Here is the transcript of series 1, episode 4: Gender in German.
LG = Luke Green
MP = Maria Pober
Note: Square brackets [ ] refer to the way something is pronounced (phonetic transcription), and pointed brackets < > refer to the way something is written in regular orthography.
LG: In many languages of the world, there is a grammatical gender system. That is, the nouns that appear in these languages have a gender, for instance feminine or masculine. German is one of these languages. That means, in German, every noun, including all the nouns for people, have a grammatical gender. This can make it difficult to speak or to write in a gender-neutral or a gender-inclusive way. While English does present its own challenges when it comes to being fully inclusive, in a language like German where gender is very much embedded into everything, these difficulties are on another level. Today we’re going to look at how sex and gender are represented grammatically in German, as well as some of the ways it’s possible to be gender-inclusive when speaking German, and the challenges that come with this. So let’s go for it, let’s crack on with the show.
This is Yellow of the Egg. The podcast where we show the German language the love it deserves. I’m Luke Green and this is episode four, Gender in German.
MP: As far as my investigations have shown, I have to say that in language, still, the hetero-masculine is the most important, and all the others, they are just footnotes. Ok, the heterosexual woman is there, but it’s not at the same level as the hetero-masculine. And all the others they are putting underneath.
LG: Maria Pober is a linguist at the University of Vienna at the Department of German Studies. She works in the fields of semantics and gender linguistics in German.
MP: Every noun has a gender in German. We have three gender[s], we have the feminine, the masculine and the neuter. And very often they are going with the biological gender, if we only speak of binarity.
LG: Despite there being three genders in German, one of them has a special position.
MP: In German you have one gender, the masculine, and this gender has an exclusive position because you can use the masculine for every person. So you can use it for women, you can use it for inter persons, you can use it for everybody, because we call it generic. Generic means if you have a hundred persons and one person is a man, then you have to use the masculine. So if you have a hundred teachers and there are 1 male teacher and 99 female teachers, you only speak about male teachers. I mean it sounds, in English, a bit- a little specific, but in German, if I say it in German, it means Lehrer, it means ‘male teacher’, female teacher is Lehrerin, and the plural would be Lehrerinnen. But you always say “Alle Lehrer sind da”.
LG: So despite there being a male and a female form for most nouns denoting people, especially job titles, the plural takes on the male form exclusively when referring to groups of mixed gender. The feminine ending -in, or -innen for the plural, means that only females are being referred to, whereas the male form without these endings can apply to all genders. And this is the same for many German nouns that denote people, especially those that end in -er. For instance, workers are Arbeiter, musicians are Musiker, dancers are Tänzer – the male form is used, regardless of there being workers, musicians and dancers who are not male. And this prevalence of the masculine gender is so deeply entrenched in the German language that speakers are often unaware of its omnipresence.
MP: So you have hidden rules, I would say hidden rules, in German. Not even the pupils are knowing it but they’re using it. In German in any case, if there is a person unknown, you have to put the masculine. And therefore we have indefinite pronouns, like in English you have one, but one is gender-neutral. In German, we have man. And you have to follow the male gender system. So you have to be congruent in every case with- Jemand hat seine Tasche vergessen, ‘somebody forgot his bag’. In English you have someone, it’s gender-neutral. But in German you start with jemand, so you have man in this indefinite pronoun, and you have the possessive pronoun his.
LG: In English we are able to get around this issue quite nicely. We have the indefinite pronouns one or someone, but we can also use the personal pronouns they and them if we want to remain gender-neutral. While in German you say “jemand hat seine Tasche vergessen” and use the masculine seine, regardless of the actual gender of the person, in English we can say “Someone forget their bag”, and use the plural their to refer to a single person. This isn’t really possible in German.
MP: So we have so-called indefinite pronouns, but they are not indefinite. They are definite masculine. But they have the semantic value [of] being indefinite. Every person is meant. Every woman, every inter person, every trans person, everybody should be meant under jemand or man.
LG: So the masculine gender has the special status of being able to be used for all genders, whereas the feminine is only really used to refer to female people, almost exclusively. This means that if you want to refer to multiple genders at once, or to refer to groups of people regardless of their gender, you generally need to use the masculine. With a couple of exceptions.
MP: For being fair we have not only the generic masculine, we have also the generic feminine. But it is used very rarely. Very well-known is the word person.
LG: In German, die Person.
MP: This is a generic feminine for human beings. And we have for nominations for relatives, we have Geschwister. It’s an umbrella term for brother and sister. And therefore in German it’s a very exclusive form – we use as an umbrella term a female word. Schwestern, Geschwister – ‘sister’ and Geschwister, it means ‘a lot of sisters’, from the meaning. So this is really the only one historically where in the word formation and in the semantic you have really a feminine umbrella term.
LG: Even so, Geschwister is only really used in the plural and is not necessarily in the public consciousness as a feminine noun. So that leaves die Person as one of the only feminine umbrella terms for humans. Whereas we have der Mensch as a masculine umbrella term, along with pretty much every other noun that stands for people, like Kunden, for customers, or Besucher, for visitors. It’s very easy to use the masculine in the plural to refer to people of all genders, it’s certainly the most succinct and convenient way. And many people do use the generic masculine in their writing, but they often include a disclaimer which states that all references made using the generic masculine are not restricted to men only, but rather refer to all genders. Nowadays, however, this disclaimer is considered by many to be unacceptable or insufficient, especially in academic contexts. Instead, people are generally encouraged to avoid using the generic masculine altogether, and there are many different ways to achieve this. For instance, you can simply mention both feminine and masculine forms, so for example, Lehrerinnen und Lehrer. However, this can very quickly become very long. If you were giving a speech and wanted to thank friends, colleagues and supporters – ich bedanke mich bei meinen Freundinnen und Freunden, meinen Kolleginnen und Kollegen, meinen Unterstützerinnen und Unterstützern… Instead, there are more efficient ways to be more inclusive and not just use the masculine when referring to groups of people.
MP: First was the Binnen-I. I will explain it. It’s a big letter of the <i>, it’s part of the suffix for making from male nouns a female noun, like Lehrer – Lehrerin. And this <I> is a capital letter. It comes from German-speaking Switzerland. They put it in the words the first time. And then it was spread all over the German-speaking countries. And it was used a very long time. It was used in Austria from Stadt Wien. Everywhere. It was really used in school, in schools too. Not from the newspapers, not from the newspapers. But not only in Austria, in other countries too.
LG: This is one of the more well-known ways to be gender inclusive. It’s nice and compact. You have a single word, and you know that both men and women are being referred to because the <I> is a capital letter. However, there is the problem that the only difference between the female form Lehrerinnen and the version with this Binnen-I is that the <I> in LehrerInnen is capitalised. In writing this is no problem, but how do we pronounce a capital letter? Is it even possible at all to distinguish between the feminine plural and the generic plural in spoken German?
MP: This is really a problem. In the inclusive form in German, like LehrerInnen, you make this glottis stop. So you say Lehrer-Innen. But for speaking it’s really a problem to speak this glottis stop because you’re always, you are stopped. Like what the term say[s], you are stopped. You have to make a pause, and then you have to- you can continue. And if you are trained, you can do it. I mean, you can do it, but you have to, you have to memorise it, yeah? You have to put it somewhere to- or you think “ok I have to make this glottis stop”. And it’s really, it’s an exercise.
LG: When you’re listening to someone speak quickly, it might not always be easy or even possible to hear if someone says Lehrerinnen or LehrerInnen. And this problem doesn’t just apply to the Binnen-I. There are many other ways to be more gender inclusive in German. Particularly because the Binnen-I strongly implies binarity. It includes the masculine and the feminine forms, but leaves no space for any other gender identities.
MP: In the 90s, the transgender movement come along. And from this time, the capital <I>, it was associated only with men and women. So everybody was looking for a new form. And then the underline occurs. And with the inter persons it’s a little bit parallel, the asterisk emerged.
LG: What this means in practice is that the feminine suffixes -in and -innen are separated from the male form, for instance Lehrer, by an underscore or an asterisk. These punctuation marks are there to signify that other gender identities are meant by the word, and not just male and female. For instance, the underscore is also known as the gender gap, and is meant to signify a space in the word for all genders. These symbols are therefore intended to be more inclusive than the Binnen-I. They do have their drawbacks too, though. Let’s take the gender gap, for instance.
MP: You have a space for everyone, for every gender, for every sex, for every sex identity, gender identity. But gender gap- A gap is a gap. And so the famous linguist Luise Pusch was against the gender gap because she said, it’s like nothing. I mean it’s- I put it polemically, we need to think about it. I think- I mean, it’s good, but the asterisk is better because you have a sign, you have even a symbol. And a symbol is better than nothing.
LG: That doesn’t mean that all symbols are good options, though.
MP: Traditional communities and traditional persons, they use the slash, but the slash was always under critique because it’s disturbing. It’s cutting the word, it’s cutting the word. So it’s not really, it wasn’t acceptable.
LG: The forward slash is also criticised for implying a purely binary system as well. It suggests an either/or relationship between the male and the female forms, and leaves no room for anyone else. In addition to the Binnen-I, the gender gap, the forward slash and the asterisk, you will probably find many other different ways to separate the masculine and feminine forms in words like LehrerInnen which try to avoid being binary. You might see a colon, or a hyphen, a plus symbol or a tilde, for instance. While at the moment, the asterisk seems to be one of the most accepted variants in contexts such as university, the Binnen-I is still very prevalent in wider, more public contexts, probably because it avoids using a punctuation mark in the middle of a word. Regardless of the precise form, the problem of pronunciation and of distinguishing the feminine form from the gender-neutral form is still very much there. In addition to this, there are people who say this is also a problem in writing, claiming that by including these extra punctuation marks, capital letters, or whichever gender-inclusive strategy we want to take, we are corrupting the language and making it more difficult to read.
MP: It’s an old critique from the beginning. I mean, it’s from, as I said, the feminist linguistic starts in the early 80s, in the late 70s. And readability was always a point from the critics. But, as studies show, it’s not like this. And even beginners, they are very quick in learning this, it’s just- I think the problem is, the older the critics are, the more you are used to a certain language. You can compare it with the reform of the orthography in the 90s in the German-speaking countries.
LG: In this reform, the official spelling rules in German were changed in many regards, and it took some getting used to for many people. And, of course, there was some backlash too.
MP: All the literates, all the poets, they were all against the reform. Because, sure, we older one[s], we are used to this kind of orthography, and it was a real big reform, after 100, almost 100 years. And it’s a more intelligent rule, it’s now- it’s more intelligent than before, and it’s clearer, and more logic.
LG: And it’s argued that the same applies to these gender-inclusive ways of using language. There’s bound to be resistance, but the younger generations who learn these ways of speaking and writing won’t know any different. The difficulty lies in the lack of a general consensus, or in a definitive codification. Because there are so many options of how to represent all genders in German, and because these options are a relatively new development, you can’t really turn to the dictionaries for proper guidance yet.
MP: Vocabulary, you can’t change it really quickly, and the dictionaries, as my research has show[n], they are very very slow in changing because they have a certain status, they are conservative in a certain way, they are waiting, they are waiting ‘til a certain occurrence of words, and then they put it. But, as I showed it in my publication, it’s not always like this. It’s just because they are not very holistic, and they didn’t pay attention for this change. For this change in what we understand under the human being.
LG: It might be high time that gender-neutral forms are fully and consistently codified, but until that time comes, there are still options available that can be found in the dictionary. And these options are being used more and more as sleek and efficient ways to avoid using the generic masculine. One of these ways is to use the present participle. In English, this is the -ing form, for instance teaching or studying. In German, it’s made by adding the letter -d to the end of the infinitive, so lehrend or studierend respectively. These words can then be used as adjectives and nouns, so you can refer to teachers and students as die Lehrenden or die Studierenden, which literally means the teaching ones or the studying ones. Because these participles take the same form in the plural regardless of the grammatical gender, it’s turned out to be a great option that has really caught on.
MP: It works well, it works really well for students, everybody’s saying Studierendenausweis, even, even for compounds. You have a certain amount of participles you can use. But then you have the semantic problem. And all the critics of the participle, they are saying, ok, participle I in German means you are doing something. And so, Studierende, in the proper sense of the word, grammatically, it means ‘somebody who is studying’.
LG: And really someone who is studying right now. Die Lehrenden are those who are teaching right now, right at this moment, according to the critics.
MP: But these critics, I think their influence is not that big. It’s a grammatical thing, right, but the basic is stronger than the critiques or the linguists, and this is in language a nice thing, too. So it’s- Everybody is using it. The problem is for the singular. In the singular we have to use, it’s what we call Differentialgenus. So we have, in German, we have words, they are deriving from adjectives. But then we have to use, as a gender language, for animates, we have to use der Studierende, the male student, and die Studierende, the female student. I know it sounds funny in English, but in German the article means this. Der means male, and die female. But in plural it’s wonderful for using it. It’s very easy.
LG: There are only certain words that lend themselves to this. For starters, the words need to come from verbs. Because we have studieren, it’s possible to make the participle Studierende. Or the same for school pupils. Because they learn, we can take the verb lernen and make die Lernenden, the learning ones. But what about the word for doctor, Arzt? That doesn’t come from a verb, so we can’t have *die Arztenden. And there isn’t really a single verb that describes what a doctor does. Die Praktizierenden, the practising ones,is really far too vague. And not all verbs that have a participle form are actually accepted by speakers as options to denote people. For instance, for cleaners, you are very unlikely to hear die Putzenden. So it’s not a solution that works every time. So are there any other options out there?
MP: Perhaps in this context I should mention Phettberg. Phettberg is an Austrian journalist in the magazine Falter. And he has a certain column, Predigtdienst. And in this column he is using the <y> for all genders. And he is using it with the neuter gender. In German we make nouns from the root of a verb, like spielen. -en is the suffix, we leave it, and then we take spiel and we put –er normally for male. And additionally –in for female. And he is leaving all this. He just take[s] the root of the verb, like spiel. And then he puts a <y>, and with a neuter gender.
LG: So instead of die Lehrer or die LehrerInnen or die Lehrenden, we would have die Lehrys, with a <y> and an <s>. Or instead of die Lernenden, we get die Lernys. This is yet to catch on, for a number of reasons.
MP: There is a categorical problem, or a systematic problem in German, because the neuter gender in German is not for animates. So it’s an objectification of persons. If we could solve the problem of the articles, this would be perhaps a good way to use for everybody.
MP: It’s a diminutive. So we always have this association, and it’s a very systematic thing in German that we can use this suffix –i for little things, and for little children, and for intimate personal names. Every personal name you can use with an –i in German. You can make from Josef – Josefi. But you have the diminutive association, this is the problem.
LG: Because the <y> ending is pronounced the same way as this diminutive <i> ending, it’s not really suitable for things like job titles. Some argue that it makes them sound too childish. Especially for jobs in fields like law which carry more social prestige, it is not likely to catch on. For lawyer, you would never really say Anwalty.
MP: But you always have this concept of ‘private’, and not of official language, not for professions or things like this. It’s not possible. But who knows, in 50 years…
LG: There is no perfect solution. And all of these suggestions and possibilities only really concern the nouns themselves, and they are much more elegant and easier to use in the plural. In the singular, in German, you need to choose a gender in order to know which article to use. It needs to be der, die or das. Der is clearly masculine, and die is clearly feminine. So the gender neutral option would be das, but as we’ve already heard, the neuter gender is, on the most part, unacceptable for humans since it can be perceived to objectify people. Some solutions have been suggested such as combining der and die, sometimes by fusing the words or by putting an asterisk in between them. This might work in writing. But again, how would we pronounce this?
MP: I think you must put something inside. We must think about a certain phoneme. Otherwise it’s- because it’s too much. We have too much glottis stop. I mean, German is not a very- it’s a fluent language, but we have short and long vowels, so it’s- the staccato is more. If we have always these glottis stops… I think we have to find another solution.
LG: Where possible, it’s an option to try and avoid using words that surround the nouns that imply gender. This might be articles, although this is a difficult thing to get around. This might also be people’s titles, which becomes an issue when addressing people directly, especially if you don’t know them well and don’t want to make assumptions regarding their gender. It’s particularly a problem in the polite form of address, the Sie form, where you would typically address people with Frau or Herr.
MP: For the practice of writing, we found a solution. For instance, at university, we don’t use anymore for business letters, for addressees of business letters, we don’t use Frau and Herr in the beginning. Now we use the asterisk, and we just use the name. So we have the given name and we have the surname. So for instance we have sehr geehrt– geehrte, and we make an asterisk between the feminine and the masculine form in the adjective geehrt. Every adjective in German, if you use it with a noun, you have to accord it. And so it’s- everybody can be included in this system. It’s not that good like in English. I was reading it in England the mail, the British mail, they use now “Mx” oder [mɪks], “Mx”, for inter persons. So they have three possibilities already. In German we are waiting for this.
LG: Once again, English seems to have a bit more of a system in place to be gender-neutral when addressing people. The “Mx” title avoids reference to gender without dropping the title altogether. In German, we need to resort to these other solutions, for example with punctuation like asterisks, in order to stay as neutral and inclusive as possible. Maybe it would just be easier to be more like English and do away with grammatical gender altogether.
MP: If we go the way of English – I was thinking about this, going the way of English – then we should lose, like in English, all the feminines. Only perhaps the relative form, the words for the relatives, perhaps, you have it in English too, it’s not really a problem because they are lexemes, they are there and it’s ok. But it’s difficult because the whole gender system, you must lose it.
LG: And since grammatical gender is all-pervasive in German, it would essentially be like inventing a whole new language. And if there are critics who say an asterisk is destroying the language, I’m sure they would have something to say about a complete overhaul of the very fabric of German grammar. Gender is an integral part of German. And of the genders, the masculine forms the foundation for everything. Even among other languages that have a gender system for their nouns, and which also favour the masculine gender, German stands out – it doesn’t just favour the masculine gender, it’s built upon it.
MP: In German, the first person you are forming in the word formation is always masculine. In Italian, for instance, you only have the root, and then you put the feminine or the masculine. You have bambino and bambina. Bambin-, it’s ‘child’, then you have bambina for a female child, for ‘girl’, bambino for a male baby or child. And so it’s not a problem really. I mean you have in the plural a problem, because it’s the same thing. In plural you always use generic. You don’t build a feminine over the masculine. This is better. And in German you always have the masculine first, and all the feminine are just additional. And it’s for the word formation, for feminines, very difficult because you can’t make- you can use it good for word formation because you have already two suffixes. And three suffixes, it’s a phonetic problem, normally.
LG: If we think of the example of Lehrerin, the feminine ending -in is added to the masculine ending in Lehrer. Without the masculine word, there could be no feminine word. And this is the case for the majority of such nouns.
MP: Normally a gender system is all three are the same. In the Roman languages it’s really structured. You always have to put if it’s feminine, and- Ok, if you have the plural then it’s the hetero-masculine hegemony. But normally you have this equal system for all genders. For two in the Roman languages. But in German you always have this one who is always the first. And this is for the word formation, and for the job titles, it’s very obvious too.
LG: Is it a problem that the masculine gender is so dominant in German? Why is the generic masculine so problematic that we need to come up with new ways to represent all gender identities? The generic masculine is generic after all.
MP: We have a different society. And this generic masculine was construated [constructed], if you want. Because it wasn’t always like this. It was construated [constructed] in the Baroque, the first rules of the generic masculine. And it was fitting to the society. The man was the first in the family, and the woman has no- outside the house, she has nothing to say. Her world was at home. And for this time, this was perfect. Generic masculine was perfect. But now, we have really another society. We have other laws. And all others than cis men are speaking too. They are speaking up. And they want, they want to be seen in language and be represented as… as subjects and not only as objects. And therefore I think this is a little, just a little obstacle. This I have to say. There are a lot of guidelines for how to gender. Altogether it shouldn’t be always hetero-masculine.
LG: It’s definitely progress that there are efforts to reduce the prevalence of the masculine gender in order to better and more equally represent everyone, and not just cis men. But in the grand scheme of things, these developments are fairly recent, and it will probably take some time before they are fully codified and we have a consistent, uniform and established system in German to be gender-inclusive. So when is this likely to happen?
MP: I don’t know. Because you need a certain- it needs a certain time. And now we have a backlash against gender. We have really a big activism against gender. We have the masculinist movement. There is a lot against all this. And people are very insecure. If you are reading this kind of critiques, kind of critiques, and say, ok, “man will always be man, and woman will always be woman”. I don’t think we will overcome this in five or ten years. I think it will endure, I hope, in 20 years, because when I’m thinking about the feminism, it was in the 80s, and now we have an acceptance in the society. And I think there is a lot, there’s a lot to do to push this movement and to say “ok, we are here and we need to be represented, and in a good way. Not in a positive, but in a good way, and not in a pejorative or a degrading way.” I think it’s possible to overcome the binary system, the men and women, but to lose, during the journey, to lose all the gender markers, I think this- it seems impossible. It would be nice if I’m wrong. Because the time of this cis- only cis women and cis men, it’s over I think.
LG: Thank you so much to Maria Pober for joining me for this episode. If you want to find out more about her and her work, check out the Yellow of the Egg website, yellowoftheegg.com, and go to the page for this episode. She also has a book out that’s available now, it’s called Gendersymmetrie, with the subtitle Überlegungen zur geschlechtersymmetrischen Struktur eines Genderwörterbuches im Deutschen. The book is in German and it’s a very interesting read. I’ll put the information on the podcast website, along with information about some other publications of hers, as well as her website and email address if you want to get in contact with her.
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