Word! The Language Column
Thinking outside the box to tesolve the debate about gender-inclusive language

Illustration: A screen that is also an open mouth, two speech bubbles with asterisk, colon, hyphen and hashtag sign
Internet language at its best: broadening the perspective | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Digital tools are only helpful if we learn to think digitally. In his final column, Dirk von Gehlen explains why we’d do well to follow the example of two champion high jumpers.

By Dirk von Gehlen

Essa Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi are rivals and good friends. Now if you find that a contradiction in terms, I’d advise you not to go on reading the last instalment of my Word! column on netspeak. Because it’s about the future of language online and offline – and requires an ability compared to which getting your ahead around simultaneous rivalry and friendship is mere child’s play: coming to terms with the future requires a tolerance for ambiguity, i.e. accepting multiple interpretations. This is something you can practise.

Accepting ambiguity

Every domain of that ever-unknown realm that we trustingly call the future requires a certain tolerance for ambiguity, a multiplicity of meanings that becomes particularly conspicuous in dealing with the language of the future, and it demands of us a mental feat that Essa Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi have achieved in an exemplary and historically unique way.

But before jumping at their level, let’s set the bar at the level of the situation we’re facing nowadays. The democratization of the means of publication, which we’ve repeatedly touched on in this column, has brought to light an emancipatory desire that enlightened minds should support: voices we used to barely notice, if at all, are now demanding our attention, demanding to be heard. To be linguistically included was always inadequate. But now we have a chance to address the issue. (By the way, if you’re interested in the challenges of inclusive language, non-binary personal pronouns are a case in point.)

A quote from Bertolt Brecht's theory of radio helps in getting a sense of our privileged take on such generic language and implied inclusion. Reflecting on the radio, the German playwright in 1932 anticipated what is often said in our day about the Internet and social media: “It was suddenly possible to say everything to everyone, but, when people thought about it, they realized they had nothing to say.”

New possibilities for the unheard

If you’re nodding in agreement, you haven’t benefited much from the new possibilities for saying things, as Brecht put it. In other words, you were apparently so privileged before the advent of Internet that you now fail to appreciate the Internet’s emancipatory potential for all those who’d never got a hearing before: Black Lives Matter and the #Aufschrei and #MeToo movements, at any rate, definitely have more than “nothing to say”. And they’ve actually been fired up by the new possibilities for publication!

New social challenges have emerged as a result. One expression thereof is the desire to speak as inclusively as possible rather than using generic forms of merely implied inclusion. There are several different approaches to inclusive language in German, which are frequently lumped together in highly polarizing terms as the “gender debate”. Their differences are based on two basic questions: Do you use the gender star? Or, in speaking, do you pause briefly after the word “Anfänger” (“beginners”), for instance, and then add “-innen” (i.e. the feminine plural suffix)? Both are ways of showing that you know and use more than just the generic masculine forms. The mid-word pause, especially, which is called a “glottal stop“ in phonetics, is a cultural achievement often used in German in other contexts: it helps, for example, in saying “Spiegel-Ei” (“fried egg”) and not “Spiegellei” (a non-existent word that could mean “mirroring”). Now that this glottal stop has come to be used in the media as a so-called “gender pause”, however, many people hear it – like the gender star or the colon in, say, “Leser:innen” (“readers”) – as a pause for breath before launching into an argument.

Reader’s choice

But now for the good news: this argument is over. Because netspeak will resolve the issue in the same user-centred way that the Internet handles many a challenge. It won't be long before websites stop trying to resolve issues of gender neutrality from the publishers’ side and simply let their readers decide how they want to read a given text (here’s an example of this approach).

If you read a lot of articles online, then you may already be familiar with automatic translation services that make foreign-language websites accessible to speakers of German and other inflected languages. The technological possibilities will be so advanced in the foreseeable future that this option will be usable for other text variants of readable language quality as well. If the gender star bothers you, you’ll be able to opt out of the inclusive suffix and read texts that do without it. If, on the other hand, you prefer the generic feminine or the aforementioned glottal-stop colon, you can set your preferences accordingly.

So far, so good. But this is just a superficial solution that merely filters the argument away without addressing the underlying problem. To find a solution, I’ll need some help from Essa Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi.

The underlying problem might be described as “the end of the average”: language isn’t the same for everyone anymore, it changes according to which perspective you choose. Which, in turn, changes our view of language – and is a logical consequence of what we’ve observed in many social domains as the so-called digital transformation: a user-centred approach spells the gradual demise of any single common forum. We all speak German – but increasingly divergent varieties thereof.

This seems problematic, but for the time being it’s simply like the future: unknown. We are only just beginning to learn to deal with this shift from mass culture to masses of niches. It is challenging us in new ways and setting the mindfulness bar ever higher. This was the challenge facing Essa Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.

Raising the bar

If I’m taking two high jumpers who squared off in the finals as an example here, it’s not on account of their athletic performance. After clearing seven different heights on their first try, Barshim and Tamberi succeeded in something that we need for the language of the future too: they came up with a hybrid solution, an option that had never been ruled out and yet was never tried before: they shared Olympic gold.

After both athletes had failed in three attempts to clear 2.39 m, the referee proposed a jump-off. But Barshim had a brainwave: “Can we have two golds?” “Let's make history,” agreed Tamberi. And when the ref signed off on the proposition and let them share the title, the decision did indeed make history, for it was the first time in Olympic history that two gold medals have been awarded. The two rivals had succeeded in thinking outside the box, i.e. beyond the confines of the usual way of doing things – which, depending on the force of inertia involved, we tend to regard as tradition, or at least as a given.

At its best, netspeak succeeds in doing precisely that. And in so doing, it is broadening our horizons and showing us new possibilities in practice. After all, language isn’t really a noun at all: It’s a verb that thrives on usage, especially online.

So give it a try yourself! I bet you can jump higher than you think ;-)

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.