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John Riceburg: Gender trouble in German

John wants to fight the patriarchy in the German language, surveys the options and then has some suggestions of his* own.

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Photo by Flinga (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the worst elements of the Awful German Language, as Mark Twain pointed out, are the genders. Der, die, and das continue to torture me after half a lifetime speaking Deutsch.

I wholeheartedly support efforts to purge sexist clichés from English. Police officer, fire fighter, mail carrier, flight attendant, server, spokesperson – I don’t even bat an eye.

But in German, just about every word has a gender. In the last three decades, German speakers have strived for more gender equality with the so-called “Binnen-I.” Rather than writing Bürgerinnen und Bürger for female and male citizens, you just write BürgerInnen with a capital “I” in the middle to mean both.

I mastered the Binnen-I after moving to Berlin. I can say the barely detectable pause before the “Innen” to differentiate the gender-neutral form from the female. I can even – and this is varsity-level stuff for a non-native speaker – put the Binnen-I in the middle of agglomerated words, like BürgerInnenversammlung.

I am all for combating discrimination – but did anyone ever notice that making German even more complicated can discriminate against foreigners?

It doesn’t end there. As we have all realized in recent years, there are more than two points on the gender continuum. So extra symbols are needed for people who are somewhere between male and female. This can include Bürger*innen or Bürger_innen. (I’m not sure if there’s a difference between the asterisk and the underscore, and I don’t know how to pronounce either one.)

The next (final?) step is apparently to replace everything with an unpronounceable “X”. So Studentxs can discuss with their Professx about gender equality with no discrimination at all – in this case, it’s even foreigner-friendly, since native speakers can no better pronounce it than we can!

And why end the march of deconstruction with gender? Now we are supposed to put random underscores in the middle of wor_ds because… well, I haven’t understood that one yet. Once I saw the word wir followed by an asterisk to explain that the authors of the text “are all separate individuals”. And I had been sure that I was reading something by a borg-like hive mind!

I have gone along with this for 10 years, but I believe we need a radical re-think.

The fact is, despite the dogmas of postmodernism, that discrimination is not a product of language. How do I know this? I’ve spent a lot of time in Finland and the wonderful Finnish language doesn’t even have gendered pronouns. (Pay attention and you will hear Finns in English confusing “he”, “she” and “it” all the time.) Yet Finnish women suffer much the same oppression as women anywhere else in the world.

So rather than having Professor*innen come up with new revisions to the German language every year (isn’t it just because they need to publish something?), I think we need a radical cut: Just get rid of genders! Mark Twain only wanted to “reorganize” the genders in German, but times have changed.

My original suggestion was just to get rid of the female form entirely, so you could have ein männlicher Student, ein weiblicher Student, or a Student who is somewhere else on the gender spectrum. But a friend suggested that it would be wrong to make everything male, so we can just take the female form for everyone. Let me take the first bold step:

Ich bin eine männliche amerikanische Journalistin. Sounds great, right? It’s gender neutral and, most importantly, foreigner-friendly! Otherwise I think we’re going to have to get rid of the German language entirely.