Grammatical gender and politics in Germany

I find it a little difficult to write about this subject in English and in such a way that it is comprehensible for an international audience. Nevertheless I think it is worthwhile to do so. The content of this post is related to a political theme which is specific to Germany, or at least German-speaking countries, but it is related to political issues of much wider significance. In German a noun belongs to one of three genders, masculine, feminine or neuter. These names have special connotations but fundamentally they are just names for three different classes of nouns, which behave in different ways within the language, such as influencing the form of adjectives which describe them. The English Wikipedia article Grammatical gender mentions that the term ‘noun class’ is sometimes used as a synonym for this. I think that mathematicians in particular will easily understand the logical status of a concept like this which is defined by its logical relations. I am reminded of the famous (and apocryphal?) story about Hilbert saying that in Euclidean geometry instead of points, lines and planes we could say tables, chairs and beer-mugs and it would make no difference. What is important is the relations between the concepts, not their names.

Problems arise from the fact that the names for the genders have strong connotations. Words for male human beings usually belong to the gender ‘masculine’, words for female human beings usually belong to the gender ‘feminine’. In other words, there is a correlation between grammatical and biological gender. This has led some people to give grammatical gender a significance beyond the formal one I have introduced previously. This happens although there are obvious examples where the two notions associated to the word ‘gender’ do not agree. For instance the German word ‘Person’ meaning person is feminine while the word ‘Mensch’ meaning human being is masculine. This exaggeration of the meaning of grammatical gender leads to problems. Let us for instance take the German word ‘Professor’ meaning professor. It can mean a professor of either sex. However if we want to emphasize that a particular professor is female we can use the word ‘Professorin’. The ending ‘in’ indicates a female person. The argument of some people is that if we use the word ‘Professor’ in the inclusive sense, denoting a person who may be female then this can lead to the implicit assumption that the person concerned is a man, due to the fact that the grammatical gender of the word is masculine. Thus they say that this practise leads to women becoming ‘invisible’ and thus discriminates against them. Other people have other opinions on this subject. It is something which could in principle be discussed in a civilised way. In practise this is often not possible. An elaborate system of feminine forms of various words has been developed (sometimes called ‘Gendern’) and anyone who publicly critises the use of this system risks being branded a right-wing extremist. The system is widespread in various areas: politics, state media, universities, public administration, private companies etc. In many cases the system is not just used but imposed, either through official regulations or through peer pressure.

I find ‘Gendern’ unpleasant and avoid it whenever possible. What are my motives for that? The first is an aesthetic one – I love language and ‘Gendern’ makes a mess of the language. German is not my native language but I still do not like seeing it being mistreated. Various surveys show that a majority of Germans are against ‘Gendern’ but it is nevertheless widespread. Its proponents are loud and sometimes also aggressive. Another argument againt ‘Gendern’ is that it not only makes language ugly but it makes it so clumsy as to often make a text difficult to understand and tiring to read. Moving in a language like English where gender in this sense does not exist seems like a luxury in comparison. As I said at the beginning this seems like a very special topic. However I also claimed that it is of wider significance. Why do I say that? I see it as an example of the way in which politics has come to suppress free rational discussion, a phenomenon which occurs in many areas of life and in many countries. Moral convictions are regarded as more important than facts and logic. As yet this has not had much effect on me personally. A mathematician is likely to be less affected than a social scientist. I enjoy using language in different ways, private and professional, and I see ‘Gendern’ as a threat to being able to feel comfortable and at home in the German language. I also see it as an example of the way in which political ideology can have a negative impact on the daily lives of normal people. It is important that the ‘silent majority’ speaks out and does not leave public discourse to vocal minorities.


4 Responses to “Grammatical gender and politics in Germany”

  1. Peter Gerdes Says:

    While I’m not familiar with the situation in Germany, what really irks me about this kind of linguistic policing is that it often makes the problems it wants to solve worse. Yes, when it’s actually true that use of a term is something people are already sensitive to and is widely understood to have a denigrating meaning (eg redskins team) it’s good to change our speech.

    However, the meaning conveyed by using a term is heavily influenced by our expectations and associations. For instance, if enough people start avoiding using the word history (bc some ppl falsely believe it’s etymology is something like “his story”) to signal their belief in the importance of female stories the choice to use the word will start to convey a belief that women’s stories aren’t important or at least a lack of concern about offending women (and merely creating common knowledge it was a mistake won’t undo that). Even though currently it’s not something that bothers almost anyone if you work hard enough at telling people it’s harmful/sexist/denigrating you can give it that meeting.

    But, the problem is that a combination of habit, contrarianess/independence or simply not wanting to positively signal affiliation with the change side many people who have no desire to offend women or suggest their stories aren’t important will keep using the old term for quite some time. The upshot is that you end up with lots of people feeling offended/slighted, arguably increased acceptance of sexist rhetoric (if you feel even perfectly reasonable speech gets labeled sexist you’ll be less likely to take such claims seriously and be more likely to find yourself in alliance with groups which tolerate real sexism).

    And this is a pretty general problem. Looking for speech that isn’t bothering people and convincing them it’s a problem creates the very harms the advocates claim to be so concerned with stopping.

    I don’t mean to get on a high horse here. From time to time we all fall victim to the temptation to show off how clever and morally righteous we are (and gain the upper hand in some interaction) by cleverly suggesting someone is being disrespectful/bad (arguably I’m doing it right here). But it’s one thing for some college activists to get themselves worked up about it in meetings or on Twitter. It’s another thing for people in academia or journalism who should know better to intentionally present only one side of the argument and make accusations of bad faith against anyone who suggests they are mistaken.

    Still not the biggest deal in the world. People play all sorts of dickish status games all the time. However, the seeming lack of pushback about the ways this mechanism helps certain elites better their social position while making things worse for the groups it’s supposed to protect is not only sad but raises some very troubling questions about academic disciplines that are supposed to be exploring these issues.

    • Peter Gerdes Says:

      Just to clarify, if I had to list important problems in the world or harmful social trends none of this would even rank. There is no suggestion that we need to turn out limited energy to fight these word changes. It’s just that one is often irked/wants to complain most about the ppl you choose as peers and allies.

  2. alonsoquixano Says:

    Hello interesting your observation, but it seems to me that you forgot to mention one part of gendering, that to my knowledge is also widespread in Germany and in other European countries: the famous *, : or @. Here in Spain where I live and work, we have only two grammatical genders, but they are more words that reflect the gender, like, so there is Profesor/Profesora Juez/Jueza, President/Presidenta. What is more annoying, is, that we, in a public University, were first encouraged to use always: “Hola a todos/as” that is always to use both forms, now we should use tod@s, to indicate the hm indeterminate case as well, gosh.
    Uwe Brauer

    • hydrobates Says:

      It is interesting to hear what is going on in this context elsewhere. In Germany the * is popular, as is the underscore _. This is ugly in writing. What is even more ugly is in the spoken language where the * is represented by a gap (a bit like a glottal stop). It can also happen that in using this carelessly the gap gets forgotten so that only the ‘in’ remains. Then everything is feminine and we could say that the men are ‘forgotten’

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