Will a New Law Forever Change the German Language?

When a language is strongly gendered, it can raise all sorts of challenges to a society that’s increasingly accepting of a wide spectrum of identities

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After almost five months of talks since September’s parliamentary elections, a new coalition government has finally come to power in Germany. No doubt, the new administration has lots of catching up to do, not least because of a groundbreaking decision made by the country’s highest court last November. The ruling — the first of its kind in Europe — found that having only two genders for official purposes was unconstitutional. The court recommended creating a third gender category for people born with ambiguous sexual traits and those who do not identify as either male or female, or even dispensing with gender altogether in public documents. Now, the new government has until the end of 2018 to change thousands of laws and draw up new rules for issuing passports and birth certificates.

But if lawmakers are changing to acknowledge that not all people fit into just two categories, should language change too? Gender plays an integral role in many languages, from nouns assigned to a specific gender to adjectives changing their declensions based on the noun being described. Some languages, like English, have adapted over the years to flatten out some gendered aspects, but others, like German, French, Spanish, Russian or Hebrew, remain strongly gendered.

They each present special obstacles when it comes to acknowledging people of ambiguous gender. In German, for example, you cannot simply say you are a teacher; you must identify yourself as either a male teacher (der Lehrer) or a female teacher (die Lehrerin). 

“It is very difficult to find a gender-neutral way of saying anything in German, and that means I don’t fit in anywhere, because I don’t fit in with the male version, and I don’t fit in with the female version,” says Jamie Pax Abad, a Berlin-based philosopher and non-binary trans-person. 

Abad, who identifies as an “in-between person” with some traits that are more female and some more male, displays a typically masculine stance, walk and clothing, but does not take testosterone and can be recognised as having female anatomy.

“It’s like a stab every time someone on the street refers to me as ‘she’ because it goes with the presumption that they see me, and they know me, but they don’t. It emphasizes how invisible I am. And as long as there is no place for me in language there is no place for me in society,” says Abad.

To make languages such as German more inclusive would demand significant changes. In English, all we have to do is introduce one new pronoun — and look at how much confusion and controversy that has caused, from the use of the singular “they” to suggested replacements for gender-modifying pronouns like “ze,” “hir,” “xem” and others

By comparison, strongly gendered languages not only require new pronouns (some more than others, for example, in Thai, there is a different male and female ‘I’, and in Hebrew, the ‘you’ changes depending on who is being addressed), but also new gender-neutral nouns for people, which need to be redressed for their inherent male bias. In German, for example, the male word is often the standard, with the female being derivative, and is frequently used as the generic term. For instance, a male doctor is Arzt, which is modified to create the female Ärztin, with Arzt used when referring to a doctor in general. The masculine is also used when referring to a mixed group of people, even if the group consists of one man and a hundred women. So a group of doctors is referred to in the masculine plural die Ärzte rather than the feminine plural die Ärztinnen. This reinforces the idea that the male is the norm, and renders everyone else less important and less visible. 

It gets more complicated: Languages like German, French and Spanish assign a grammatical gender to all nouns, not just those referring to people. This in turn affects verbs, pronouns and adjectives. In short, gender is ever-present in language, leading to a very high awareness of gender binarism.

In 1982, Alexander Guiora and colleagues found that Hebrew-speaking toddlers formed their gender identity earlier than English-speaking toddlers. And, in 2002, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky and colleagues discovered that the use of grammatical gender for inanimate objects affects our perception of the world. For example, German speakers tend to perceive bridges, which are feminine in German, as ‘elegant’, ‘fragile’, and ‘pretty’, while Spanish speakers, for whom bridges are masculine, favored adjectives such as ‘big’, ‘strong’, and ‘sturdy.’

This reinforcement of gender stereotypes caused by language runs counter to the growing understanding in society, science and medicine that gender is by no means fixed.

But changes in language are slower in coming than changes in law. In Germany, there has been some progress since the 1980s to include the female version when referring to groups of people to make the language more gender-neutral, with the University of Leipzig going one step further by only using the female version as the standard. However, there is no consensus on how to include people of ambiguous gender.

Various solutions have been proposed. Artist Anna Heger’s suggestion of xier as a personal pronoun, with nouns referring to people modified by an underscore to be made gender neutral (Lehr_erin), could be used for people who do not identify as either male or female as well as when gender is irrelevant. Alternatively, the SYLVIAN convention, developed by sci-fi novelist Cabala de Sylvain and anthropologist Carsten Balzer around a decade ago, introduces a fourth gender, lim, short for liminal, which doctoral student Sarah Harris at the University of California at Berkeley, described as, “A well-organized and logical system, but one that has gained little usage among German speakers.” 

Currently, German newspapers and magazines either misgender people, or use asterisks, slashes or dashes to include both male and female versions to navigate the problem. It is not yet clear as to how the German government itself will refer to people who fall within the newly created gender category. Or if Germans will even use them.

“It’s really a question of advocacy. Can the people who use these terms and want them used in the language, spread them beyond their community? The internet is going to play a unique role in this, connecting people who otherwise would not have met,” said Harris.

Advocates for a more gender-neutral language, however, have encountered strong resistance, and the internet is also a tool for those opposed to changes. In 2014, Lann Hornscheidt, a professor of gender studies at Humboldt University Berlin, was subject to abusive Facebook comments and even death threats in response to proposing that the letter ‘x’ be used as a gender-neutral pronoun and ending to nouns relating to people. Hornscheidt not only received threats and derision from Germany’s right-wing milieu and nationalist publications such as Jungen Freiheit, but from mainstream authors and journalists as well as from within academia. Hornscheidt no longer works at the university and has taken a step back from internet communication.

It’s not just Germans who are resistant to change. In September, the first-ever school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French caused an uproar in France. The office of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe even reacted by banning the use of gender-neutral French in all official government documents. The French Academy, the highest authority on the French language, is particularly opposed to making the language more gender-neutral, with prominent members such as Maurice Druon referring to such moves as “absurd feminizations.”

“People who complain about the feminization of language and not about the masculinization of language, which is apparently the case now, have a hidden agenda — one that supports the patriarchy and has misogynistic implications,” says Andreas Krass, professor of German literature at Humboldt University Berlin.

“In Germany, there is not much acceptance societally speaking that there is a problem, and I think the rigidity of language hinders society in being more open to this. On the other hand, society’s being so rigid about not wanting a solution impedes any progress on making language a bit more open. It’s a vicious cycle,” says Abad, who is not convinced that official recognition of a third gender will make much difference.

It’s clear that changes in language and society go hand in hand. Sweden, which the World Economic Forum continually ranks as one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, successfully introduced a new gender-neutral pronoun (hen) back in 2012. But there is hope for other languages and societies too. As cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky points out, “Languages do change. They are flexible and adaptable, like the human mind, and they are always changing to reflect modern circumstances, inventions, and new complexities of thought.”

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