Word! The Language Column
Gender-Neutral German: Asterisk or Underscore?

Illustration: Une bouche ouverte avec une pilule sur la langue.
How does the German language integrate foreign words? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

What’s the best way to include all gender identities when writing in German? This question has caused quite a stir in the German-speaking world.

By Kathrin Kunkel-Razum

The third week of working from home has begun. And it's the second week of the Kontaktsperre in Berlin, which prohibits meetings of more than two people at a time in public. According to news reports, there has already been a significant increase in incidents of violence against women in Berlin during the first fortnight of confinement. But there hasn’t been much discussion lately about a topic that has inflamed passions over the past three years in Germany: the treatment of women and gender equality in language.

This debate has caused quite a stir in German public discourse and the media since 2017, and the Duden editors have been inundated with inquiries – from very general ("Is all this fuss really necessary?") to very specific queries ("How should I formulate this sentence/text gender-neutrally?"). The main concern at the outset was binary gender neutrality, i.e. equal treatment of women and men in language. But after the autumn 2017 ruling by the German Federal Constitutional Court on the equality of all people before the law, whatever gender they identify as, some very different questions arose: e.g. How should people of other gender identities be addressed? What pronouns should be used to refer to them later in the text?

From vile insults to appreciative write-ups

It was impossible for us to answer all these questions one at a time, so we decided to put together a guide to gender-neutral German. It came out in time for the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair under the title Richtig gendern – wie Sie angemessen und verständlich schreiben (“Gendering Correctly: How to Write Appropriately and Understandably”). Hardly any book of ours has ever caused so much controversy. The reactions ran the gamut from vile vituperative and personal insults on social media and in "reviews" targeting the authors and editors, and protests by the Verein Deutsche Sprache (German Language Association) at the Leipzig Book Fair in the spring of 2018, to appreciative write-ups. A year later, we published a simplified version entitled Gendern – ganz einfach (“Gendering Made Easy”). And our third how-to book on the subject, Handbuch geschlechtergerechter Sprachgebrauch (“Handbook of Gender-Neutral Usage”), is coming out in a few weeks.

But why are we getting hate mail? Why are "reviews" like this one posted on Amazon under our first guide to “gendering correctly”? “No way am I going to follow or get used to this rot. It's just so sad to have to sit here and watch people like these two willing authors – who obviously can’t accomplish anything else – help not only to do away with more and more of our beautiful country, but also to ruin our German mother tongue!” Or this one: “ can't eat as much as this book makes me want to puke. I’m very disappointed with the Duden publishing house. Should be taken off the list.”
Gender equality in language evidently makes people’s blood boil – and not only men, but women, too. How come? Probably because it's about a whole lot more than correcting the semantic surface: it's about women’s visibility in language and about language in the real world. 

Generic masculine, gender asterisk and underscore

The underlying bone of contention is the grammatical phenomenon in German known as the “generic masculine”. Take this sentence, for example: “Die Ärzte behandeln die am Coronavirus Erkrankten auf einer Isolierstation.“ ("The doctors are treating coronavirus patients in an isolation ward.”) The traditional view is that this sentence, employing the "generic masculine" form Ärzte, is gender-neutral, since Ärzte includes both Ärzte (male doctors) and Ärztinnen (female doctors). In the latter-day view, however, which is corroborated by a great many studies, this simply isn’t true: respondents are much more likely to associate such uses of the generic masculine with men than women. The German sentence does not tell us for sure whether female doctors are also treating patients. But that probably can be assumed, so it ought to read: “Die Ärztinnen und Ärzte behandeln …“ (“The female and male doctors are treating …”).

Nowadays, an asterisk or underscore (aka “Gendergap”) may be inserted before the gender-specific suffix (Ärzt*innen or Die Ärzt_innen, respectively) to signify "all" genders, above and beyond the binary genders of male and female. Judging from the latest usage statistics, the gender asterisk seems to be gaining ground, but the situation is still developing. The international Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Orthography) is observing the trend and is generally expected to come out with a detailed statement on the matter in its next report in 2022. In the meantime, the asterisk is common practice in many texts, though it is not yet covered by the current German spelling rules.

For many years now, by the way, we Duden editors have been including the female versions of all (generic) male job titles in our dictionaries: e.g. Lehrerin (female teacher) next to Lehrer (male teacher), die Päpstin (female pope) next to der Papst (male pope).  

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.