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Word! The Language Column
Pronouns

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A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

​What is the relationship of German pronouns to gender-equal language? Sharon Dodua Otoo looks at the problem from the perspective of several languages – and has a suggestion.

By Sharon Dodua Otoo

What we need are poems that interrogate the world of pronouns, open up possibilities of language and life; forms of politics that support and encourage self-affirmation.
(Judith Butler)


I suppose even hard-core grammar enthusiasts could never have imagined that pronouns would spark the surge of interest that they have in recent years. And to be honest, even I didn’t find pronouns all that remarkable at first. I grew up with a mother who regularly mixed up “he” and “she” because she was socialised in a language that only had one (genderless) pronoun for the third person. Ga is the name of my mother’s first language, and it is mostly spoken in Accra, the capital city of Ghana.  The pronoun “lɛ” covers he, she and it. I have also always been comfortable with using the English language “they” as a third person singular pronoun. I can’t really remember why – it wasn’t a progressive move on my part. I was not raised with an awareness of gender identities outside of “male” and “female”. But I do remember speaking of “they” / “them” / “their” when the gender of a person was unknown or irrelevant.  For example, in the very wise sentence: “if somebody isn’t returning your calls, maybe they’re just not that into you ...” Apparently even Chaucer and Shakespeare used the genderless third person pronoun “they” in their work. Therefore, despite popular opinion, it really isn’t a revolutionary act to use it in modern English.

One Word, many meanings

But in German? Houston, we have a problem. The debate about pronouns is still raging. Along with the “Gendersternchen” and gender gap it’s one of the most controversial subjects in the field of anti-discriminatory language. One problem is that the German word for “they” is “sie”, which this happens to be spelt and pronounced identically to the pronoun “she”. And as if that was not confusing enough, the word “Sie” (with a capital S) also means “you” in singular and plural. Clearly there is a lexical gap here - a fully developed word which is present in English is missing in German. What’s the best way to deal with this?

It seems to me that there are only two plausible options (Of course, there are more. I often reformulate sentences to avoid the use of third person pronouns altogether. But I’m a creative writer. Not everyone has time for mental gymnastics of this kind). Option one would be to negate the existence of nonbinary people – or at a minimum, deny them the right to express their gender identity adequately within the German language. I find this option unacceptable, if not to say in breach of human rights. Option two would be to welcome the use of neo-pronouns, for example “xier” and “sier”.

Genderless

Certainly, neo-pronouns would take some getting used to. And yes, resistance from those who want to preserve the German language as it is, is likely. But if the Swedish Academy can successfully expand the official dictionary to include the word “hen” as a genderless third person pronoun, alongside the existing pronouns “han” (“he”) and “hon” (“she”), I am confident that this could also be possible in the German context. Especially if we creative writers roll up our sleeves and just use them. For in order to encourage their widespread use, I do agree with Judith Butler: What we need are poems.
 

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.

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