Gender-neutral German

According to an interesting article I found today in The Guardian, moves are afoot in Germany to try to introduce gender-neutral language. The German Justice Ministry has apparently issued an edict which requires state institutions to use gender-neutral language, which is quite challenging, especially when it comes to job titles and words referring to groups of people.

Usually the masculine forms of nouns and articles are used to refer to mixed male and female groups, as is the case in other European languages with noun genders, however the feminine form is now used in some cases even when referring to men. For example, der Professorin is used for male and female lecturers, rather than der Professor (m) or die Professorin (f).

Are similar moves being made in other languages?

This entry was posted in English, German, Language.

7 Responses to Gender-neutral German

  1. Lev says:

    I wonder when feminists are going to demand that “Mädchen” be feminine instead of neutral.

  2. Teddy says:

    In Spain, in some contests, some moves are made to repetiton. Both masculine and feminine forms are used in the sentence. E.g.
    Los trabajadores y las trabajadoras…. (male workers and female workers…)
    Los andaluces y las andaluzas… (Andalusian men and Andalusian women…)

    As for anything else, there are people for this use and some against. It’s more a question of choice: by using masculine and feminine version In some contest one can sound more “equalitarian” and by using only the masculine version one can sound more “conservative” but since both are correct, you can pick up the option you wish.

    But there’s an incorrect use of if because of this tendency. Some nouns come from the active gerund (to give an example in German, “das schlafende Mädchen” or “the sleeping maid” in English) this is, that “schlafende” becomes sometimes a noun in Spanish but as it comes from a verb-form with no inflections or marks. “Dirigenta”, “tenienta”,… are incorrect users. And the funniest of them all… “cantanta” (singer woman) 😉

  3. Zeppelin says:

    It’s a pretty good attempt at the issue, but I doubt it’ll catch on in normal usage — obviously violating genus agreement like that feels very unnatural to me as a native speaker. I haven’t come across a satisfactory solution so far that avoids forms that are convenient to write but unpronounceable, like “der/die Student/in”, or introduce new pronouns or morphemes, which are a big barrier for introduction to normal usage.

  4. Cory says:

    In English, the feminine forms of all nouns have been thrown out in common speech (Actor/Actress) in favour of the masculine form. This effectively renders the noun gender neutral as there is no suffix to denote the feminine. Maybe give all German words a Das form too… Der Professor, Die Professorin und Das Professor. (Das Pro?)

  5. Such ideology exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the distinction between grammatical gender and natural gender. I’ve never encountered any Hindi speaker who is in the slightest degree offended by grammatical gender in Hindi, or indeed who pays much attention to the phenomenon. In Hindi, the words मर्दानगी (“manliness” / “masculinity”) and दाढ़ी (“beard”) are both feminine; this seems like pretty strong evidence that gender assignment is fairly arbitrary. As the author of the article noted, there are instances in which natural gender and grammatical gender conflict in German, too (and indeed, perhaps in every language with grammatical gender). Language is a natural phenomenon, and any attempt to legislate changes to a natural phenomenon is absurd. Who, precisely, is offended by the natural, idiomatic usage of language? Have a significant number of people (besides ideological lobbyists), actually petitioned the government, or is this edict the whim of a few bureaucrats? Is this a real or imagined problem? Does the average person even consider the phenomenon of grammatical gender? How exactly will these changes effect greater equality? Consider statements from the article such as “Language should be comfortable and fair”; why ought language to be anything at all? This is the essence of ideology: rather than emending one’s beliefs to accord with reality, reality is emended, by force, to accord with one’s beliefs! How does it even make sense to ascribe attributes such as “fair” to a language? It seems that category mistakes abound in such thinking. Isn’t it unfair to foist this ideology upon people (even if only its own employees)? Furthermore, the proposals mentioned in the article aren’t gender-neutral! How is using the feminine gender any more “fair” than using the masculine gender as a default gender? Is this a sort of reparation? In English, I have observed that some people use “her” as a default pronoun. This is inappropriate because it is unnatural, it is not gender neutral, and there are many gender-neutral or gender-inclusive options available in English, such as “his or her”, or “their”. Anyway, thank you for sharing the article.

  6. TJ says:

    I agree with Lev. This has gone ridiculously far. I’m not German and I don’t speak proper German, but if some people are really offended because a language has genders, then they should try more than 70% if not 90% even of the world’s languages. Mädchen, and what David Templin just said, is just a proof that genders in languages are not related to real genders or sexuality in real life. In Arabic too, Masculinity and Beard are feminine nouns. It is the skeleton of the languages and how they are used in expression that we are talking about – this is how poetry and other forms of literature in other languages are made.
    I wonder how they are going to make the distinction between Die See and Der See.

  7. cel pintat de vermell says:

    IMO, changing the language is not going to solve problems present in society. If a society is sexist, it will be so with or without a non-neutral gender language; and vice versa.

    In my case, I make lots of jokes about language, and I don’t see the point of getting annoyed to people saying “Men” when referring to “Human beings” in general. If I don’t like it, I don’t use it, but I’m not going to force it on other people. I do prefer saying “People” instead of “Men”, “Police officers” instead of “Policemen”, and so on.

    What I find more challenging is the usage of words like “Fulana” and “Fulano”, “Zorra” and “Zorro”, “Perra” and “Perro”, etc. In Spanish, the feminine counterpart of these words might have a negative connotation. I believe in English there are some cases too, like “Bitch” and “Dog”, “Witch” and “Wizard” (do you know other examples?) Though this is semantics, not grammar.

    A fun fact, German people would associate “ein Schlüssel” (“key”, masculine) with “hard, heavy and jagged”, whereas Spaniards would associate “la llave” (“key”, feminine) with “golden, intricate and little”. Here:

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