture the way USA likes it. In fact, they should take these games as an opportunity to learn that “white people” are not a monolith and that outside of USA there is a lot more that defines your ancestry and your culture than the color of your skin. This way said critics were – probably unwittingly – perpetuating the USA collonialism ad absurdum, by requiring everyone everywhere to reflect contemporary social ills of USA.

We do not need nor want to do that, thank you very much. We have our own social ills to deal with.