Debate over gender-neutral language divides Germany

Efforts to create gender-neutral forms have sparked a heated debate.

Debate over gender-neutral language divides Germany

BERLIN — Germans, they say, have a word for everything.

After all, with an ever-increasing arsenal of compound nouns — the pandemic, for example, gifted us the somewhat dystopian Anderthalbmeter­gesellschaft, 1.5-meter society, among hundreds of other coronavirus neologisms — the German language holds a well-earned reputation for precision.

But there’s one thing no one can quite agree how to express: gender neutrality.

German, like many other languages, genders words. Pupils are taught by a male Lehrer or a female Lehrerin; at a hospital, you might be treated by a male Arzt or a female Ärztin. When speaking in more general terms, however, the masculine plural form of the noun is used to address all: A call for all Bürger — (male) citizens — to follow coronavirus rules is also meant to apply to Germany’s Bürgerinnen.

This plural form, known as the generic masculine, has set off an increasingly polarized debate that’s drawn in courts, dictionary publishers and government.

Proponents of gender-neutral language — who say German needs grammar that explicitly includes women and nonbinary people — have suggested a range of fixes. The best-known solution, dubbed the “gender star,” places an asterisk before the feminine word ending: Bürger*innen.

Opponents have described this approach as cumbersome, ugly to read and awkward to pronounce. Many traditionalists also question the need for gender-neutral language, or say linguistic change should not be imposed top-down based on what they see as ideological grounds.

Supporters, in turn, point to studies showing that language shapes the way we see the world — sexist stereotypes included — and argue that language is constantly changing anyway.

“Women are subordinated in language. The point is to make them visible,” said Luise F. Pusch, a feminist linguist who has been working on the issue of gender neutrality in German for more than 40 years.

Linguistic rift

With the gender star and similar forms gaining popularity in recent years — a growing number of institutions and media organizations have started using them — the debate has only become more heated.

Late last year, Germany’s influential Duden dictionary began changing its website entries for nouns referring to people — all 12,000 of them — to add feminine versions and define the masculine version as explicitly referring to men.

That ruffled more than a few feathers.

The German Language Society, an organization with a traditionalist outlook, is leading the opposition. Its chairman Walter Krämer described attempts at actively changing language as “a modern Hitler salute,” used by “left-wing ideologues” to signal that they belong to a certain group.

The association’s petition to “save the German language from the Duden” has collected more than 27,000 signatures as of early March.

Alexander Krauß, a lawmaker from the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), is among the signatories. “I am afraid that we will deteriorate our language, that it will no longer be fun to read a novel,” he said. “You can’t create equality by … messing up the language.”

Duden editor-in-chief Kathrin Kunkel-Razum acknowledged, “The whole issue of gender-equitable language is causing really deep rifts in the German language community.”

But the publisher has said it has no intention of banning the generic masculine, though it advises against its use. The aim of the move was to allow for greater precision, according to Kunkel-Razum, who also said there was currently no plan to include these changes in the printed Duden.

In the absence of a German-language authority akin to France’s Académie Française, campaigners have sought to take the matter to court.

In 2018, Germany’s federal court of justice ruled against 80-year-old Marlies Krämer, who had sued her bank for addressing her with the masculine form of “customer” — as Kunde, rather than the feminine Kundin. The judges said the use of the generic masculine did not violate gender-equality laws.

Krämer, who successfully challenged sexist language in court in the past — including forcing German meteorologists to stop their practice of using female names for low-pressure systems and male names for highs — took the case to Germany’s Constitutional Court, which last year dismissed her appeal over inadequate argumentation but did not rule on the subject itself.

Another judgment, in 2017, was seen as a boost for more inclusive language. That year, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of an intersex plaintiff, which forced Germany to allow for a third, nonbinary gender in legal documents.

“The decision raised the question of how to address this third group in terms of language,” Pusch said, describing the ruling as a milestone.

Backlash

The gender star — or its sister versions that use a colon or underscore in place of an asterisk — isn’t the only fix.

In 2019, the city of Hanover became the first official entity in Germany to make “gender-sensitive administrative language” binding in all administrative correspondence. The gender star can be used, but the city prefers neutral terms, such as die Lehrenden (“those who teach”) instead of Lehrer*innen.

That, too, triggered some backlash.

“We received a lot of letters with wild insults, criticisms and diatribes … At the same time, there was a lot of praise — especially from the queer community,” said Friederike Kämpfe, Hanover’s equal opportunities officer.

Last October, Germany’s Social Democrat-led justice ministry opted for an even more controversial approach. In its draft bill on restructuring and insolvency law, it used the generic feminine. The Christian Democrat-led interior ministry swiftly rejected the draft over concerns that the law, if approved, would have legally only applied to women.

The debate isn’t limited to Germany. Spain, too, is discussing inclusive language. In France, the Académie Française has described inclusive forms as an “aberration” and last month, a coalition of MPs led by François Jolivet from President Emmanuel Macron’s party introduced a bill aiming to ban the use of gender-neutral spelling among officials and civil servants.

Meanwhile, Sweden included the gender-neutral pronoun hen in its official dictionary in 2014 after much debate. The European Parliament adopted guidelines on gender-neutral language as far back as 2008. And while English rarely genders nouns, the United States House of Representatives earlier this year also passed a new code of conduct with a pledge for more gender-inclusive language.

In Germany, the debate has largely split down ideological lines. Parties on the left, most prominently the Greens, tend to be in favor of gender-neutral language.

The far-right AfD party is a vocal opponent of inclusive language, with its politicians often railing against “gender madness.” Its party program includes 13 positions on the use of language, compared to three to four in mainstream parties’ programs. In 2019, the AfD’s regional chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia submitted a parliamentary motion titled “the revival of the generic masculine.”

Gender-inclusive efforts have also been met with vocal criticism from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) — as well as some on the left, including senior Green politician Winfried Kretschmann.

For some proponents, it’s a sign of success.

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

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

Source : Politico EU More