Gender-inclusive German

by Rosa Teresa Fries

How to communicate in a gender and diversity conscious way.

Against All Odds

German doesn’t make it easy when it comes to gender inclusivity. With three grammatical genders and the necessity to decline nouns, adjectives and pronouns, gendered constructions are everywhere. Not to worry though — just like gender non-conforming people, we have ways around the (noun) binary system. Let's have a look!

Addressing People

People often use what is called the "generic masculine" (generisches Maskulinum) when addressing or speaking about groups of people, that is to say, the male form has to make do for everyone. Critics argue — supported by studies — that this gives the impression that only men are addressed, while women along with non-binary people become invisible.

In the eighties, the feminist linguist Luise F. Pusch argued that after an eternity of male dominance, it was high-time for the generic feminine to take over. Going forward only the female form of a noun should be used. Surprisingly or maybe not that surprisingly, it was argued that men couldn’t possibly feel included when addressed as such. So this interesting experiment never quite caught on, although some universities and cities adapted to it in their legal documents. The Federal Ministry of Justice even drafted a bill in 2020 using the generic feminine (rather than defaulting to the aforementioned generic masculine), causing quite a stir but ultimately it didn’t pass.

Nevertheless, to counter this men-only impression the generic masculine causes, some have started to use both the female and male form, a fairer way of speaking that nevertheless only goes half way.

Moving forward, new forms were created to include non-binary people too. This is achieved by adding one of the following endings to the noun: *innen or _innen. The asterix, or “gender star” (Gendersternchen in German) and the underscore fulfill the same function. The gap they create, signals that there are more genders than meets the patriarchy-educated eye.

Let's take a look at the following examples:

Liebe Kollegen = generic masculine

Liebe Kolleginnen = generic feminine

Liebe Kolleginnen und Kollegen = includes women and men

Liebe KollegInnen = includes women and men

Liebe Kolleg*innen = includes all genders

Liebe Kolleg_innen = includes all genders

All Well and Good — but How Do You Pronounce Symbols?

As always in life it helps to take a little break — in this case, right in the middle of the word. In linguistics this is called a glottal stop. It's what happens when you say "butter" in a Cockney accent. You'll notice that there is a little pause where the two Ts should be: "Bu - er". The same thing applies here: Liebe Kolleg PAUSE innen.

Using the Right Personal Pronouns

Ok, let’s start with the bad news: there is no gender neutral pronoun such as "they" to refer to someone who doesn't go by she or he. Instead of sitting back and doing nothing, the non-binary community started to play around with the existing gendered pronouns sie and er, merging them into "sier" or "sies". The blogger Illi Anna Heger even developed an alternative grammar, introducing the entirely new gender neutral pronoun "xier".

Using these pronouns with all their declinated forms takes some commitment though. And as Mark Twain wisely said, “I'd rather decline a drink than a German adjective” — or any other word group for that matter. So this remains an ongoing conversation with maybe even better solutions down the line.

Nevertheless, there is an easy way out. You can avoid this situation altogether by using people's first names, which by the way will also save you a good deal of declination efforts.

New Neutral Forms

Another way around gendered nouns is to just make up new ones. German's love for compound words comes in quite handy here. For example, instead of the word die Studenten or die Student*innen, some universities have opted for die Studierenden, a new noun that is based on the verb studieren (to study). Alternatively, gendered nouns can be replaced by existing gender neutral nouns or by verb-constructions that avoid the noun altogether. The online dictionary geschicktgendern tries to compile all these alternatives.

An Ongoing Debate

While we might not have the perfect solution yet, there are plenty of creative ways to include all addresses and make everyone feel welcome. While it's not really possible to learn german quick and easy, it is possible to work hard at it, which will make you admire the language as it changes.

Wo ein Wille ist, da ist auch ein Weg. Where there's a will there's a way.

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