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Gender Comes to Germany

Colin Halverson, PhD

In 2017, Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, a Green Party member of the German federal parliament, addressed an audience of children as “Liebe Kinderinnen und Kinder” (‘Dear childrenF and children), drawing the ire of many Twitter users, especially those on the far right of the political spectrum. The humor (or horror) of Göring-Eckhardt’s salutation was the use of the made-up word Kinderinnen, meaning something like ‘female children.’ The word is built on the gender-neutral plural stem Kinder ‘children’ (sg. Kind ‘child’) using the explicitly female agentive plural suffix –innen. The analogy Katrin invoked was the politically loaded and ‘gender-fair’ (gendergerecht) construct ‘FEMALES and MALES’ commonly used in German with agent nouns formed with –er, e.g., Schülerinnen und Schüler ‘studentsF and studentsM.’ Kinderinnen therefore treats the plural –er in Kinder as though it were a singular male agentive suffix. 

While Göring-Eckhardt has gone on to state that she used the term jokingly (“Selbstironie pur[HC1] ), playing on the fanciful lyrics of a 1980s children’s song, her words caused what the popular weekly magazine Focus referred to as “ein Shitstorm[HC2] .” Fellow member of parliament Joana Cotar of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) called Göring-Eckhardt’s use of Kinderinnen “complete nonsense” in a tweet, with users in her replies decrying it as #genderwahn (‘gender mania’) and an inappropriate “sexualization of children.” 

This case brings to light a problem of language ideology that has again become a hot topic: How is so-called gender-fair language implemented, given the local affordances and limitations of both linguistic and sociopolitical structures? 

At the beginning of 2021, my Twitter feed suddenly filled again with reactions of excitement and panic over the announcement that the Duden, the preeminent German dictionary and language resource, had finally capitulated to emerging semiotic gender norms: The Duden-Online has slowly been “specifying” the definitions of its human agent nouns: Ärztin and Arzt ‘doctorF’ and ‘doctorM,’ for example, now each have complete, separate definitions that explicitly note gender. The denizens of German Twitter were agitated because this was a change from previous definitions in the Duden that treated the masculine noun as generic (generisches Maskulinum), as having equal potential to refer to male or female individuals. 

This is referred to as mitmeinen, as in ‘Women are equally intended’ (Frauen sind mitgemeint) by the use of generic nouns such as “Arzt,” though some psychological studies seem to suggest that such ‘equal’ mental representation may not actually hold for the majority of speakers (Stahlberg, Sczesny, and Braun 2001). I was immediately reminded of an article by Michael Silverstein on similar issues in anglophone language politics over the use of he, she, they, etc. (Silverstein 1985). Just as Silverstein revealed the ideological collapse of grammatical and notional gender in such discourse, I believe the German case is worth opening up for further examination, as it demonstrates some of the ways both linguistic and social contexts affect the circulation of political projects like gender equality movements. Following Silverstein (2003), I think it is informative to examine how discourses of gender-fair language are semiotically transduced—or asymmetrically converted—into novel social projects within their relevant contexts.

In response to these concerns, German has been caught up in an international effort to produce gender-fair language. While Spanish has innovated forms such as l@s alumn@s and lxs alumnxs as gender-neutral versions of ‘the students,’ German language activists have produced a variety of other orthographic forms. First came the parentheses, e.g., Schüler(innen) ‘students’ – in which the feminine plural ending appears set off from the masculine stem. Then came the most broadly accepted form, the slash-and-hyphen: Schüler/-innen. In the early 1980s, the Binnen-I, a medial capital <I> placed flush against the masculine stem (e.g., SchülerInnen) began to gain popularity in left-leaning media and, by the end of the decade, it had been adopted by regional Social Democrat and Green political parties in official administrative documents. The Binnen-I faced some administrative pushback, though. The president of the parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia, for instance, prohibited its use on the grounds that the Duden calls the medial <I> a violation of German orthographic norms.

Another complaint about the Binnen-I was that it was insufficient for the goal of true gender equality because it still conformed to a gender binary.[1] In its place, queer theorist Steffen Herrmann proposed in the early 2000s the so-called Gender-Gap, a faux-anglicism (Scheinanglizismus) like Handy ‘cell phone’ and Oldtimer ‘vintage car.’ The Gender-Gap (e.g., Schüler_innen) was meant to make visible something outside of the “rigid gender order”[HC3]  (rigide Geschlechterordnung) while also allowing a space for “something new,”[HC4]  something that wasn’t “already established”[HC5]  but was rather in a process of becoming. At the end of the same decade, a new form began to emerge on university campuses across Germany—the Gendersternchen, e.g., Schüler*innen—which was also seen as avoiding a gender binary.

The German case is distinct from other cases of ‘gender-fair language’ such as in Spanish, because German additionally possesses a third neuter gender. Unlike the English “it,” the German third neuter gender regularly refers to animate and even human objects (e.g., das Pferd ‘theN horse’, das Mädchen ‘theN girl’). This fact led feminist political scientist Antje Schrupp to suggest that the generic masculine should simply be replaced by the neuter. Schrupp recommended the constitution of a new, explicitly male form with the addition of a notionally male gender suffix, to parallel the structure of the explicitly female form of these words. For example, in place of the generic-masculine der Lehrer ‘theMteacher-Ø,’ she put forward das Lehrer ‘theN teacher-Ø’ to refer to an individual unmarked for gender. In her system, an explicitly male teacher would instead be der Lehrer-ich ‘theM teacher-M,’ a word of her own creation, parallel to the already-existing die Lehrer-in ‘the F teacher-F.’ However, some have suggested the neuter gender is inappropriate for referring to nonbinary persons, and the innovative male –ich ending has not gained popular traction.

This fact may make the generic masculine seem like it should be less politically loaded, simply a function of energy and time considerations. However, as the outbursts of Twitter commentaries prove, this is hardly the case. Even Herrmann himself has stated that using the Gender-Gap “means to position yourself politically[HC6] .” Members of the far-right AfD have decried the use of gender-fair language as deeply political Genderwahnsinn (‘gender nonsense’), linking it to “leftist-Green ideologies[HC7] .” Some have hyperbolically stated that it represents “a destructive incursion into the German language” and a “genocide of the German people[HC8] ,” demanding a return to “the good old Duden orthography.” Meanwhile, a representative survey [HC9] by the Frankfurter Allgemeine found that only 27.1% of men and 27.9% of women believed gender-fair language was important for the equality of women in Germany. Many apparently [HC10] find the language unnatural and marked by the indexical insignia of the contexts in which it first arose and continues to be most widespread: academia and administrative bureaucracy[HC11] .

While these metapragmatic discourses about gender-fair language circulate internationally, their local realizations are restricted by linguistic and social particularities of their specific contexts. Global feminism and Queer Theory encounter already existing, politicized discourses on gender and language, as well as the unique affordances and limitations of German morphosyntax. “[A]ny text moves into an already constituted set of discourses with which it inevitably interacts,” as Susan Gal (2003) has observed. Similar stories could be told of Italian (Horvath et al. 2016) and Polish (Formanowicz et al. 2015) contexts— where explicitly female titles may have pejorative connotations due to language-internal particularities of word formation—and of the complex identity politics surrounding the evolution of gender-neutral options in Spanish. The “generic feminine” has apparently been adopted by some in academic Slovenian (Adrienne Frie, personal communication), which had earlier been (somewhat jokingly) suggested [HC12] by German feminist linguists; and the Spanish-sourced –x ending has been put forward as yet another German alternative[HC13] .

Language and culture are never truly isolable, and it is worth attending to the implications of this for any analysis of gendered identity and its trans-cultural manifestations. While grammatical and notional gender may be universally collapsed as a function of such globally circulating gender-fair (meta)discourse, they are not collapsed in the same way everywhere. 

-Formanowicz, Magdalena M., Aleksandra Cisłak, Lisa K. Horvath, and Sabine Sczesny. 2015. Capturing Socially Motivated Linguistic Change: How the Use of Gender-Fair Language Affects Support for Social Initiatives in Austria and Poland. In Frontiers in Psychology 6., accessed January 18, 2021.
-Gal, Susan. 2003. Movements of Feminism: The Circulation of Discourses about Women. In Recognition Struggles and Social Movements. Contested Identities, Agency and Power Pp. 93–118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres.
-Horvath, Lisa K., Elisa F. Merkel, Anne Maass, and Sabine Sczesny. 2016. Does Gender-Fair Language Pay Off? The Social Perception of Professions from a Cross-Linguistic Perspective. In Frontiers in Psychology 6., accessed January 18, 2021.
-Silverstein, Michael. 1985. Language and the Culture of Gender: At the Intersection of Structure, Usage, and Ideology. In Semiotic Mediation: Sociocultural and Psychological Perspectives. Elizabeth Mertz and Richard Parmentier, eds. Pp. 219–259. Orlando: Academic Press.
-Silverstein, Michael. 2003. Translation, Transduction, Transformation: Skating Glissando on Thin Semiotic Ice. In Translating Cultures: Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology. Paul Rubel and Abraham Rosman, eds. Pp. 75–105. Oxford: Berg.
-Stahlberg, Dagmar, Sabine Sczesny, and Friederike Braun. 2001. Name Your Favorite Musician: Effects of Masculine Generics and of Their Alternatives in German. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 20(4): 464–469.

[1] Since 2018, German civil status law (Personenstandsgesetz) recognizes a third legal gender (divers) for nonbinary gender identification.

 [HC1] [HC1] [HC2] [HC3]
[HC4] [HC4]
[HC6] [HC6]
[HC10] [HC10]
[HC11] [HC11]
 [HC12] [HC12]