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Feminism and language
To gender or not to gender? That is the question!

Illustration of protesting people
Illustrator: © Marlen Hacker

The German language, like the French, is considered male-dominated. In recent years, there have therefore been numerous attempts to get to the root of the problem in the language on both sides of the Rhine and fix it. And so here too the battle of the sexes has been raging.

A few years ago, a human being was born and was given the name “Eike”. Naturally, many people asked: Is it a boy? Is it a girl? The parents didn’t want to divulge the child’s sex. They wanted it to grow up far from gender-specific stereotypes and decide upon a gender for itself. Eike is among those children who are growing up amidst the current gender debate and whose parents, full of ideals, do not want to squeeze the new little human being into a gender corset. In Germany, a ruling of the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe in November 2017 allows entry of a third gender in the register of persons when a child is born. The aim is to stop discrimination against people who have gender issues and to minimize inequalities. Does this policy also work with language?


Being, according to Karl Marx, determines consciousness. The same is true of language. It influences our thinking. “Language”, says Véronique Perry, “is a symbolic guide and produces a specific view of the world”. Perry is a linguist at the University of Toulouse III and has been researching the gender issue in English and French for over twenty years. English, she says, is far less sexist than the French language, with all its grammatical restrictions. In English, for example, you can easily coordinate the nouns “doctor” or “cook”, which can apply to both sexes, with either the pronoun “she” or “he”, thus answering the question of gender immediately. In French as in German this is hardly possible: “der Arzt” (masculine form) cannot be followed by “she” – that would be grammatically incorrect. Here the substantive must be adapted to the gender – die Ärztin (feminine form) – whereby in both German and French the male designation represents the norm. In French, there is a further problem: while German always has a feminine equivalent – thus the female colleague of “der Arzt” is “die Ärztin” – French here has a lot of catching up to do. Because in French a “docteur” (masculine form) remains a “docteur”, no matter whether female or male. Forms such as “auteure” and “docteure” are used as a sign of protest by activists, but the Académie française has refused them official recognition. The same applies to the orientation to masculine nouns. For example, as soon as a man sits in an orchestra, all the musicians in the orchestra, whether male or female, become male. Thus we say: “les musiciens de la Philharmonie de Paris étaient très forts ce soir”, even if the orchestra consists of twelve ladies and one gentleman. That this can be problematic becomes apparent in the following thought experiment, well known in the field of gender studies. Imagine a son is traveling with his father. They have an accident in which the father dies and the son is hospitalized. There he has to be operated on. As the surgeons on duty bend over the boy, someone from the team says: “I can’t operate – this is my son!” Well, what is the relationship between the victim and the person being operated on? Most people begin to speculate about adoption, illegitimate children, patchwork families. The question arises: “Hold on, the father is dead. Who is the boy there on the operating table?” The simple answer is: there is at least one female surgeon in the team, the boy’s mother. How absurd the whole thing can get was shown a few years ago by a tampon advertisement, which read: “Jeder erlebt seine Tage anders” (“Everyone experiences his periods differently”). Notice anything?


In addition to professional titles, which in many cases exist only in their masculine form in French, gendering is also about graphic means intended to indicate that a personal name refers to both men and women. In German there is the capitalized internal “I”, as in “BürgerInnen” (female and male citizens), the separation by a slash or underscoring, as in Student_innen (female and male students), the asterisk or experimental spellings with X. The last case is meant to include all transsexuals, who do not feel themselves aligned with any gender. Then we write not “Professorin” (feminine form) or “Professor” (masculine form), but “ProfessX”. Awkward about this is that many people unfortunately think here of Asterix and Obelix rather than of equal rights. Finally, another variant is substantivized participles such as “Studierende” (“those studying”) or “Mitarbeitende” (“those being employed”). But here, too, there are grammatical problems because use of the participle also expresses that the person is in the process of doing something. Yet students or employees are not permanently engaged in studying or working together. This offers a lot of material for discussion – in French, too, where many still refuse to use the so-called point médian, as in “député e s”, intended to include male and female MPs.


The French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is a fan of linguistic equality to only a limited extent. In November 2017, he opposed the use of point médian and accord de proximité. This must be highly satisfying to the Académie française, because it too is less than thrilled by the innovations. Grammatical gender should not to be confused with natural gender, it already argued in a statement in 1984. In October 2017, a polemic enveloped the prestigious institution, which is officially responsible for the unification and care of the French language. While a large number of writers and intellectuals espoused the gendering of French and use of the so-called écriture inclusive, the Academy warned against an excess of adaptations and signs in order not to impair the readability and clarity of the language. Orientation to the masculine thus exists today as it did a hundred years ago. “That’s clear”, says Véronique Perry. “The Académie française was founded by Cardinal de Richelieu, who sought to standardize the French language even then.” And, as in German, the masculine form in French also marks men as the norm, as with the surgeon in the surgical team or the man in the orchestra. For Perry, the solution lies in the so-called règle de proximité, the rule of the nearest noun. In French, the adjective is always adapted to the noun. In German – “Das große Haus” (the big house), “der große Hund” (the big dog), “die große Jacke” (the large jacket) – the adjective ending does not change. In French, it becomes “la grande maison” or “le grand chien”. If there is a sequence of nouns of female and male gender in a sentence, then in French the adjective has always been adapted to the masculine noun. The feminine form falls away. This would change with the règle de proximité. The feminine form could govern a sentence, since the adjective is then adapted to the noun that is nearest it. The address “chers toutes et tous” – Dear Everyone – then becomes “chères toutes et tous”.
For many, the gender debate means one thing above all: much hot air about nothing. In Germany, too, some groups have put their foot down. The Association for the Preservation of the German Language calls, very like the Académie française, for an “end to the gender clutter“ and sees France as a role model in language policy. Recently, the Council for German Orthography decided to abstain for the time being from making any recommendations for gender-appropriate language. The downfall of the German language, feared by some, has been postponed for now, writes Mathias Heine in an article in Die Welt. However, “amidst all the debate there is one thing we should not lose sight of”, said the linguist, feminist, psychoanalyst and retired Professor of the University of Paris-Decartes Anne-Marie Houdebine, who died in 2016: “language always has an ethical quality, that is, the capacity to discriminate or disparage, but also to be egalitarian and therefore not sexist or racist”. Which way the language will go remains open. But one thing is certain: if we want an equal society, our view of the world has to change and with it our language.