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Gendering in Germany: A Debate on Inclusivity in Language

In the German language there are three grammatical genera: feminine (die), masculine (der), and neuter (das), and each noun is assigned to one. Grammatical genders of nouns differ from language to language – for instance, the sun in German (die Sonne) is feminine, whereas in Spanish (el sol) it’s masculine. Subconsciously, this has the power to affect how we think about certain objects, meaning that if Germans and Spaniards were asked to describe the sun, the noun’s gender could influence the choice of descriptive adjectives. 

Additionally, professions, for example, come in both feminine and masculine versions in the German language. Accordingly, instead of saying “a doctor” for both men and women, there is a word for a male doctor (der Arzt) and a female doctor (die Ärztin). However, what can occur in German is that for convenience reasons, some only use the ‘masculine’ version when addressing a group of people, even if all genders are meant. In October 2020, Federal Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht presented a draft for a new bankruptcy law which resulted in controversy, as she solely made use of female forms. Meaning that instead of addressing the government using both feminine and masculine versions, she simply chose to address all sperrmüll berlin readers as ‘feminine’. This led to a nation-wide consideration of the outcomes and ramifications of ‘gendering’, meaning the use of linguistic formulations for gender equality concerning personal designations (nouns and pronouns) and their gender-specific or gender-neutral use. 

The AfD itself wants to ban the use of gender-equitable language in the official Bundestag’s documents.

Stephan Brandner, a spokesman for the AfD, a German nationalist and right-wing political party also known as Alternative for Germany, stated that this was absurd. According to him, the party had been watching with concern for a long time as this “gender nonsense” spread into the German Federal Parliament, the Bundestag. The AfD itself wants to ban the use of gender-equitable language in the official Bundestag’s documents. Brander continued to claim that government documents should be easy to read, as they are in the interests of the citizens. He believes that if only the feminine forms were used, as Lambrecht did, few would be able to understand the content, especially learners who cannot yet speak German to its full extent.

If only ‘male’ professions are addressed, this can result in female or non-binary citizens feeling excluded or outcast, for example, which could subconsciously be affecting the preconceptions of German speakers.

One member of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), Christoph Ploß, wants to forbid gendering altogether in state agencies. Scientific studies, however, speak for the fact that language shapes our perception, similarly to the genders assigned to nouns such as sun. If only ‘male’ professions are addressed, this can result in female or non-binary citizens feeling excluded or outcast, for example, which could subconsciously be affecting the preconceptions of German speakers.

She […] asks whether women really want to be professionally differentiated from men.

The Spiegel reported that German author Elke Heidenreich believed that the “feminist fuss” concerning the German language was distressing and that she personally will not go along with this “speech corruption”. She rejects the notion that there should be a linguistic distinction between male and female professions at all, and asks whether women really want to be professionally differentiated from men – for instance,  being addressed as “female artists” (Künstlerinnen), and not simply “artists” (Künstler). 

One approach to gendering is the “gender star”, a nonstandard typographic style used by some authors in German gender-neutral language. It is formed by placing an asterisk after the stem and attaching the feminine plural suffix “-innen” to the end. For instance, “Fahrer” (the male drivers) and “Fahrerrinen” (the female drivers) becomes “Fahrer*innen” (the drivers). The gender star makes it possible to refer to all identities in the gender spectrum. In speech, the gender star is sometimes signaled by a glottal stop.

However, in 2019 the Association for German Language (GfdS) launched a petition against the use of the gender star, which was signed by over 100 writers and scholars, asserting that it was a “destructive intrusion” into the German language and created “ridiculous linguistic structures”. Luise Pusch, a German feminist linguist, also criticised the gender star as it still makes women the ‘second choice’ by the use of the feminine suffix.

Thomas Kronschläger, a Germanist at the Technical University of Braunschweig offered an alternative solution to gendering. Germans would simply add a “y” to the stem of the word when designating a person, and put a neutral “the”, or “das” in front of it, which according to him should result in everyone feeling included. To illustrate this – “the student” would normally have two forms, a male student is “der Schüler”, whereas a female student is “die Schülerin”. In an effort not to differentiate between the genders, “the student” would become “das Schüly” and address all genders with simply one word. To form the plural, one simply adds an “s”, meaning this would become “die Schülys”, or “the students”.

If individual corporations decide to implement their own official ‘gendering’ language rules, such as Audi in 2021, this could result in a divide amongst customers and stakeholders, as this move could be interpreted as a significant political stance.

There are many contrasting views emerging from this disputed dialogue, many regarding the practical feasibility of changing the German language as we know it. In a podcast for SWR2 radio, German journalist Thilo Baum highlighted various anomalies in which the gendering solutions introduced by Thomas Kronschläger were not straightforwardly applicable to current formulations of contemporary German speech. Additionally, Baum suggested that politics is an underlying theme in this issue, seeing as those in favor of a ‘gendering’ revolution in the German language are associated with more liberal, left-wing views, whereas those leaning against it are linked to conservative opinions. If individual corporations decide to implement their own official ‘gendering’ language rules, such as Audi in 2021, this could result in a divide amongst customers and stakeholders, as this move could be interpreted as a significant political stance. In the coming years, it will be determined whether gendering is something that will be broken down and officially established by the German government, or whether this will remain merely an interesting and controversial topic of discussion.

 

Cover: Snapwire

Edited by: Emma Chiaratti

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