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Inclusive Language in German

Updated: Apr 10


„Guten Abend liebe Zuschauer und Zuschauerinnen“


Anyone who has watched any German TV will be familiar with this welcoming phrase: “Good evening, dear viewers.”

Six syllables in English, fifteen in German!


As with recycling and luxury car production, Germany is ahead of most other countries on the subject of gender-inclusive language.


We English speakers, for once, can look on with smug disdain, as this is an issue that does not arise in our ungendered language. Or rather, the way to solve the problem is much simpler for us.


For a while now, we have been encouraged to say police officer and cabin crew instead of policeman and air stewardess. Instead of describing herself as an “actress”, many women of this profession now choose the intrinsically gender-neutral word “actor”.


There is the occasional stumbling block: words such as “chairman” can easily become chairwoman, if the speaker knows the person in question to be female, but the neutral “chairperson” still sounds ridiculous to some. The alternative “chair” is plainly wrong to many, so until a brand new word is coined and accepted, we are stuck with these moments of awkwardness.


Gendered languages, such as German, have the opposite problem: instead of simplifying them, the words and phrases must get longer and more complicated in order to please everybody, which we all know is an impossible task anyway. It is well ingrained in the German psyche by now, that TV and radio presenters, and especially politicians will have to practically double the length of their speech in order to be as all-inclusive as possible. But is there not a more efficient way of doing things?


The Council for German Orthography (Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung) has introduced a number of new gender markers.



The Binnen-I (capital ‘i’ in the middle of the word)

LehrerIn (teacher, both male and female), is one attempt to replace the generic masculine for professions in German with a gender-inclusive form.

Pros:

· Easy to write

· Much quicker than repeating the word to cover both(!) genders

Cons:

· When you say it out loud, it sounds like you are only saying the feminine version

· It conforms to gender binarism, which is a whole new can of worms



Similar methods

Gender-Gap: Student_in

Gendersternchen (“gender star”). Student*in

These are two possible options, but their pros and cons are similar to those mentioned above. It is claimed that the underscore and/or the asterisk represent all other identities on the gender spectrum, not only male/female. This is the can of worms I referred to a moment ago!



Further pitfalls

So far so good, at least for written German, but the way I see it, there are still two problems to solve: (a) how to pronounce the clever new ways of writing the gender-inclusive systems, and (b) how to deal with certain words’ orthographical changes when they change between genders?


For example: a male doctor in German is der Arzt, but it acquires an umlaut in the feminine form: die Ärztin.


So, how might this be written following the methods described above?

Der/die A/ÄrztIn


Plainly ludicrous, and impossible to say out loud!


The same would be true for a German cook:

der Koch à die Köchin



Get creative

There are sometimes ways in which you can get around the problem by being creative by finding and using words that are already gender neutral:


To refer to the participant, when the gender is unclear or irrelevant:

der*die Teilnehmer*in” could become “die teilnehmende Person“ (the participating person), or replace “der*die Chefin” (boss) with “die Führungskraft” (manager)*



*I borrowed this example from an excellent article on this topic by Dr Steffen Kaupp of the Goethe Institut, which you can read hear: Genderinklusive Sprache im DaF-Unterricht - Magazin - Goethe-Institut Neuseeland



And what about the pronouns

Until recently a pronoun was a word that was only ever used at all in stuffy old grammar lessons. “What even is a pronoun?” my adult learners would sometimes ask me. “I think I learnt it at school, but…”


Nowadays it has become the touchpoint of a debate with intense heat, and not much light, on either side.


There is a new-fangled pronoun “xier” which is intended to represent the whole range of non-binary third person singular pronouns. I have to admit that I don’t have my finger on the pulse, but my understanding is that whilst it is commonly used in the trans community, it is hardly catching on in the mainstream.



See below for explanation


Cultural reference point

France’s Academie Française famously offers directives on the proper use of French. German and English have no direct equivalent of this, so our languages are reflected, not guided, by our dictionaries: Oxford and Duden respectively.


Duden has begun to update its publications with many more gender-inclusive words, which swells the word-count considerably, and invites criticism from traditionalist sections of society.


The debate is not limited to German. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a respected Spanish journalist and novelist, was recently interviewed on this question and pulled no punches. It is his view that contorting the language in order to make it sound acceptable to every corner of the population (I’m paraphrasing) renders the reading of a book or an article too cumbersome to be enjoyable.


On the other hand, Gabriele Diewald, a linguistics professor at the University of Hanover, thinks the strong opposition to gender-neutral language stems from “the previously privileged feeling threatened … because gender-appropriate language is a claim to power.”

She adds, “The funny thing is, when resistance arises, it’s actually already too late. By then, a change in language has already happened.”



Summary

As I said in the opening paragraph, we speakers of English can look on in amusement, pity, or horror at this problem that only exists due to a linguistic feature that we did away with in the twelfth century. We who are only learning German have a get-out-of-jail card, in that if we get our nouns or pronouns wrong, for whatever reason, it is just another mistake that we might make. No real harm done!



The explanation of the cartoon:

The man says: Darling, someone has to clean the loo.

The woman: How nice of you! Someone has better things to do.

The joke works because the generic masculine, "einer", used by the man is seized upon by the woman, who uses the feminine "eine" in her response. The man is hoist by his own petard!




Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages




In SameSky Languages classes, we try to keep things as light and non-confrontational as possible. The aim is to improve linguistic fluency and proficiency, not to air views on controversial topics such as the theme of this post. Having said that, in some of our more advanced classes, we go way beyond merely talking about our plans for the weekend...

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