Germany is debating how to create gender-neutral words from its gendered vocabulary


Germany is debating how to create gender-neutral words from its gendered vocabulary

Germany is debating how to create gender-neutral words from its gendered vocabulary

When a word has an asterisk or a colon in the centre, how do you pronounce it? What is the German word for inclusivity, by the way? These are just two of the concerns that businesses and organisations in Europe's largest economy have been pondering as the country works to achieve gender equality.

Grammar complicates the argument in Germany concerning gender-neutral and inclusive language. Gender in German is not denoted solely by personal pronouns, as it is in many other languages. People-related words in German have traditionally been masculine or feminine. A male citizen is referred to as a Bürger, whereas a female citizen is referred to as a Bürgerin.

However, in the plural, the masculine is generally employed by default – a subject that has been debated since the 1960s' second wave of feminism. A new federal regulation went into effect in 2018, requiring all forms of identification, from birth certificates to passports, to offer three options: male, female, and varied, all of which can be left blank.

Gender-neutral terminology has become more widespread since then. German airline Lufthansa recently dropped the phrase "ladies and gentlemen," German scholars are working on a gender-neutral Bible edition, and certain localities, such as Hanover, have an official policy requiring the use of gender-neutral language.

The revised language restrictions, according to Annika Schach, the city's communications director at the time, have had mixed reviews, but she believes the generic masculine is out of style.

"Using gender-neutral language or the gender star has more to do with reality than with wanting to change the world," Shach adds. "Not only men, but also women, intersex, and nonbinary persons make up society, and the terminology we use must reflect this."

However, not everyone in Hanover has heard Schach's message. Hendrik, a lawyer who declined to reveal his last name for fear of upsetting his company, says he despises the gender star and all other punctuation symbols — Instead of an asterisk, other symbols, such as a colon or an underscore, are often used to indicate several genders.

He's not the only one who finds gender-neutral terminology offensive. When the German Merriam-Webster equivalent, the Duden dictionary, began adding feminine versions of nouns to its online edition and changing masculine noun definitions to refer only to men rather than everyone, a small but vocal citizen-led group called Verein Deutsche Sprache launched a petition to "save the German language from Duden."

"Gender mainstreaming appears to be a diversion or perhaps a very selfish, infantile drive to gain attention," says Oliver Baer, a retired engineer who is one of the signatories and serves on the group's board.

"Every evening, I speak to 4 to 5 million people, and they want to be appreciated," Kleber adds. "There are folks on one side of this issue and those on the other, and I want to make it clear that I am not excluding anyone on either side."

Kerstin Krominga, a performer in Hanover, finds it profoundly amusing to see how divided the country is over an effort to acknowledge that society is not made up of polar opposites.

She expresses her displeasure with how divisive the topic has become. "I'm all for inclusive language, but when I use it, I get a lot of pushback. Either that, or I'm disregarded as too specialised."

Krominga, on the other hand, claims she will not be stopped from using language that is addressed to everyone rather than just men.

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