Gender-appropriate language: dispute over the asterisk


The argument about gender equality in the German language is heating up. The topic can also be discussed rationally.

Order is a must: traffic signs are not inherently gender-neutral – and must be supplemented

According to the World Happiness Report, Finland has the happiest population in the world. The Finns have it good too, they can just say “hän”. This gender-neutral pronoun expresses “he”, “she” and “it” at the same time. So on this point they don't have to worry about language equality.

In Germany there are proposals to introduce similar terms to make the language gender neutral and inclusive. This leads to the question of whether gender makes language – and thus indirectly also society – more just or even divides people?

“If I know that certain terms hurt individuals or groups, then one should try to express things differently, out of respect,” said current Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock a year ago in the “Tagesspiegel”. Others see gender as an offense against the German language. The debate is sometimes heated, especially on social networks. The former ZDF news presenter Petra Gerster was attacked when she began to change her moderation.

Coming out – help on the net

The fact that gender is noticeable at all may also be due to the fact that there are no binding rules and everyone can handle it the way they want. 

“Linguistic variants are not unusual in Germany per se,” Anatol Stefanowitsch, professor of linguistics at the Free University of Berlin, told DW. Historically, there are many regional dialects that are also found in other contexts today. “It's not a bad idea to try things out, because it can stimulate discussion.”

Asterisks and underscores against patriarchy

In any case, the development of language use is dynamic and develops from society, says Stefanowitsch. What is used in everyday language today was tried out and established in some communities 20 or 30 years ago. “The overarching theme is the acknowledgment that the category of gender in its social manifestation is more complicated than language has hitherto depicted.”

The discussion is not limited to Germany. In Romance languages, the endings in -o or -a indicate genders, and alternatives are discussed there as well. What is often lost in the debate in this country is the fact that nobody wants to intervene in private language use. Changes towards gender-appropriate language refer to public communication in authorities or in companies.

asterisk, Underscore, Binnen-I: Gender-appropriate language is not (yet) uniform

In June, a non-binary person was awarded compensation for pain and suffering because only the salutations “woman” or “man” were available for Deutsche Bahn ticket sales. At the end of July, an employee of the VW Group suffered a defeat in court. He saw himself discriminated against by the fact that the underscore is used as a gender form in the internal communication of the subsidiary Audi, i.e. “employees” are written to.

Numerous institutions have imposed gender guidelines, many institutions use linguistic forms such as the asterisk * (“students”), the underscore (“citizens”) or the internal I (“politicians”). All genders should be addressed, including non-binary people, i.e. people who do not feel like they belong to either the male or female gender. 

“New means are needed “

The Society for German Language points out that the equal treatment of men and women in society is anchored in the Basic Law. She writes: “For example, according to a study, women need more time than men to understand a text in which the generic masculine was used, because they always have to check the context – even unconsciously – to see whether they actually mean it or not in individual cases only men are addressed. New means are needed.”

Linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch advocates trying it out< /p>

Here the controversy begins. Opponents of gendering cling to the generic masculine – the gender-neutral use of masculine nouns and pronouns (“doctor”, “president”) – and argue that it refers to all genders. In addition, gender is not sexus, so the grammatical is not equal to the natural gender.

1.6 million clicks for the failure of gender language

One of them is 26-year-old YouTuber Alicia Joe, who is followed by around 470,000 people there. In January, she posted a half-hour video on the platform entitled: “Why Gender Language Will Fail”. 

In it she discusses the pros and cons, explains her reservations and offers suggestions for solutions. With more than 1.6 million clicks so far, it is her most successful video on YouTube.

“One solution is that everyone can gender or not gender as they want,” she told DW. She herself uses the generic masculine noun, but in a talk show she slipped out that she wanted to be an astronaut. “When equality is reduced to language, it can hide the fact that it doesn't exist in reality. As long as women are not promoted, there will be no change,” says Alicia Joe.

In many cases, gender does not work grammatically. “In addition, the German language, which is difficult anyway, is made even more difficult for learners of German.” The YouTuber also refers to surveys according to which a clear majority reject gender.

Is there a lack of understanding because, as a young, self-confident woman, she is against gender? “I notice that I am denied that I am affected. But I know many women who are very ambivalent about gender.” She draws a clear distinction where language is used to discriminate against others, such as with the N-word. In such cases, “a change in language is absolutely necessary”.

Where does the discrimination begin?

The discussion about racist, anti-disabled or anti-Semitic terms is also not without controversy , says Anatol Stefanovich. “But it's easier to talk about words, we can agree on the meaning more quickly.” When it comes to gendering, the topic is different.

“Language is largely processed unconsciously,” explains Stefanowitsch. Whoever used the generic masculine noun meant others – i.e. women and non-binary people – mostly with it. Research shows, however, that the corresponding forms are also subconsciously interpreted as masculine. “For decades we've gotten used to speaking a certain way and we want to use the generic masculine to mean everyone. However, the meaning of our language is not defined by what we wish for.”

Research shows that the linguist says that women would become more visible through gendering. This is not yet the case for non-binary people. “In social reality, we mainly see male or female, diversity is also not very visible on a non-linguistic level.” Nevertheless, gendering contributes to raising awareness and scratches old behaviors. “Only in this way can emancipation processes beyond the category woman/man become social normality in the future.”