If you’ve studied German, you’ll know that the language has three classes of gendered nouns, feminine, masculine, and neuter, with the definite article (“the”) being “die”, “der”, and “das” respectively. There are two indefinite articles (“a”), with the male/neuter and female forms being “ein” and “eine” respectively. The articles don’t always correspond to the actia; sex of the noun used. For example, “Mädchen” (“girl”) in German goes with the neuter definite article “das”.
German also has nouns like “actor” or “actress” in which the designated word is indicated as male or female, with “-in” usually added to the male form (see below).
Some Brits and Germans, who confuse language gender with sex gender are trying to change this system, which they consider noninclusive, sexist, or offensive who don’t see themselves represented by the language genders. You can read about the kerfuffle by clicking on the headline below the tweet. As you see, Steve Pinker thinks the dispute involves a category error.
Not from The Onion: U Cambridge seizes zeitgeist with gender-neutral German. (In linguistics, "gender" means "kind," not "sex"; the term is related to "genus, generic," and "genre.") https://t.co/W0hjiT5hAO
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) October 27, 2022
Here’s the article from the Times of London mentioned by Pinker (click to read):
The impetus below comes not from Germany but from Cambridge University:
It aimed to encourage students to speak more “inclusively” and not fall foul of those who may be offended by sex-specific pronouns. But the University of Cambridge’s decision to say Auf Wiedersehen to teaching gendered German has prompted warnings from linguists that students risk making a fool of themselves when talking with native speakers.
Undergraduates paying £9,250 a year have been urged to use “inclusive language” and “to use gender- and non-binary-inclusive language when we address or refer to students and colleagues, both in writing and in speech in English and in German”.
Course managers said they encouraged students and staff to choose newer forms with plural nouns.
When writing, they may render feminine nouns unisex by inserting an asterisk before the suffix — a nonstandard usage known as the “gender star”.
They noted that “in extended German texts grammatical structures can inhibit inclusivity . . . relative and other pronouns, for example, are obligatorily marked for grammatical gender, so going gender-free is difficult to achieve”.
There are several suggested ways to use “gender-inclusive German”; many suggested in this article from Language Lab. Here are two:
- Using synonyms: Whenever possible, most Germans willing to use gender-neutral language try to avoid the nouns that remain in the generic masculine. They use newly introduced synonyms like “Lehrende” to replace “Lehrer” (masculine teachers, the default option) and “Lehrerinnen (female teachers) or “Studierende” for “Studenten” (male students, the default option) and “Studentinnen” (female students). Instead of saying “Anwalt” (the male generic version of lawyer), you’d say “Rechtsvertretung” (legal representative). This is very tricky and requires a lot of practice. The website “Geschickt gendern” can help.
Here’s the asterisk used for the plurals of “Lehrer” (male teacher) and “Lehrerin” (female teacher):
- The asterisk (“Gendersternchen”): This is perhaps the favorite of the young generation and often used on social media. You write the generic male version, add an asterisk (*) and the female ending: “Lehrer*innen”, “Bauarbeiter*innen”. This is supposed to also include the people who don’t identify themselves as either female or male.
The change in language is motivated by two things. FIrst the default article for the plural is masculine, ergo seen as sexist/ As noted by NPR:
In Germany, the debate about gender-neutral and inclusive language is complicated by grammar. Just as in many other languages, gender in German isn’t denoted by personal pronouns alone. German nouns that refer to people have traditionally been masculine or feminine. So, a male citizen is a Bürger and a female citizen is a Bürgerin. But in the plural, the masculine is traditionally used by default — a point that’s been contentious at least as far back as the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.
One solution, noted above, which is actually the law in one German state:
In 2019, Hanover became the first state capital to mandate the use of gender-neutral language in all official communication, from emails to brochures and posters. It deployed what’s known as the “gender star,” an asterisk placed within a noun to indicate it refers to men, women and nonbinary people alike. For instance, the word for all citizens became Bürger*innen.
And for some people who don’t feel that they’re either of a male or female gender (e.g,. intersex or nonbinary folk), the gendering of nouns is seen as offensive.
As expected, those more on the Left in Germany favor this linguistic change, while conservaties are fighting against it. If America is any lesson, the prediction is that the language will change, becoming gender neutral.
I have no dog in this fight: if some Germans think that this usage is inclusive, that’s their business because it’s their language, and I’ll let Germans fight this one out. However, as Pinker notes above, and I’ll take his word for it because he’s a linguist, “gender” in languages like German is a kind of class that has nothing to do with sex. If that’s the case, then this whole effort is misguided. (The problem, though, is that the classes are labeled as “masculine”, “feminine” and “neuter.”)
And then there’s French with its “le” and “la”. I haven’t heard of any proposed changes there, but surely it’s only a matter of time. . .