Gender-neutral language

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 “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This quote by Wittgenstein is as true today as it was 100 years ago. Social values, hierarchies, and role models still shape our language and, as a result, our consciousness. Gender equality is non-negotiable, yet the linguistic representation of women and non-binary people is still controversially debated.

Studies show that most people assume that the generic masculine represents one only group: men. Ergo, language is not neutral but a reflection of our society; it fundamentally determines how we think and act. Gender-inclusive language confronts these status quo assumptions, challenges implicit biases, and increases the visibility of women and non-binary people. Daily implementation of these linguistic changes creates space to achieve full gender equality. Our goals with this animated short film are to raise awareness of gender-inclusive language, demonstrate three examples of written and spoken inclusivity, and inspire you to join us in its daily use. 

Interview on gender-inclusive language

with Prof. Dr. Anatol Stefanowitsch, Professor of Linguistics at the Free University of Berlin and author of the book “A Question of Morality – Why We Need Politically Correct Language”

Is language innocent or neutral?

Language is never a direct reflection of reality, but always involves our perspective on the world. When we look at words we use to describe our environment we might think of them as innocent – for example different languages divide the spectrum of colors in different ways, but they always do so within the parameters set by the human eye and brain. Most of our environment, however, is of our own making. Social values, hierarchies and role models, rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, indeed often the groups themselves and the criteria of belonging to a group are culture-specific human constructs that are not described by words and grammatical structures, but are created by ourselves in the first place and passed on from generation to generation. Language, therefore, cannot possibly be neutral.

Why is gender-inclusive language a question of morality?

For several hundred years, the German language has evolved in a society in which people were divided into men and women as a matter of course, and in which the man represented the social norm – he was a citizen, voter, merchant, soldier, professor, or craftsman; while the woman was confined to the domestic sphere, so that corresponding feminine terms were rarely used. A use of language in which we also talk about mixed groups or abstract categories of people as if they consisted exclusively of men – and nothing else is the so-called “generic masculine” – may have seemed normal to many (including women). Today we live in a society in which we agree in principle that men and women are equal, and since we men would hardly put up with being addressed by feminine forms, we can no longer justify imposing this on women who are equal to us. More recently, people who cannot or do not want to categorize themselves as either men or women are increasingly speaking out, and they too are demanding linguistic visibility. Here, too, the basic principle is that men and women who insist on their own linguistic visibility must also concede this to this group.

The arguments against gender-inclusive language range from ruining the German language to censorship, speech bans and cancel culture to “gender madness” and “gender gaga”. Language seems to have become a true cultural battleground. Why do people oppose gender inclusive language with such outrage?  

For many, the use of new language forms is probably unfamiliar and thus, like anything new, somewhat irritating. That’s normal. We are currently experiencing a change with gendered language that, while not actually very profound, is quite rapid, and of course we have to process it for ourselves first. But certain people and political movements weaponize this irritation for ideological purposes, for example, to maintain traditional gender hierarchies and role models by using language criticism indirectly.

Opponents of gender-inclusive language claim that a supposedly fairer language does not create equality in real life. What do you think of the accusation that advocates for gender-equitable language lose sight of the main concerns of gender equality policy and have more important things to do? 

Equitable language first creates awareness of where there is a lack of equality. The condition for equality is to make a group linguistically visible first. One of the pioneers of feminist linguistics, Marlies Hellinger, gave a nice example of this in an essay in 1994: In forming the word general, we make it conceivable that a woman could fill this position – which had never been the case at that time (the first woman to hold the rank of general became Verena von Weyrmann in the year this essay was published). We also know from research by my colleague Bettina Hannover that girls and young women are less likely to consider a job if the job ad uses the so-called “generic masculine.” So language is not an accessory or an afterthought, but an integral part of any gender equality policy.

Opponents of gender-inclusive language often claim that gendered language is not an expression of natural language development, but a socio-political project of a small elite minority, mostly from the university sector of the humanities and social sciences. They claim that the majority of the population in Germany is not in favor of gender-equal language. Moreover, they claim that the texts become incomprehensible and therefore are not accessible by many people. Why should we still use gender-equitable language?

The accusation of elitism is a popular populist sleight of hand, but in the case of gender-inclusive language it lacks any ground. Since the 1980s, the forms of gendering we are discussing have always developed primarily within the circles of those affected. For many pioneers – for example Luise Pusch and Senta Trömel-Plötz – their work has even cost them their academic careers. Whether there is a social majority for gender-equitable language use remains to be seen. The existing opinion polls are often inaccurate or even tendentiously formulated and therefore not very conclusive. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s not the majority who decides about justice. 

Last year in September, Federal Minister of Justice Lambrecht presented a bill on insolvency law that was predominantly written in the generic feminine. This led to fierce outrage in parts of the public. Ever since Petra Gerster started anchoring the glottal-stroked heute news, ZDF has been receiving indignant viewer reactions. Why is this topic so emotionally charged? 

The bill is a fine example of the linguistic golden rule I suggested: don’t portray others linguistically the way you wouldn’t want to be portrayed in their place. The fact that men are so upset about the bill is actually valid – they have a right to linguistic visibility. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t get the reversed idea – that this right also applies to women and non-binary people, and the hundreds of pieces of legislation written in generic masculine are just as outrageous. It hurts them to give up privileges that have become dear and have been taken for granted for a long time. It also hurts them when their privileges are being pointed out to them – one can get angry, but they’ll have to go through it…

There are also voices – certainly from the feminist spectrum of opinion – that reject gendered language because it always marks women as such, claiming that gendering is therefore sexist. What is your position on this criticism?

This problem has been considered in feminist linguistics from the very beginning, even by the proponents, but it cannot be solved easily. Until gender-neutral forms (such as Studierende) or at least forms that are gender-inclusive in their intent (such as Student*innen) become established, the alternative would be to mark all people as men at all times and continue to maintain the myth that being male is the normal case. 

What kind of gendering – double nouns, neutral spellings, indented I, gender gap, gender asterisk, colon – do you personally prefer?

I think some variety is good and proper until one or more forms become widely accepted. Personally I think that gender-neutral forms (such as the participles just mentioned) seem to be the most promising in the long term, but I also find the indented I or the underscore useful in appropriate contexts. The gender asterisk certainly has the best chance at the moment of becoming a kind of officially tolerated standard solution – if that were to happen, I would use it as benevolently (if somewhat dispassionately) as I do the comma or the “ß” in situations where standardization is important. 

Do you also gender when you speak?

Yes, I find the spoken gender gap very elegant – it’s been around since the 1980s as the pronunciation of the Binnen-I, so it unifies all the different orthographic forms under one phonetic roof. However, I also often use the generic feminine, simply because the overwhelming majority of my students are female.

Do you deduct grade points from students if they don’t use gender in their written work? 

No, at my university – as at most universities – there is no such regulation, and I have better things to do anyway than to act out the conservative fiction of a language police. I explain to students, if they don’t already know, where the problems of the generic masculine lie – the rest is up to them. However, I would find such a point deduction appropriate where gendering itself is learning content or in subjects where an inclusive view of humanity is a basic requirement (for example, in certain areas of pedagogy). Here, too, however, no specific forms should be instilled until a standard has evolved. 

Should the public service become a role model on the way to gender-equitable and discrimination-free language?

After all, the public service is bound by the Basic Law and may not discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender. The Constitutional Court has made it clear with its decision on the third gender entry that the ban on discrimination does not just apply to men and women. I find the fact that the same Constitutional Court does not (yet) understand that the masculine is not gender-neutral very regrettable, but it offers the civil service an opportunity to be smarter and more inclusive than Germany’s highest court. A unique opportunity that should be actively seized!

The interview was conducted by Annette Ludwig, Equal Opportunities Office.

Bis zu den Gendersternchen und noch viel weiter.

Um die Theorie in eine allgemeine Praxis zu verwandeln, haben wir einen Leitfaden erstellt. Darin findet ihr Empfehlungen für eine geschlechtergerechte Sprache vom gesprochenen Wort bis hin zur E-Mail-Signatur. Außerdem haben wir euch ein paar Argumente für Gendersternchen und Co. zusammengetragen, die ihr bei der nächsten Diskussion über den Sinn oder Unsinn von geschlechtersensiblem Sprachgebrauch anbringen könnt.

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