Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Germany debates how to form gender-neutral words out of its gendered language after 2018 federal law
In Germany, the debate about gender-neutral and inclusive language is complicated by grammar. Just as in many other languages, gender in German isn’t denoted by personal pronouns alone. German nouns that refer to people have traditionally been masculine or feminine. So, a male citizen is a Bürger and a female citizen is a Bürgerin. But in the plural, the masculine is traditionally used by default — a point that’s been contentious at least as far back as the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.
In 2018, a new federal law stipulated that all forms of ID — from birth certificates to passports — must include three options: male, female and diverse, all of which can even be left blank.
Since then, gender-neutral language has become more commonplace. German airline Lufthansa recently ditched the phrase “ladies and gentlemen,” German scholars are preparing a gender-neutral edition of the Bible and in some cities — like Hanover — there’s an official directive about using gender-neutral words.
Known for speaking Hochdeutsch — considered the most standard variant of German — Hanoverians have been encouraged by city hall to use gender-sensitive language for almost two decades, avoiding the generic masculine whenever possible.
In 2019, Hanover became the first state capital to mandate the use of gender-neutral language in all official communication, from emails to brochures and posters. It deployed what’s known as the “gender star,” an asterisk placed within a noun to indicate it refers to men, women and nonbinary people alike. For instance, the word for all citizens became Bürger*innen.
Annika Schach, who was the city’s communications director at the time, says the new language guidelines have had a mixed reception, but she believes that the generic masculine is passé.
“Using gender-neutral language or the gender star has less to do with wanting to change the world, and more to do with reality,” Shach says. “Society is not only made up of men, but women, intersex and nonbinary people too and the language we use must reflect this.”