Gender-neutrality in a gendered language? (Ep. 46)

How do you deal with gender-neutrality in gendered languages? Inspired by the clusterfuck of gender-neutrality in German, I explored the concept, and came up with a potential solution that could prevent the German language to break completely when the concept of nonbinary gender neutrality becomes a reality Germans can no longer ignore.

There was a glitch in Teams the other day and a male student was labeled as "Studentin," so the female form of the German word. Everyone laughed and it bothered me—as if being female is something ridiculous. It didn't get better when the student brought up that it is 2021 and he can be whatever he wants, which is just not true—you know how many people can't be who they really are because we still haven't reached the necessary level of tolerance?

It's August in One Last Stop all over again. Pretending that things are fine invalidates the suffering of those who are still suffering—and people are suffering!

But what really hit me was a statement my friend made later: She pointed out that no one would even have blinked if the switch had happened in the other direction.

You see, in German, the male form has long been used as the default. So, if in doubt, use the male form. If there are multiple genders involved, use the male form. Over the past few years, Germany has been busy gendering their language in the name of feminism and inclusivity. There were a few renditions but currently things seem to have settled on "Student*in" as the proper way. It's a merge of the male "Student" and the female "Studentin."

I appreciate the thought, but I think the way things are done is ridiculous. Why do we need to separate the females out to include them? What about those who don't identify as male or female? Where will they fit into this very binary system Germany is so fucking proud of?

Now, when you call customer service lines, you either get told that a Mitarbeiterin (female employee) will be there for you shortly or to wait for a Mitarbeiter-pause-in. Both are awful. One implies that there are no males (wasn't this whole thing about inclusivity?), by not reading the stupid asterisk, the other sounds broken, like a mistake. So, is the solution to tell me that I'll soon be able to speak with a Mitarbeiter or a Mitarbeiterin, unnecessarily dragging out the message? Is this really the right approach? And again, what about those who identify as neither, as a mix, or as anything in between or outside the social binary of male and female?

I decided to do some research into gender-neutrality in the German language and mostly found zilch. Most websites further the same old agenda of adding the "in" ending with various symbols before. But what's the difference between Student/in, Student:in, and Student*in? Why are we debating what symbol to use, when the real question should be the validity of the grammatical system they are building.

It is 2021, after all, and while the concepts of nonbinary and genderfluid people are still pretty new to most people, it is a concept many people have at least heard about. So, why are we wasting our time, energy, and resources—along with probably a shitton of money—into a system that is outdated when it is created?

Maybe I am spoiled by how easy these things seemed in English. And things aren't even that easy. When we moved to California and I first met someone who went by gender-neutral pronouns, I was completely overwhelmed. I made a lot of mistakes. I bothered them with questions I should have googled instead. But, it really doesn't take long to get the grammatical concept. Just use they/them as you would use it when talking about multiple people. You'll get over it quickly.

My research into German ways to stay completely gender-neutral revealed that there are some individual efforts like xie, nin, es, and so on, but the list of these alternative pronouns is endless and there is no agreement. Very few people actually use any of them. A more common (and still very uncommon) approach seems to give up and use the English they/them instead. But sentences like "They waschen their Haare," are giving me a headache. I have enough trouble keeping English and German separate in my conversations to start purposefully adding English words into German sentences in a real grammatical way. No, giving up is not a solution either.

Sweden had a similar problem and they ended up adding another pronoun which is now actually being picked up by media outlets. Han and hon got joined by hen. And if you don't think about chicken every time you hear someone talk about a hen, that sounds like a resonable solution to me. I'm glad it's getting acceptance. I don't know enough about Swedish to tell you how they solved the rest of the issues with gender in their language. Maybe they are lucky enough that the Swedish language has fewer issues there. I don't know.

In Spanish, another very gendered language, a third pronoun was added alongside a third word ending for gendered words. Él and ella merge into the genderneutral elle, and they followed a similar pattern as Swedish when it came to the word ending. -o and -a were joined by -e.

So, why don't we just follow that approach in German? My hypothesis is this: German seems to have been gendered later down the road. Many (I think even most) words don't have a male ending. Professor is the male and the "neutral" form. Professorin is the female form. Taucher (diver) is the male and the "neutral" form. Taucherin is the female form. The difference between male and female is not the ending but the existance or lack of an ending.

So if we set the male form as the male form, we need alternative words for everything. An Abiturient becomes a Abitur ablegende Person. That's a lot of effort to say something ungendered.

That's why I think the only way out is to get rid of the female form altogether or to add a real male form. Either we use Professor and Taucher for everyone and don't distinguish at all—an approach that many of the feminists who fought hard to get everyone to include it won't like—or we add something like -on for the male form. Taucher would then be neutral, Taucherin female, and Taucheron or whatever male.

I don't think any of this is likely to happen any time soon. My current expectation is that the German language will break when genderneutrality becomes a real factor in the lives of Germans and it can no longer be simply ignored.

For now, we'll be stuck in a society where I get corrected (!) when I refer to myself as a Taucher and not a Taucherin. Shouldn't I be able to choose my own word ending alongside my pronouns? For now, we're stuck in a grammatical nightmare with asterisks or colons to seperate out a gender group in the name of including them.

But these are stages of acceptance Germany might need to go through to reach the end. Sometimes, it is necessary to overshoot in some areas to get to an equilibrium. But my hope is that Germany soon catches up to the endless diversity of people out there, and moves toward an actual solution to gender inequality and discrimination.

And I am not writing this as a feminist. I'm writing this as a humanist. While men have had their share of advantages in our world (oh, so many of them!), we have also prescribed gender roles to men that can be hard to uphold.

My dream is that we will, one day, be able to move past all of this, to a point where gender is a social concept of the past or at least a real spectrum with multiple dimensions.


Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.