FEMFACTS
18 Mar 2019

Is gender neutral switch a threat to the German language?

The German city of Hannover has decided to switch to gender-neutral language in all its official communications, angering many.

Daria Sukharchuk
Daria Sukharchuk NewsMavens, Central & Eastern Europe
Is gender neutral switch a threat to the German language? - NewsMavens
Germany Dictionary, PixaBay

The discussion about gendered language in Germany has been going for a while now. The city of Hannover’s decision to replace some words which have a gender with their gender-neutral variations in all official letters, printed materials, and presentations, has added fresh fuel to the fire.

Quite a few people and publications on the internet have been calling this the “last round of gender madness”. One of those is “Tichys Einblick”, a magazine which positions itself against the “mainstream media” and calls itself a “liberal-conservative opinion magazine”, (supporting liberal outlook on the economy and the national-conservative one in all other aspects of politics).

One of Tichys Einblick’s writers, a retired gymnasium headmaster Josef Krach, wrote a scathing article about how Hannover is “doing away with Herr and Frau (Gentleman and Lady)”. His column was published on January 23 under the headline “Hannover is putting itself at the forefront of gender insanity”.

WHAT’S THE CLAIM?

Krach starts his article by stating how Hannover used to be seen as the city where the German language was spoken better than in any other part of Germany (which isn’t surprising, since its local dialect eventually grew to become Germany’s state language). But, he claims, Hannover’s reputation as the city with the “cleanest” German language is now gone, tainted by the “gender madness”.

Mocking the city’s announcement of new rules for official language use, Krach writes:

Hannover has no problems, and that’s why it’s changing “voters’” to “those who vote”, “list of voters” to “list of those voting”, “speakers’ tribune’ to ‘speech tribune”, “speaker’s list” to “speech list”. And it’s called high German.”  

Krach then goes on to add to his list of ridicule and “complaints“ against Hannover,  mockingly lamenting that its football team has slided down to the 17th place in the national championship and calling the introduction of gender-neutral language “a desperate attempt to regain prominence in the country”. Finally, in the last paragraphs of his article he states that Germany has “more professors of gender biology than of pharmacology (220 and 190 respectively)” and congratulates the French prime minister Edouard Philippe who has instructed French public servants to stop using gender-inclusive forms of writing.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

In the German language, as in other languages which employ gender on a wider scale than English, genreded endings are impossible to avoid in words for professions. Let’s take an example of the word “teacher” -- if it’s a man, the German word for teacher is “Lehrer”; if it’s a woman, it’s “Lehrerin”. The use of singular forms in female gender is not an issue -- most people aren’t put off by a “Bundeskanzlerin” (a female Federal Chancellor), let alone “Lehrerin” or other, less powerful women cropping up in German speech and official documents. The plural form, however, still remains problematic.

For centuries, the masculine plural (here that would be “Lehrer”) was considered the acceptable neutral, unless you were talking about a group made up exclusively of women. So a group of female teachers would be called “Lehrerinnen”, but if there was just one man among them, that would change to “Lehrer”.

The rather cumbersome gender-inclusive form with an asterisk (which Krach laments in his article) was introduced as a more inclusive version -- in this case it would be “Lehrer*innen”, with the asterisk standing between the male and the female endings to connote that the word refers to both genders. But while this inclusive writing was used by some organizations, it has never really become the norm. Most of the newspaper articles, for instance, wouldn’t bother with it.

So, even if the use of these terms is not among the “pressing problems” in Hannover, there clearly is a “history” of dealing with female gender in words for professions, as there is in all languages similar to German. Under the new guidelines issued by the city of Hannover, the issue is resolved with the introduction of a gender-neutral word which refers to the act of teaching rather than the gender of the person doing it. So in all official documents, the above variations will be replaced with the gender-neutral word “Lehrende” -- those who teach.  

What Hannover did was to find existing gender neutral analogs to the gendered words everybody was familiar with, instead of creating a new form. This makes this the form of writing much more acceptable for popular use than the form with an asterisk. The sarcastic remark by Krach that this was done because “Hannover has no other problems” doesn’t really show concern for other problems the city may have. It’s an age old excuse used to advocate for the invisibility of female gender in spoken and written language, which was a result of the historical fact that women simply didn’t have access to the same professions as men -- and words reflected that.

Moreover, the only people that are so far mandated to use these new forms are Hannover’s public servants -- everyone else can, of course, choose whatever words best convey their message to their audience.

But Mr Krach actually doesn’t get to the bottom of the other problem that seems to scare him, that is “doing away with Ladies and Gentleman”.

Things became even more complicated this year, when Germany officially introduced the third gender (now referred to as “d” for “diverse”) into the official use, rendering the old male-female binary obsolete, and calling for an even further reform of German to reflect a changed reality. On top of introducing gender-neutral plural forms, the city of Hannover has also abolished the mandatory binary of the Herr/Frau (Mr/Ms) “field” in all official forms. With this new approach, one can simply introduce oneself as, for example, Alex Schulz, without necessarily adding a “Herr” of a “Frau” in front of it.

The change is not mandatory -- Hannover’s public servants can change their name shields to reflect this, but they are free to keep the old ones, if they want to. So the only real change here is that gender non-binary people, otherwise forced to constantly choose a male or a female gender to identify with, may sigh with relief at being allowed to not do that anymore.

CONCLUSION

Talking about new, gender-neutral and inclusive forms of language, is an important part of making people of all genders visible. Presenting that as alarm-causing “gender madness” is neither true to the reality which the language should reflect, nor to the needs of people who use it. We therefore rate this as an example of intersectional discrimination.

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