Why the English struggle with gender neutrality in German

And what that’s got to do with turnips and maidens.

What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘gender’ and ‘German’? If you’re a native English speaker, there’s a good chance it’s Mark Twain, whose essay ‘The Awful German Language’ has given voice to the woes of generations of language students: ‘Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart … In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.’

Twain’s error, of course, is to confuse grammatical gender with actual gender – no-one actually thinks that young women lack a gender, even if ‘Mädchen’ is a neuter noun. It’s an easy mistake to make when you speak a language like English, which hasn’t had gendered nouns since the 13th century. But that doesn’t mean English is a gender-neutral utopia: from the fraught question of whether it’s ‘chairman’, ‘chairperson’ or just ‘chair’, to the centuries-long quest for a gender-neutral pronoun, there are still plenty of linguistic snares to fall foul of.


Fortunately, along with its lack of grammatical gender, modern English contains very few explicitly gendered terms: actor/actress and waiter/waitress are some of the few remaining, and these are also moving in a more gender-neutral direction. The Guardian, for example, uses ‘actor’ regardless of the gender of the performer concerned, while ‘server’ is replacing ‘waiter’ and ‘waitress’ in the US, neatly sidestepping the question of whether or not it’s sexist to make the masculine form of the noun the default. On the other hand, attempts to make ‘chairman’ gender-neutral are likely to descend into a mud-slinging match between those who find ‘chairperson’ too clumsy and those who think the alternative, ‘chair’, should only ever refer to a piece of furniture.

Also on its way out is the practice of using ‘he’ as the default pronoun when a person’s gender is unknown, as in the sentence ‘Every student should bring his book to class’. However, there’s little consensus on what should replace it: ‘he/she’ and ‘he or she’ (or should it be ‘she or he’?) are clumsy, ‘s/he’ both clumsy and unpronounceable, and the default use of ‘she’, while effectively drawing attention to women’s historical exclusion from language, tends to attract the ire of men unused to a more marginal position.

Enter gender-neutral pronouns. The most common of these is singular ‘they’, which, despite being frequently branded as ungrammatical or some sort of new fad, has in fact been in use since Chaucer. Singular they not only solves the he/she problem in cases where a person’s gender is unknown; it’s also an effective solution for people who are neither male nor female. While a huge variety of other gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed over the years, from ‘per’ to ‘thon’, none has achieved the same level of public acceptance as ‘they’.

Dix jungx Studierx

Still, all this is nothing compared to the sort of linguistic gymnastics a German speaker has to go through in order to avoid (mis)gendering themselves or others. While in English, a person can just be a ‘translator’, in German, they must choose between ‘Übersetzer’ (the masculine form of the noun) and ‘Übersetzerin’ (the feminine) – there’s no neutral option. And while there have been attempts to come up with a German gender-neutral pronoun, none of the suggestions are anything near as widespread as ‘they’ is in English.

Meanwhile, Germans face an even more extreme version of the he/she problem when referring to a generic group of people. The English ‘students’ is gender-neutral, but German offers both ‘Studenten’ (for a group of male students, or for a mixed-gender group) and ‘Studentinnen’ (for a female group). The use of the masculine form for a mixed-gender group – even if there are 99 women and just one man – is falling out of favour, leaving university administrators struggling with longwinded formulations such as ‘Studentinnen und Studenten’ or the orthographically bewildering ‘StudentInnen’. The new coinages ‘Student*innen’ and ‘Student_innen’ literally create space between the masculine and feminine forms of the word, indicating that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary – but how on earth do you pronounce them?

A few years ago, Lann Hornscheidt, a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University, came up with a solution that cut through the grammatical complications – and triggered a predictable backlash from conservatives. Why not simply create a gender-neutral form of a noun by adding an ‘x’ to the end (pronounced ‘iks’)? Meanwhile ‘xs’ (‘ikses’) forms the plural, and the corresponding definite article is ‘dix’. Rather than ‘Jeder Student soll sein Buch mitbringen’ (‘Every student should bring his book with him’) or ‘Alle Studentinnen und Studenten müssen studieren’ (‘All (female) students and (male) students must study’), you get ‘Jedex Studentx soll xs Buch mitbringen’ and ‘Alle Studentxs müssen studieren’. It might look a little strange at first, but once you’ve mastered ‘der, die das’ and all their variants, you’ll find it’s actually a simplification!

This also begs the question of which pronouns should be used when translating a text from German to English. At Supertext, we opt for ‘they’ where German uses the default masculine, for maximum neutrality and inclusivity. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, however, it’s that there are plenty of other options out there.

Image via Flickr: llee_wu – Turnip (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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