The human and the frog

Aug 22, 2011 by

[the author thanks Olga Kagan for inspiration]

Imagine a bewitched frog, waiting to be kissed in order to turn back into a human. Given a choice between a prince and a princess, who will the enchanted frog kiss? If you are an English speaker, the answer is the princess, right? At least, that’s the story that English-speaking children grow up with: a princess kissing a frog who turns into Prince Charming. But things get more complicated if we start looking at renditions of this fairy tale in other languages.

Whether or not “the princess kisses the frog” story is easy to swallow depends in large part on whether a given language has a grammatical gender system and on which of the genders the noun ‘frog’ is assigned to. For example, for German speakers, this story is perfectly fine, since the word for ‘the frog’ is masculine in German: der Frosch. The same is true of Hebrew, where the ‘frog’ is tsfarde’a, also masculine.

But things get dicier when we turn to Romance languages: in both Italian and Spanish the default translation for ‘the frog’ is la rana, a feminine noun. But in the translations of the fairy tale, a masculine word is used in order to preserve the gender roles: in the Italian rendition, a masculine diminutive il ranocchio is used, whereas the Spaniards translate the tale as the Princess and el sapo, a different, grammatically masculine type of an amphibian.

With French, the same problem arises since the word for ‘the frog’ is also feminine: la grenouille. In French renditions of the fairy tale the character is typically referred to as le Roi Grenouille (‘the King Frog’, using a grammatically masculine noun for ‘king’). However, the Disney film title is translated as La Princesse et la Grenouille, ‘the Princess and the [feminine] Frog’.

Finally, in Russian the word for ‘frog’ is also feminine: ljagushka. Another type of amphibian, a toad, is also feminine: zhaba, so the Spanish strategy of substituting a different species does not work for Russian. Incidentally, other Slavic languages — including Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Slovak and Polish — have a feminine cognate of zhaba too. What about the Italian strategy of using a diminutive? The Russian diminutive ljagushonok is appropriately masculine, but it has a strong negative connotation, inappropriate for an enchanted princely character. So the Russian rendition of the Disney film title is “Принцесса и лягушка” (Printsessa i ljagushka, Princess and [feminine] frog). Still, this may not present as big a problem since many Russian nouns designating animals can refer to individuals of both sexes regardless of the grammatical gender of the noun. For example, one can talk about a mixed group of horses as loshadi or a mixed group of dogs as sobaki, using feminine nouns in both cases. In fact, the masculine words for these species — kon’ and pjos — can be used only for male horses and dogs, respectively.

But the story doesn’t end here because in the Russian version of the fairy tale, the enchanted frog is really a… princess, not a prince. Traditionally, she is referred to as Tsarevna-ljagushka ‘Princess-frog’ and is kissed by a male character, Ivan-tsarevich, Ivan the Prince.

So imagine the astonishment of a Western European bewitched frog, a male on the inside waiting for a beautiful princess to kiss him, if by an additional twist of magic he finds himself in Russia and kissed by Ivan-the-Prince!

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