Is German a man's language?

Will asterisks or spaces make German a less-gendered language - or destroy it as we know it? Yes - and no, says our author: language has to become more inclusive to be fit for the future.

Duden: Germany's very own OED.
Duden: Germany's very own OED.dpa

Berlin-Breaking news! The new edition of Duden – the Bible for the German language and how to use it properly – is out. With its inclusion of words like “genderneutral”, “gender asterisk” and “inklusiv”, it wants to “officially take account of the most recent developments in the vocabulary of the modern German language.” To that I say: bravo, welcome to 2020!

Of course, I will be the first to welcome this spruced-up edition of the key reference book for our beloved mother tongue. At the same time, it should be noted that the editorial team at Duden haven’t exactly put much effort into pointing out the urgency of the topic of gender-neutral language. Over three pages – a total of 0.2 per cent of the whole book – it explains how to correctly use the gender asterisk (more on that later).

Clearly, gendering language annoys the (Old Men's) German Language Association (Verein Deutscher Sprache, VDS). That’s the only explanation for why its president, Professor Walter Krämer, announced after the publication of the new Duden that there had to be an end to “individuals at the top deciding how our language has to develop.” He added that many people now believe that “the gender asterisk and similar constructs are genuine constituent parts of the German language”. I couldn’t help but wonder: why so cross, Mr Krämer?

The debate around this “gender nonsense” is now entering a new phase. “Finally!” I think to myself. The discussion has been going in circles for years, but in the end the consensus is and always has been the same: the masculine form, the “generic masculine”, should be used when referring to “both” – or indeed all – genders. Rejecting this practice would be a step towards acceptance of a more gender-egalitarian language – which for some remains the stuff of nightmares.

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He's a Berliner, she's a Berlinerin. Neither of them are doughnuts. Photo: Imago
A little German lesson
German's grammatical gender system extends to nouns, with a particular suffix in place for those relating to people. A male teacher is a Lehrer, but his female colleague would gain the suffix -in to become a Lehrerin. A group of female teachers gets the plural suffix -innen to make Lehrerinnen. There's no plural change for a group of male teachers (Lehrer again), but if it's a group of both male and female teachers, the whole group is referred to as if they were all men (you guessed it, Lehrer). Seems fair, right?

There is certainly no shortness of possibilities for how to go about referring to different genders equally within German. For example, naming both male and female options (Lehrer, Lehrerinnen), the internal ‘I’ (LehrerInnen), the gender asterisk (Lehrer*innen) or the gender gap (Lehrer_innen). The last two options are particularly good for embodying the full spectrum of gender within society besides just male and female. Using those would however mean a “genderisation of our everyday life”, which seems to particularly upset men like Professor Krämer.

The VDS is a prime example of cultural opportunism. They seriously believe our cultural assets can be preserved for all eternity. Since last year, the motto of the association’s own manifesto, supported by a range of prominent determined linguistic bodyguards (of both genders, just so you know), has been “stop the gender nonsense”. In the accompanying letter, its deeply troubled male signatories, along with some women, warn against adopting what they consider to be ridiculous linguistic structures and inconsistent use of language, and state that the foundation of gender-equitable language is seriously flawed, distorts the language as we know it now, and would not contribute anything to women's rights. And then, of course, one particularly famous token woman gets thrown into the mix: Angela Merkel, who managed to end up as chancellor despite the tyranny of male-preference language.

Throwing the book at linguistic sexism

With its manifesto, the VDS is officially calling for resistance. I couldn’t help but wonder: will all these strong men suddenly find themselves transformed into whimpering shadows of their former selves if women and non-binary people aren’t just lumped in the same linguistic bracket, but are actually referred to consciously and directly? Is it not a sad indictment of our society if some of Germany’s leading organisations equate a gender asterisk as a “linguistic contortion” and formulations like “Kundin” (a female customer, as opposed to the generic masculine “Kunde”) with a linguistic kamikaze attack?

It’s not just the VDS complaining. A number of other influential institutions are as well – such as the bankers of the Deutscher Sparkassen- und Giroverband (German Association of Local and Savings Banks, DSGV). For years, the DSGV has been engaged in a petty legal dispute with the feminist activist Marlies Krämer. The customer (and that’s Kundin, in case you were wondering) wanted to be identifiable as a woman on her banking forms, and not referred to as a male “Kunde”. And can you really blame her? She took the matter to the courts, all the way to the Federal Court of Justice – Germany’s highest court. But as in all the cases that came before hers, her claim was rejected in 2018. The official reason? Addressing someone using male terms does not, on its own, violate the law on gender equality.

What will the German everyman, the all-knowing, all-capable, testosterone-loaded bratwurst fetishist, have left if his language is transformed into an egalitarian, fair we-quivalent that reflects the plurality of our society?

Maxi Beigang

Imagine the reactions if the roles were reversed: Mr Joe Bloggs has to file his credit application as a Kundin at Sparkasse, and not as a Kunde. How huge would the outrage be then? I wonder how many complaints and angry letters the DSGV would get if that were to happen. The self-appointed keepers of the German language have pulled their arguments straight from the annals of history. According to them, the generic masculine is in fact gender neutral, an “arrangement that has grown over the years”, and therefore it is not discriminatory. That was also the unanimous view taken by the local and regional courts, who were the first to dismiss Krämer’s claim against the DSGV.

Never say never

Our society’s glaring inequality is being laid bare yet again. In a world in which men still have more power than women, the masculine is still the norm, and any adaptation makes you an exception to the rule. Yet again, it’s the men who get to decide when language really is discriminatory against all the “non-men” out there. And indeed when it’s not. I can’t understand that. In other words: what’s the problem with just changing a few bank forms? Why spend years battling over just a few words and grammatical endings? The fact is: the German language is a man’s language.

People readily forget that language is constantly evolving. Language is not a stationary snapshot of our society. Language does not purely evolve over the years, but is actually susceptible to any kind of influence. This “gender nonsense”, which annoys so many men (and some women too), is nothing other than a conscious acknowledgement of the fact that there are other genders and norms besides just the male ones. These are genders which may be different, but are no less tangible or visible. This “gender nonsense”, which feminists from all across the gender spectrum are now fighting for, wants to make it clear that there isn’t just one social norm, but in fact many different norms, which all exist alongside each other. Anyone who can’t understand that is blind to the reality of the situation.

And then there’s another, much more important aspect to consider: those who don’t want to accept a broader approach to gender within language don’t see or understand their own privilege. Or is it a pure coincidence that it’s mostly men who get worked up about these changes? Or that it’s men who yet again shout the loudest, always know best, always get it right.

Many men see that society is changing – and that scares them. What will the German everyman, the all-knowing, all-capable, testosterone-loaded bratwurst fetishist, have left if his language is transformed into an egalitarian, fair we-quivalent that reflects the plurality of our society – that is to say, the pure reality of how things really are? With these changes, our language would be more inclusive, and the obvious privilege enjoyed by a small number of men would become common property for the whole of society. Anyone who is bothered or annoyed by that is a Luddite, trapped in a cycle of only thinking according to their own ego. A simple black-and-white film alongside the dazzling Instagram stream of the modern world. On top of that, it always gets forgotten that the generic masculine is in fact an example of gendering language. But it is based on the prototype of our world: the man.

The key to equality?

I admit, it’s not just men who are defending the generic masculine – there are women who do as well, even young women. Only recently, the writer Nele Pollatschek (who prefers to be referred to with the generic masculine rather than gender specific language) published a report in the Tagesspiegel newspaper in which she took a stance against gendered language. Her view is that gender-egalitarian is sexist because it always points to the “woman” category, and therefore also to the difference between men and women, and in so doing undermines any claim to equality through language.

Also, according to Pollatschek’s controversial take on the issue, if women want to be referred to specifically in order to promote the equality of all people, then other identity groups would have to be named as well – for example, gay, black or Jewish people. Pollatschek thinks this would only serve to amplify differences instead of putting everyone on a level playing field. Gendering language would therefore in fact only lead to more harm and discrimination. “When I’m not completely depressed by it, Germany’s obsession with genitalia certainly gives me something to laugh at.”

It’s a flimsy argument. Nele Pollatschek simply doesn’t want to accept that differentiation is actually at the heart of the issue. Gendering language is about making diversity visible, because our society is pluralistic and diverse too. Language is power – so if power dynamics within society are to change, then language has to change too. For Nele Pollatschek and the VDS, they may well not consider the gender asterisk to be a valid part of the German language. But as a placeholder for expressing the true diversity of our society, it is always a suitable choice.

This newspaper also doesn't write with full linguistic gender equality, and has to ask itself to what extent it offers a true reflection of our society while it continues to do so. Is it possible to write an entire daily newspaper using the gender asterisk throughout? I think so. If you want to see equality among the sexes, you may as well give it a try at least.

It also goes without question that forms of gendered language are not free from mistakes and don’t automatically result in heightened equality in those countries where German is spoken. But that shouldn’t be a reason to stick to the status quo. Anyone who gets annoyed by the proposition of less gendered language is not the defender of our cultural heritage they think they are, but are in fact standing in the way of it and its development. German is sometimes called the language of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) – but that should really be a language of “Dichter*innen und Denker*innen”. Then, instead of just Goethe and Schiller, frequently forgotten female greats like Karoline von Günderrode or Bettina von Arnim might also be called to mind. In the end, the key point is that language creates meaning and those who are stuck in the past remain meaningless. You heard it here first: the future belongs to the gender asterisk.

The author, Maxi Beigang, born 1990, is a trainee for the Berliner Zeitung and currently works in the features section. This article was prepared for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.