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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gendered Language in German

Germany recently revised the road traffic regulations, mostly to improve the situation for bicyclists. One of the unrelated features of this revision was the attempt to “de-genderize” the language used in the law. That’s a novel thing and has been received with very mixed reactions.

German as a language is highly gendered, much more so than English. Every noun has a gender of either male, female, or neutral, with the neutral forms implying a lack of gender, not unknown gender. Almost all prepositions, pronouns, etc. are inflected in a gender-specific way according to the subject they refer to. As an example, a friend once remarked that the phrase “the wizard” in English leaves it open if the wizard is male or female. This is nearly impossible in German, as you can not talk about anything without giving it a gender.

If you want to talk about a group of people with mixed gender, in German you use the male gender. If you talk about a person of unspecified gender, you use the male gender. “The wizard” would become “der Zauberer,” fully male, and if they turn out to be female, it’s confusing. Likewise for most job titles. “Chancellor Merkel” in German needs the female form of “Chancellor.” The problem with the male default is that it relegates non-males to “extras,” “not-defaults,” “outsiders.” All in all, this is not exactly an end of the world type of problem, but it’s one that is annoying to have, one which would be nice to fix somehow.

As English has fewer gendered terms and grammar, it’s a bit easier to fix there, albeit still not easy. For example, the use of the plural form, which is not gender-specific, is common. But in German, the gendered grammar is much more pervasive, and no easy fix has been proposed so far.

Before, the law used phrases like “der Fahrradfahrer” (“the/male bicycle-rider/male”). The female form would be “die Fahrradfahrerin.” A typical solution has been to use explicit alternatives, such as “der/die FahrradfahrerIn” or “der/die Fahrradfahrer_in” etc. What the law text now opted for is replacing person terms with activity terms, as those can leave out the article grammatically: “Fahrrad fahrende” (“bicycle riding (people)”). This sounds extremely stilted and unnatural to a native speaker.

There has been quite an outcry about it. But weirdly enough, the outcry is not about the way they tried to address the problem, which I agree is suboptimal (though I have no good solution), but about them trying to address the problem at all.

I now have heard a number of men state that they never noticed a problem with male being the default.