Germans and Brits try to eliminate gendered nouns in the German language

October 29, 2022 • 11:30 am

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.

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:

Here’s the asterisk used for the plurals of “Lehrer” (male teacher) and “Lehrerin” (female teacher):

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. . .

90 thoughts on “Germans and Brits try to eliminate gendered nouns in the German language

  1. This absolutely confused me the first time I visited Germany after the deveopment (2018, IIRC). Help wanted ads said ‘Wanted: Teacher (M/W/D)’ where M/W/D meant ‘male/female/diverse’. No one seems to know what precisely ‘diverse’ means – and unfortunately, like a lot of PC language, it has pushed other meanings of ‘diverse’ out of circulation.

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/divers#German

    1. Actually, ‘divers’ in this context has a well-defined legal meaning. For a couple of years, it has been possible in Germany to register your sex as ‘divers’ (for your official documents). So far, as I know, this is only possible for actual intersex people with unclear sex classification, and only a couple hundred people have made use of the option. But I believe employers are required by antidiscrimination laws to specifically include them in job offers (the ‘male form (M/W/D)’, or previously M/W, formulation is clear and gender-neutral, but too clunky for everyday use, but I think it’s okay for job offers, and it’s totally standard in Germany).

      1. A small advantage, given that Latin nouns have five declensions and six cases in addition to gender yielding hundreds of endings to get right. Then the adjectives that go with the nouns can have various endings of their own. Verb tenses add a further layer of complexity.

        1. When I think of Latin, ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, I wonder what complexities Proto-Indo-European must have presented.

          1. I know word roots are extremely important for tracing the “family tree” of languages – a subject I find fascinating from a non-expert perspective. It seems unlikely we know anything about gender, case, declension, etc. in the deep roots and branches of the tree where there is no written record, but I would love to be surprised.

            A new theory that employs paleo-genetics has the proto-Indo-European language originating in Northern Iran ~8000 years ago. It was carried across Europe by the Yamnaya from the Pontic Steppe beginning about 5000 ya.

              1. Chapter 8 (Europeans Find a Language) of A Short History of Humanity by Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe. This is a 2021 translation from the German published in 2019.

        2. Yes I know. I was being a bit facetious since the premise is based on articles. Latin and Ancient Greek are highly infective languages.

          1. “…highly infective languages.”
            Yes, I caught a bad dose of Latin in my first senior year at school 😉 .

  2. I wish I could tweet a response to Pinker’s post thanking him for that information about the etymology of “gender” in linguistics. It never occurred to me to look that up, but you’d think I could have realized it.

    1. The same applies to most levels of classification, including ‘family’ and ‘tribe’. There is a point where we just arbitrarily grabbed pre-existing names for groupings and treated them as if they were a formal hierarchy. Geographically, we have the same trouble deciding whether, for example, an area is larger or smaller than a region.

    2. I remember when Creationists tried to tar Charles Darwin with racism due to his title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Of course, “Races” didn’t mean human races, it was I think a generic term for “types” or “kinds.”

        1. I’ve been reading the classics this week – The Coddling of the American Mind (Haidt, Lukianoff). I’m sure everyone here as read the classics too. They describe a scenario more along the lines of:

          If an assertion of identity-based power along the lines of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” can be at all inferred from a word (e.g. “mold”, as in “fit the mold”), the priority is to accept that as a threat. Let emotion drive that perception.

          So yeah – German is no exception. Time for it to go.

      1. I think that it meant something more like ‘lineage.’

        “Fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless.” Barry Lyndon.

  3. It’s not about getting rid of gendered nouns, it’s about finding an additional option for mixed gendered groups instead of making them all male as German by default does now. It’s adding ways to express yourself, not taking anything away.

    1. I’m sorry for overcommenting, and will shut up shortly. This is part of my field, especially the focus on German.

      There are gender-common nouns, as well as explicitly masculine, feminine, and neuter (Latin: ‘neutrum’ = neither). In most natural languages, the explicitly masculine form is the same as the gender common form which is why Merkel can be considered the eighth post-war Bundeskanzler AND the first Bundeskanzlerin.

      A few languages have successfully disentangled gender-common nouns from explicitly masculine nouns. Esperanto’s offspring language Ido did just that by creating a masculine form. For living natural languages, it will be a harder task.

      However, the (*) / D option in German is not about promoting a common-gender option; it is about creating a human neutral/neuter option. I have asked German friends; it is impossible to be both ‘M’ and ‘D’, a diverse male, simultaneously. The German Supreme Court has apparently upheld all of this.

      With regards to German, I would strongly recommend reading Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language”, where he complains extensively about the fact that words like “Das Weib” (the woman) and “Das Mädchen” (the girl) are neuter, rather than female, and require the neuter pronoun “es” (it).

      https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Tramp_Abroad/Appendix_D

      1. “Esperanto’s offspring language Ido did just that by creating a masculine form. For living natural languages, it will be a harder task.”

        Never understood this. Esperanto is a living language, and no language is natural. Esperanto started out as an *engineered* language, but has evolved like any other ‘natural’ language.

    2. They are not all male and have never been, and certainly not in the plural (die Bürger…sie). Where is the complaint about “Fachkräfte” (specialized workers, a female noun), do they also need to get a mixed group option because they are all in the female? What about “Geschwister” (siblings, derived from “sister” and use generically for siblings even if all of the siblings are male), should men now demand that it should always be “Geschwister und Gebrüder”, and “Gebrüder” only if it’s only men?
      And it’s not really an additional option. The newer forms change the perception of the older forms. The publicly financed media now use the “alternative” forms/the silliy doubling “Bürgerinnen und Bürger” without fail, actually reinforcing the sexual binary as being somehow of supreme importance. To use the less complicated traditional form now on a public platform is like saying you are a right wing jerk.

  4. When I moved to Bristol UK in the early 1970s, the local dialect was still in use. Indeed when I bought my house the early 80s, I was one of two people in the street who did not speak the dialect. The peculiarity of the dialect was that there were no neutral pronouns, everything was gendered. So “where is it?” would be “where’s ‘e (s/he) to?”, My water heater was “she” according to the plumbers who serviced it. The dialect has now disappeared, and even the pure accent is now rarely heard.

  5. ‘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”.’

    You mean to the sex of the actual thing referred to. “Mädchen” is a neuter noun, like all the diminutives ending in -chen. That does not change your argument.

    1. Yes but I think the point is for most of the time when referring to a female human you would use the feminine article so even though the grammar of a diminutive overrides that 90% of the time familiarity with how to refer to a female human, you intuitively think you should use a feminine article because you practically do that most of the time.

  6. A thing that happened many years ago was that the feminized term “actress” was suddenly replaced by the masculinized “actor”, effectively gender neutralizing the term. This seemed to be done at the time to deliver the message that male and female performers were equal. And now, in our age of broader consciousness, that change in language very neatly includes performers of all identities without any fuss or bother. I don’t recall any debate over this evolution of the language. It all happened quite smoothly, as far as I am aware.

    1. Although “actor” is used for women now more than it used to be, in the things I read “actress” still predominates for women who act. Where is it that “actress” has disappeared?

      GCM

        1. Had a boss once who refused to put “Esq.” after female lawyer’s names. He changed after a bit. I suggested then perhaps we should call them “lawyess” and “lawyesses” if he wanted to be that sexist.

    2. I prefer the term actress to female actor. I don’t really care about executor versus executrix.

      I insist on the distinction between dominator and dominatrix.

      1. I miss the words ‘murderess’ and ‘aviatrix’. Somehow, it’s inappropriate to refer to Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama as ‘Governess’, so I’ll treat gendered professional nouns as obsolete – except for terms of royalty.

        1. The problem with “Governess”, is (I think) associated with stern women who were brought into the household to govern the children. Might be more appropriate than I thought.

    1. So are all the Germans who don’t know what article to use in what declination. They are all going to speak Tarzan German like how I speak German.

  7. I figure the simple solution is just use the masculine for all inclusive, which I think was the trend in Germany anyway (like instead of saying “Schüler” and “Schülerin”). And then use gender neutral for everything else. I can’t imagine this would be very easy on native German speakers because you just decline that noun naturally, having learned the gender with the word. And it’s not just the article, of course but the word “who” and I’m sure other things.

  8. Then Greek, both ancient and modern; then Sanskrit and its descendants, such as Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, and Marathi; then old Slavonic and the modern Slavic languages, such as Russian, Polish, etc.; then back to the Romance languages; then…

  9. “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. . .”
    I wonder what L’Académie française will have to say about it.

    1. L’Académie française will no doubt dismiss the whole matter as une autre folie Anglaise.
      And while we are on the subject, I must repeat a related request. After I realized that the body I should have been born in was that of a lineal descendent of Tsar Ivan IV,
      I realized that my personal pronoun should always be: Его императорское величество
      (which means His imperial majesty),

    2. Actually, le and la are not the problem. French is a thoroughly gendered language. You cannot say a sentence about someone without specifying their gender. Just yesterday a woman showed me a photo of her baby, whom I described as ‘mignon’ (cute) and she instantly corrected me to ‘mignonne’ because her child is a girl. You might describe President Macron as ‘intelligent’ but the female Prime Minister as ‘intelligente’. Those words are pronounced differently, some other gendered endings are not but you still have to get it right when writing.

      In English, the language can be de-gendered with just a few (rather clumsy and ugly) changes but French cannot. It would take a total reform of the language.

      Frankly it might be easier to get everyone to speak English,

      1. +1

        Gender is much more embedded in in other Indo-European languages than in English. English does have have a few words without gender-neutral terms equivalents, e.g. ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’, ‘niece’, ‘nephew’. Imagine if every instance of the English word ‘parent‘ were replaced with the masculine term ‘father’. That happens in many other languages.

        I’ve tried explaining gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’, ‘parent’, ‘child’, and ‘sibling’. A LOT of non-native speakers have trouble with them.

        Ido is one of the few consistently gender-neutral languages I know that makes a consistent distinction. I don’t know of any natural languages that do.

      2. Or Chinese. No articles really, and “ta” for the personal pronoun (ignoring the character difference since we don’t use characters in English).

    3. I have no doubt that when (not if!) the Académie française adopts something, they will adopt ‘lo’. The only question is whether ‘lo’ will be common or non-binary. I’m hoping for the latter. ‘Lo’ already exists in Spanish and other Romance languages as a neuter/non-binary. (at least unless the Académie reacts against Spanish colonialism – which, at this point, is totally possible).

      ‘Lo’ has a long history as a neuter pronoun/article in the Romance languages. I just hope the non-binary movement does not co-opt it exclusively. I’d like to see common, neuter and non-binary occupy the same semantic space. There’re really no reason they shouldn’t, aside from us old fogies.

      1. > I’m hoping for the latter.

        Crud crud crud. I meant ‘the former’, not ‘the latter’. I make mistakes here, too!

    4. I do not know about France but in the public administrations, schools, hospitals, etc., of some French speaking Swiss cantons, the use of the masculine plural to include men and women is not allowed anymore.

  10. Oh I think here is a better solution. Just change the grammatical terms to something like “orange”, “blue”, “green”. So instead of feminine, neuter, masculine, you have orange: die/eine, blue: das/ein, and green: der/ein. Then get rid of the feminine forms of nouns. No substantial grammar change required.

    1. But what does one do with articles in the four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative)? Saying that German has three words for “the” is only part of the issue. Each of those words–“der,” “die,” “das”–is declined according to the gender, which means there are four forms of “der,” etc. (the other two have three forms because the nominative and accusative are identical). And then there are four plural forms (with nom. and acc. being the same) which are “non-gendered.”

      While this is a pain for learners of German to grasp unless they’ve had Latin, it does in many instances have the advantage that one can automatically tell which case a noun is in by virtue of the article case, and that can be quite useful since Germans often use inverted word order (something other than the subject first). The famous example: “Den Mann beisst der Hund.” If one uses English word order, it would seem to mean “the man bites the dog.” But “den” in this instance automatically informs the reader/listener that the man is the direct object; and “der” with “Hund” shows that that is the subject, meaning “the dog bites the man.” Not all examples are this clear, but case forms of the articles are often informative, making the meaning obvious.

      Granted, German is considered a highly “gendered” language, but as indicated above, the gender assigned normally has nothing to do with actual gender, but often with the ending of the noun (e.g., most nouns ending in “-er” are masculine and most ending in “-e” are feminine, though there are exceptions). I can’t imagine any Germans I know giving up this aspect of the language–nor will I–though a simplification would have made it much easier for me to learn the language (I didn’t start learning it until I was 21).

      1. Declination is irrelevant as you simply follow the declination of the gender. In this case, the colour under my new system. If we had never named these things “gender” there would be no issue. There really isn’t any such thing as a girl boat. And don’t forget the other case – imperative. This was the mistake it Romani ite domum.

  11. We should mandate the global adoption of Estonian, which has no gender (but is the most difficult language in the Roman alpabet to learn — Lord knows I’m still trying after around half a century).

  12. “They use newly introduced synonyms like “Lehrende” to replace “Lehrer” (masculine teachers, the default option)…”

    This can result in absurdity, e.g. when “toter Fahrradfahrer” (= “dead bicycler”, i.e. “bicycler who died in a traffic accident, from a heart attack or whatever”) is replaced in a newspaper report by “toter Fahrradfahrender” (= “dead person riding a bicycle”). I don’t think anybody has ever seen such a ghost rider.

  13. > 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’m currently in Germany, and it already has. But unlike in the US where at least the Democrat voters care about transgenderism and there has been a lot of drama about the issue (e.g. the transgender bathroom boycotts), in Germany very few people even know about queer issues.

    Gendered language had approval ratings in the single digits, until it simply became mandatory so that everyone had to use it (making it a great example of the power of elites). It is never heard in everyday speech, but ubiquitous as soon as you turn on the television. I suspect a few people in academia and other high-status individuals try to use it consistently, but it remains unfamiliar. Sometimes I watch a lecture and the speaker uses gendered language in the introduction, only to forget about it a few minutes later.

    For additional encouragement, refusing to use gendered language can lower your grade in some examinations. So far, only if your superior is into it.

    Fortunately, I do not use it here. It would break the markup.

    1. > where at least the Democrat voters

      As you’re not in the US, I’ll give you a quick heads-up. The use of ‘democrat’ as an adjective (‘democrat voter’, ‘democrat governor’, etc.) in the US tends to be a dogwhistle term for the far right. People who are politically neutral (me, generally third party), or who lean left use ´democratic’ not ´democrat’ as a preceding adjective.

      It’s one of the words that people on the New Right use at family gatherings, pretending they don’t know it signals their political affiliation. I’ve given up on having those discussions with family members.

      1. As a life long American, free market liberal, and frequent (exclusive in recent years) voter for Democrat candidates, this is news to me. Someone can favor democratic government yet want it filled with Republican office holders. I dearly love our republican form of government, with its rights guarantees and the checks it puts on pure democracy.

  14. “First the default article for the plural is masculine, ergo seen as sexist”

    It’s been 30 yrs since I’ve taken college German, but isn’t the plural article the same as the feminine (i.e. ‘die’)?

    1. It is just the plural and not called feminine and it declines differently than the feminine singular.

      1. Yes, I wasn’t saying that the plural is called feminine. I meant that ‘die’ is used for both feminine and plural. I was expressing puzzlement over “the default article for the plural is masculine”.

        1. Just went and looked it up to be sure. The feminine differs from the plural only in the dative. In contrast, every masculine article is different from the plural. So I’ve no clue what they mean about “the default article for the plural is masculine.”

          1. It means that
            1. if a group can contain both males and females and
            2. there are different words for individuals in it depending on whether they are male or female, then
            3. by default, the name used for the group is the plural of the male form.

            example (English, German):
            the actor, der Schauspieler
            the actress, die Schauspielerin
            the actors, die Schauspieler (not the actresses, die Schauspielerinnen)

  15. This is now forced on Germans in every sentence in official and state media language. The article of all German plural nouns is actually identical with the female singular article (die). Nobody cares. No male feels unrepresented by the German plural. No male complains because of female gender singular nouns applied to them (“Arbeitskraft” = worker, a wholly female noun). But that the plural of the -er ending happens to be identical with the singular of a grammatically (not sexually!) male word is a big deal for some reason unfathomable to me.
    When I was young, nobody ever thought that “die Lehrer” (the teachers) or “die Bürger” (the citizens) referred to males only. Indeed, we used to say “die Lehrer” at my primary school about our all-female body of teachers. The female-making ending -in now so PC was formerly attached to the mostly grammatically male -er ending (etymological identical with the English -er as in worker) primarily to denote women who were annexes to men: Frau Professorin was the professor’s wife, not a professor herself. “Luise Millerin” in one of Schiller’s plays is Mr. Miller’s daughter.
    The Indo-European -er ending used not to have a fixed gender in old high German. The gender was in a vowel suffix attached to the -er that is now lost. By the way, nobody minds that daughter (Tochter), sister (Schwester), mother (Mutter) end in -er. The true German female job noun ending is not the now PC -in, but modern German -e (or vowelless), as in Hexe (witch), Amme (nurse), Muhme (aunt), Nonne (nun). But current gender aficionados don’t love language and don’t care.
    If one absolutely had to change the language to accomodate people who think that women should under no circumstances be called male gender nouns (even though sex and grammatical gender are clearly not congruent in German), one could just decide that -er nouns can be either male or female depending on the person so designed. Instead, they are making language needlessly complicated and/or eliminate an age old word class in the process.

    1. Yes I agree. It is so silly because as I said above, no one thinks a boat is a girl. It’s not about sex it’s just a grammatical term and grammatical terms have nothing to do with how people feel about language or how language is used. It is some way some academic described how the language worked.

    2. > Indeed, we used to say “die Lehrer” at my primary school about our all-female body of teachers.

      In my understanding, some languages are more concerned about whether plurals are *hypothetically* or *practically* female-only. From what I have heard, French is more precise (i.e. practical) in that regard.

      My go-to example in English is that it would be grammatically correct for girls’ schools to have signs ‘Every student must put his tampons in the trash’ (the common noun ‘student’ taking a masculine pronoun). I’m sure that no one does that, of course.

    3. I wonder, will “Katzenklo” from now on be called “Katzen- und Kater*klo?” Or do these language reformers perhaps suffer from internalised speciesism?

  16. This relates directly to “masculine” and “feminine” rhymes in prosody–i.e, the patterns of stress in verse. A rhyming line that ends on a stressed syllable is called “masculine” and one that ends on an unstressed syllable is called “feminine.”

    Wiki insists that these terms “are not based on any cultural concept of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity.’ Rather, they originate from a grammatical pattern of French, in which words of feminine grammatical gender end in a stressless syllable and words of masculine gender end in a stressed syllable” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masculine_and_feminine_endings).This, of course, skirts the question of why masculine gender words are stressed (strong) in the first place and feminine gender words are unstressed (weak). Unconscionable!

    And it gets even worse if we look at children’s verse. In “Goodnight Moon,” for example, all the rhymes are masculine except for the token “Goodnight kittens/And goodnight mittens.” Patriarchal indoctrination!

  17. This relates directly to “masculine” and “feminine” rhymes in prosody–i.e, the patterns of stress in verse. A rhyming line that ends on a stressed syllable is called “masculine” and one that ends on an unstressed syllable is called “feminine.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masculine_and_feminine_endings)

    Wiki insists that these terms “are not based on any cultural concept of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity.’ Rather, they originate from a grammatical pattern of French, in which words of feminine grammatical gender end in a stressless syllable and words of masculine gender end in a stressed syllable” This, of course, skirts the question of why masculine gender words are stressed (strong) in the first place and feminine gender words are unstressed (weak). The grammar police, assuming they’re up on their prosody, will not be so easily assuaged.

    And it gets even worse if we look at children’s verse. In “Goodnight Moon,” for example, all the rhymes are masculine except for the token “Goodnight kittens/And goodnight mittens.” What are we teaching our children?

  18. What gets me is the awkwardness of these fashion trends when transmitted from one culture to another. The fad about gendered language use began in the Anglophone world, in which the language in fact has no gendered grammar, and almost no gendered nouns. Postmodernism earlier infected Anglophone academia as a bowdlerized version of French (Foucault, Derrida, etc.) sophistry. In the next episode, the north American ritual of Land Acknowledgements will perhaps be mimicked in eastern Europe, which should be a hoot.

  19. My first thought was to wonder why they cannot just invent their own language, suitable for the utopia they plan.
    But again, the only joy they seem to find is in forcing their will on the rest of us.

  20. With 70 years of professional experience, Spanish and Portuguese, I’m with Pinker. It’s not sex.
    In the Romance languages it’s sound matching. In Spanish words ending in l, o, r, e, n, and s match themselves and each other. Words ending in a, d, ción, sis, and itis match themselves and each other.
    Most language teaching texts and dictionaries have still not graduated from 15th century sex matching to 20th century linguistics.
    Raymond Moody

  21. Instead of scrubbing every noun and article in the language, why not just change the names of the categories from masculine, feminine, and neuter to categories A, B, and C? So you update a few grammar textbooks instead of changing the whole language from the ground up. What’s wrong with these people?

  22. To everybody who is interested in the German language and its genus system (and is able to read German): I highly recommend the following paper about the history and logics of the generic masculine:

    https://lingbuzz.net/lingbuzz/006520
    Zeugen gesucht! Zur Geschichte des generischen Maskulinums im Deutschen. Ewa Trutkowski, Helmut Weiß, March 2022

    Some of the key points:

    * This paper falsifies feministic narratives that the generic masculine is a relatively new feature of the German language by showing many very old examples (~1000 years old) of its application, e.g. “Sünder” (“sinner”) being used in a sex-neutral way in sermons.

    * Initially, the genus system had only two genus, the feminine genus was later added. Thus, the original “generic” genus for human beings in the 2-genus system only became a “masculine” genus after the feminine genus emerged. It never lost its potentially generic character.

    * The grammatically generic masculine thus has two different semantics (if being used for humans and if there is a feminine version; fun fact: for animals, generic feminines are quite common, for humans, no generic feminines exist):

    (a) it expresses that the person has male sex

    (b) it expresses that the person has unknow sex or, in plural, that persons in a group have arbitrary sexes.

    Thus readers / listeners must disambiguate these cases. In order to make the disambiguation unique, the “pragmatics” of the German language provides a system of rules when and how the generic semantics (b) is to be used (or was intended) by the writer / speaker. For example, whenever you refer directly or indirectly (via pronouns) to a concrete person, the masculine has never a generic meaning. I.e., you must use the feminine genus for a concrete women. Ultimately, these application rules, or pragmatics, make the disambiguation always unique in practice. Everyone understands and uses these rules, often consciously, few people are actually aware of them. In fact, some special cases might appear a bit complicated for non-native speakers.

    Unfortunately, these application rules are not known by many, or denied by feminist activists because otherwise they cannot argue that they are being discriminated against by the generic “masculine”.

    So sum up, these pragmatics are a extremely important to understand the German genus system, and they are overlooked or disregarded in most discussions, which makes them useless. Even in Cambridge.

  23. “For example, “Mädchen” (“girl”) in German goes with the neuter definite article “das”.”

    For example: “Ein Mädchen saß auf einer Bank. Es sah traurig aus.” (“A girl was sitting on a bench. ‘It’ looked sad.”) – Strictly grammatically speaking, the use of the neutral pronoun “es” (“it”) is correct here; but it has become acceptable in oral German at least to use the female pronoun “sie” (“she”) to refer to the girl: “Ein Mädchen saß auf einer Bank. Sie sah traurig aus.” (“A girl was sitting on a bench. She looked sad.”)

    1. Let’s add here that the title of a very well-known children’s book written long before the current craze was: “Heidi kann brauchen, was es gelernt hat”, literally: “Heidi can use what it has learnt”. (Some Swiss German influence here.)

  24. I have no reason to disbelieve Pinker on the topic of the words’ referents in linguistics. However, those motivated to change the usages in practice are unconcerned with word origins or referents. They believe they’re addressing consequences. The effect of the using gendered language norms is various inequalities in social relations. That is, their claim is that language is the cause and perpetuation of social ills. Fix the language, solve the problem. Their mistake is not in misunderstanding the referent of gendered language. It’s failing to establish the causal relationship between the usage and the social problem. They think asserting the relationship is equal to demonstrating it.

    My go-to example: In the 1980s we were told the lack of women in policing was a social problem which resulted from calling cops, “Policeman/Policemen.” To fix the problem, we need to say, “Police officer.” Fast-forward 40 years. Women in policing has risen from ~5-7% in the 1970s to ~12-15% today. If changing the language had any effect at all, it was negligible. Enormous recruitment efforts, coupled with technological advancements, and procedural changes are better explanations for the small gains than language.

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