Word! The Language Column
The Big Fray over the Little Star

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

The gender star has proved an enduring bone of contention. Henning Lobin now wades into the fray to offer his own two cents on the matter. We clearly need to sheathe our verbal swords, he says, and objectively debate the pros and cons of gender-neutral language.

By Henning Lobin

The German public are up in arms lately about one language issue in particular: gender-neutral language, which is a perfectly – yes – neutral matter of using what’s also known as “gender-inclusive”, “gender-equitable” or “gender-sensitive” language in German. Some detractors write off these gender-inclusive efforts as “Genderei” (i.e. obsessing with gender issues), “Genderwahn” (i.e. “gender-mania”) or worse. This has become a textbook case of language controversy: a proposed linguistic fix comes up against widespread resistance, the debate turns ugly, acrimonious and increasingly political, and eventually our positions on the matter are taken as epitomizing our whole Weltanschauung. Every day you’ll find all sorts of different takes on the subject in the media. Will we ever make it out of this morass?

Intertwined issues

What makes the controversy particularly thorny is that it’s actually about two different, but intertwined, issues. On the one hand, there’s the call to give women greater visibility in language, e.g. by using both masculine and feminine forms for nouns such as Wähler (voters): Wählerinnen (feminine form) und Wähler (masculine). This solution was proposed fifty years ago and has since more or less caught on. Insofar as these paired forms are now frequently used in public discourse, they have eclipsed the use of the “generic” masculine. This easily applied solution is often referred to as geschlechtergerecht (“gender-equitable”) language.

But above and beyond the binary choice between male and female, some people cannot or do not want to be assigned to either sex. Hence the call for recognition for gender diversity that goes beyond binary categories, which is a far more recent linguistic issue.

This non-binary diversity is much harder to implement in German. To be sure, instead of Dozentinnen und Dozenten (lecturers), for example, we can use Dozierenden, a participial form that covers all grammatical genders. But this doesn’t work for, say, Professorinnen und Professoren (professors). So the “gender star” was introduced several years ago to mark gender diversity for words that have both masculine and feminine forms: Professor*innen. Colons, underscores and a few other markers are also used for this purpose.

Pros and cons

The gender star has now become a stand-in for the whole controversy, eclipsing some necessary nuances in the process. The gender star is indeed an alien body in written German and often abjured as such. It is the only marker that goes beyond linguistic structure to point up a social issue. Nor is it provided for in official orthography. Its usage only makes sense to a limited extent, because genericizing articles, adjectives and pronouns in this way works badly, if at all.

And yet it reflects a social development that is not otherwise represented in the language. It’s an attempt to give linguistic expression to the fact that some people can’t be assigned to one gender or the other, as has long since been recognized by the German Federal Constitutional Court. So a number of municipal administrations, for example, are now looking for ways to specifically include this group of people in official communications.

Meanwhile, some people favour reverting to the good old generic masculine as a panacea. It is, after all, firmly rooted in the very structure of the German language. The masculine is regarded as the “unmarked” grammatical form to refer to any gender, just as the present is regarded as the “unmarked” verb tense and the singular the “unmarked” number for nouns.

Others beg to differ, however, arguing that “markedness” is really just a function of frequency of usage and by no means inherent in the system, so it can be changed by changing standard usage. Moreover, the gendered meaning of personal nouns (i.e. nouns that refer to a person) is the basis from which the generic meaning is derived.

Battle flags

The gender star and generic masculine have become battle flags rallying the opposing camps in the German gender wars, whose daily clashes take the form of op-ed pieces in the press, caustic comments on “social” media, bills introduced by right-wing parliamentary parties to abolish gender-inclusive language, and, on the other hand, regulations on the use of gender-appropriate language in schools and universities, administrative offices and even companies – regulations which some seek to enforce – and others to block – at all costs.

The debate has even wormed its way into the upcoming parliamentary elections. Almost all the parties have come out for or against gender-inclusive language, and there are recent calls to legislate on the matter. But how are language rules to be enforced? Here in Germany, everyone’s allowed to say or write whatever they please and in any way they please. So how institutions are to institute gender-inclusive language remains an open question that will increasingly, in all likelihood, have to be decided by the courts. I don’t think prohibitions are the answer. Instead, we need to sit down and level-headedly discuss the pros and cons of gender-inclusive language. Unfortunately, such an objective, dispassionate debate isn’t even in the offing yet.


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.