Germany debates how to form gender-neutral words from its gendered language: NPR
Esme Nicholson / NPR
HANOVER, Germany – How do you pronounce a word with an asterisk or a colon in the middle? And what is the German word for inclusiveness? These are just two questions businesses and organizations in Europe’s largest economy are asking as the country tries to advance gender equality.
In Germany, the debate on non-sexist and inclusive language is complicated by grammar. As in many other languages, the genre in German is not referred to by personal pronouns alone. German names that refer to people are traditionally male or female. Thus, a male citizen is a Burger and a citizen is a Burgerin. But in the plural, the masculine has traditionally been used by default – a point of controversy at least since the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.
In 2018, a new federal law stipulated that all identification documents – from birth certificates to passports – had to include three options: male, female and miscellaneous, which can even be left blank.
Since then, non-sexist language has become more common. German airline Lufthansa recently ditched the phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen,” German academics are preparing a gender-neutral edition of the Bible, and in some cities – like Hanover – there is an official guideline for the use of gender-neutral words.
Known to speak Hochdeutsch – considered the most common variant of German – Hanoverians have been encouraged by the town hall to use gender-sensitive language for almost two decades, avoiding the generic masculine as much as possible.
In 2019, Hanover became the first state capital to enforce the use of neutral language in all official communications, from emails to brochures and posters. He rolled out what’s known as the “gender star,” an asterisk placed in a name to indicate that it refers to men, women, and non-binary people. For example, the word for all citizens has become Bürger * innen.
Alliance Marcus Brandt / dpa / photo via Getty Images
Anita Schach, who at the time was the city’s communications director, says the new language guidelines have received mixed reviews, but she thinks the generic masculine is outdated.
“Using non-sexist or gender staring language has less to do with the desire to change the world, and more with reality,” Shach says. “Society is not only made up of men, but also women, intersex and non-binary people and the language we use must reflect that.”
But Schach’s message did not reach everyone in Hanover. Hendrik, a lawyer who wouldn’t give his last name for fear of getting into trouble with his employer, says he can’t stand the gender star or any other punctuation mark – like a colon or a dash underscore – which are sometimes used to denote multiple genres instead of an asterisk.
“Once you start to tackle the third genre, it doesn’t take long before you have to tackle the fourth or fifth and, for me as a lawyer, it becomes too linguistically complex,” says Hendrik. “Legal texts are not there to serve such grievances. There are bigger problems in this world.”
He is not the only one to challenge non-sexist language. When Merriam-Webster’s German equivalent, the Duden Dictionary, began adding the female versions of names to its online edition and changing the definitions of male names to refer only to males instead of everyone, a small group led by citizens called Verein Deutsche Sprache, started a petition to “save the German language from Duden”.
Oliver Baer, a retired engineer who is one of the signatories and board member of the group, says: “Gender mainstreaming comes across as a diversion or even a very selfish and childish need to attract attention.
Baer argues that language does nothing to correct societal inequalities and that it cannot respect what he considers jargon. “Women are called people with a history of menstruation,” Baer says incredulously. “Sure, we can do that sort of thing, but it’s more cabaret than anything else.”
Gabriele Diewald, professor of linguistics at the University of Hanover, disagrees. “The generic masculine is not a grammatical imperative,” she says. “Claims to the contrary are deliberate attempts to continue to marginalize women and other genders.”
Diewald notes that while the gender-neutral language bothers the tabloid press, other media organizations have encouraged its acceptance.
One of them is the German television news program broadcast every evening in prime time, ZDF heute journal. Its host, Claus Kleber, was one of the first hosts to adopt non-sexist language. Speaking of the city of Mainz, Kleber says, “You get reluctant and scarce praise for it, but you get a lot and vehement opposition to it.”
Kleber even occasionally articulates the gender star or colon, which is pronounced by pausing briefly in the middle of a word by means of a glottal stop. But he says he doesn’t judge those who don’t use neutral language, nor use it religiously.
“I talk to 4 to 5 million people every night and they want to be respected,” Kleber says. “There are those on one side of this issue and those on the other, and I want to point out to both sides that I am not excluding anyone.”
Back in Hanover, Kerstin Krominga, who works in the performing arts, says it’s painfully ironic how divided the nation is over an effort to recognize that society is not made of binary opposites.
She says she is troubled by the ugliness of the debate. “I’m all for inclusive language, but I encounter a lot of aggression when I use it. Either that or I’m dismissed as being too specialized.”
But Krominga says she won’t be deterred from using language that speaks to everyone rather than just men.