Linguistic Change and Politics

German – A Man’s Language? An Attempt at a “Sex Change”

Womens Language?
Dear reader, after almost thirty years of habituation, a gender-sensitive language has become a matter-of-course today. Yet the consistent realisation of a gender-appropriate language is more difficult than is often assumed. Especially in administrative texts, laws and official forms, equal linguistic treatment is frequently awkward and complicated.

“Men are always classified properly; women almost never. For in our language, the following rule obtains: 99 women singer (i.e. Sängerinnen) and 1 male singer (i. e. Sänger) are together 100 singer (i.e. Sänger). Gone are the 99 women, not to be found, vanished into a masculine pigeonhole”. So the linguist Luise F. Pusch observed in 1990 in her book Alle Menschen werden Schwestern (i.e., All Men Will Become Sisters).
The necessity of a non-sexist language had already been discussed in Germany at the end of the 1970s. The root of all evil here is the “generic masculine”: women and men are both encompassed under the grammatical gender of the masculine. Examples are “The students (Studenten) protest”, “The party members (Parteimitglieder) vote”, or “The representatives of the pupils (Schülervertreter) meet” (all the bracketed German expressions are in the grammatical gender form of the masculine; translator’s note). Although women are grammatically included in these forms, according to various scholarly studies they are in effect less noticed. “Make women linguistically visible” was, therefore, the goal of many feminists and women linguists. In 1980, the first German guidelines for a non-sexist use of language were published. Copyright:PixelQuelle.deThey stirred up a hornet’s nest. With their publication flared up a media debate: women writers (Autor/innen) heaped obloquy on being hacked apart by slash-bars, women linguists [Sprachwissenschaftler(innen)] felt themselves bracketed out by discrimination, and the internal capital “I” (German orthographic means by which the normal plural form of nouns is made to indicate explicitly the grammatical feminine gender; translator’s note), which had been successfully used for years, was really popular only among feminists. A retrospective glance will show how strangely language can mutate when it has to be re-thought.

“Do they have a screw loose?”

In 1994, the city of Buchholz had to put up with this reproach from the local newspaper, the Oldenburgische Volkszeitung. The 34,000 inhabitants of this small community had resolved that, henceforth, all official documents would use only the feminine grammatical form. The mayor Joachim Schleif became the butt of the media’s language hysteria. The weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT joked about the “sex change” of the German language; other papers spoke maliciously of a “rape” and an “emasculation”. Again and again, grotesque new locutions were used so as to make gender-sensitive language ridiculous. Now Mitglieder (members) and Mitgliederinnen( [“members” in the feminine grammatical form) appeared at meetings, Grüninnen (member of the Green party in the feminine grammatical form; something like “she-Green”) pursued a sustainable politics, and suddenly one spoke even of Menschinnen (feminine grammatical form of the generic noun for “human beings”), Bürgerinnensteigen (pun, using the feminine grammatical form for the German word for “pavement”]) Nichtraucherinnenabteilen (“non-smoking compartment” in the feminine grammatical form), Amtsmänninnen (“office-holder” in the feminine grammatical form) and Erstsemestlerinnen (“freshwomen”).
Correct Form of Address?

The solution is creativity

Ten years later, “thank the goddess”, the situation has calmed down. “Gender-sensitive language has become a matter-of-course”, says the linguist Stephanie Thieme of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e.V. (i.e., German Language Society). As a member of the editorial staff of the German parliament, she checks the linguistic and gender-appropriate formulation of national legislative texts and ordinances. Yet in spite of the pains taken to achieve correct formulations, “there are”, she observes, “still problems with the details”.

Ineptly applied, gender-sensitive language swiftly becomes a caricature in official, political and administrative texts, as this example from an official form shows: “Signature of the male or female applicant(s) or his/her or their legal male or female representatives…” (Eigenhändige Unterschrift des/der Antragssteller(s)/in oder sein(es)/er bzw. ihr(es)/er gesetzlichen Vertreter(s)/in.).
Especially the constant use of the coupled form or double naming destroys, according to Thieme, the flow of language. Here an example from the law pertaining to universities: “The male/female University President is the highest office and male/female official for the male/female officials of the university and exercises employer’s authority for all the male/female employees of the university. She/he can transfer this authority entirely or in part to the full-time male or the full-time female Vice-President for Administration and Financial Management”.
In order to make dry administrative and legislative texts gender-friendly requires a flexible art of writing: “In the absence of creative solutions, it will be difficult”, says linguist Thieme, speaking from daily experience. Whether the doubled or the plural form or the non-gendered neuter variant, it’s the mixture that does the trick!”

Nevertheless, we may still look forward to further gender grotesques and linguistic waywardness. Whether in insurance law, in contractual formulations or legislation, Thieme prophesises that “It will still take a few years before a good and gender-appropriate language has been introduced into every last text.”

Bettina Levecke
is as a freelance journalist

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write.
September 2006

Related links



Project in „Jahr der Geisteswissenschaften“

Culture and Development

Find information about programmes of Goethe-Institut supporting the cultural infrastructure and professional training in the fields of culture, media and education.