(Gender) Stars in their Eyes

Zu den deutschsprachigen Blogs Gender stars
Zu den deutschsprachigen Blogs Gender stars

When is an actor not an actor? When she’s an actress, silly! Due to the lack of gendered articles in English, the language has been arguably spared some of the acrimonious dispute currently raging in German-speaking Europe.

An article from David – localiser, philosopher and Berliner.

Since the 1970s, English evolved a number of nuances and additions that helped the language become more inclusive towards girls and women. As social mores entered the modern era, at least some of the patronising and chauvinist terminologies, grammar and habits were slowly purged from everyday written and spoken discourse.

The latest grammatical watershed change has been the gradual acceptance of the third-person plural as a third-person singular when a noun’s gender is uncertain. “The surgeon will exercise caution with the knife, they will have to keep quite still”. Although still not universally accepted by traditionalist grammarians, it seems this new form is here to stay. It also has the added bonus of satisfying calls from non-binary humans for inclusive unexclusiveness.

Luckily for Anglos, these changes haven’t kept legions of grammarians, conservative commentators and armchair linguistic experts from claiming that any changes to grammar would inevitably precipitate the end of Anglophone culture as we know it. Such indifference, however, is far from the passionate—if not outright choleric—atmosphere enveloping the gendered language debate in German Europe right now.

Stars, slashes and colons

Of course, a noun’s gender wasn’t a front-page issue 150 years ago when most women worked, lived, and loved in the spaces delegated to them by the societies they lived in. The pioneering women who began to enter traditionally male domains (doctors, lawyers, etc.) added feminine suffixes to the original nouns. For example: Arzt and Ärztin (doctor and female doctor) or Anwalt and Anwältin (lawyer and female lawyer). The plural and indeterminate third-person singular forms, however, retained the traditional masculine endings. Whether this was for grammatical and/or social and anthropological reasons is the very bone of contention modern observers are fighting over.

Journalists, writers, teachers—in fact, most public figures, journalists and institutions who publish in Central Europe—seem to be at odds with each other on the question of whether, or indeed how, the language should or could become more inclusive.

Despite the fact that a YouGov poll in 2020 found that only 7% of women and men found this topic to be “very important”, with a considerable 31% finding it “very unimportant” (a Welt am Sonntag poll in 2020 found that 52% of women were against gender-gap orthography), swarms of writers, texters and journalists have been busy the past years inventing new ways to be inclusive.

The first example of a gender gap appeared in a text by the German linguist Steffen Herrmann back in 2003. A whole array of new spellings, orthography and punctuation, however, has emerged in recent years. The most prevalent forms include the use of asterisks: Schuler*in; forward slashes: Schuler/in; or the increasingly popular colon: Schuler:in.

The changes are not just limited to the written sphere. German speakers have been integrating this new notation into their spoken language, too. Speakers and narrators have begun to pause at the asterisk, slash or other symbol before finishing a word, thereby signalling an inclusive ending to the listeners.

Some of the new orthographic innovations

TypeExampleGrammatical form
Name bothKollegen & KolleginnenFeminisation
Forward slashKolleg/innenFeminisation
Uppercase ‘I’LehrerInnenFeminisation
NeutralisationDie StudierendenNeutralisation
XLehrxGender inclusive
Gender starLehrer*innenGender inclusive
GapLehrer_InnenGender inclusive

What does German inclusivity look like?

In contrast to changes in the English-speaking world, the debate in the German-speaking countries—and there are six countries where German is an official language— left the university campuses and detonated in popular media. The topic is becoming increasingly explosive as more interest groups emerge to defend their own prescriptions for ‘correct’ grammar. Two of the loudest camps include ‘conservatives’, who don’t see the need for any change, and the earnest but effusive champions of inclusivity-at-all-costs who, it is argued, ignore the problems of inconsistent or piecemeal solutions.

Academia has been unable to calm things. There have only been a handful of attempts by linguists to ‘prove’ that masculine articles and a history of usage in exclusively male terms does not make a word masculine. Linguists’ abstruse arguments notwithstanding, sociological studies undertaken on the matter concur that masculine articles lead to a general perception that the neutral forms are masculine.

For the most part, incredibly, the angry edge of the debate seems to centre on the aesthetics of adding new orthographic symbols to the language rather than the matter of inclusivity or democratisation of the language. There are also legitimate concerns that, in the name of consistency and Ordnung—and this cannot be underestimated in this part of the world—inclusive nouns would have to be extended to all gendered nouns: the water, the bathtub, and the baby, so to speak.

But the argument that usage over a certain period of time translates into legitimacy should never be uncritically accepted, regardless of the field. Consider the general election in Autumn 2021, after which Germany may find itself run by a man following 16 years of Dr Merkel’s rule. Should a noun that has had a long-standing female ending (Kanzlerin) revert to the masculine-only plural and third-person singular once a male of the species retakes his/her/their place at the country’s helm in the German Chancellery?

Aesthetically-friendly solutions

Apart from the belligerents who claim the moral high ground—the grammar and language conservatives vs. fans of inclusiveness—there are a number of other possible solutions on hand. The ‘Anglophone’ solution would remove the female suffix from all nouns. For example, Schauspielerin (actress) would become Schauspieler (actor). The hope here would be that, over time, the nouns could be perceived as inclusive. A more advanced version of this solution would swap the basic article for the word from the masculine ‘der’ to the neutral ‘das’. This idea would have the added advantage of making the language easier to learn for non-natives which, admittedly, is a rather selfish concern for foreigners such as myself.

Another suggestion would be to create neutral nouns from the participles: Die Studierenden rather than die Student:innen. But this form only works well on words with transitive roots and cannot be deployed as a general solution. We must also consider German linguists’ greatest (and arguably most irrational) fear: tug on one small linguistic thread and the whole language will fall apart at the seams. After all, order is order, and, in the classical German ideal, the tiniest introduction of disorder can lead only to anarchy and chaos.

The notion that dedicated grammarians could ordain changes to orthography is somewhat alien to English. In the past decades, English has evolved organically without all-too-much top-down meddling. In a number of European countries, however, shaping the future of nouns while arguing over their past requires careful navigation through a linguistic minefield as emotions (and asterisks) run high.

Good copywriting and texting agencies will have the knowledge and experience to move through these treacherous orthographic and gender-neutral minefields for their clients. Knowledge of gender-sensitive, gender-inclusive or please-don’t-change-anything language has become a core issue in advertising, marketing and communications in German-speaking Europe. Knowing which solutions to use, or whether to use them at all, are skills that top texters and texterettes have to master and remaster every day.