It turns out that German has the same kinds of discussions about gender inclusiveness as English, and you can read something about them in this review by Tracy Wearn of Hildegard Gorny’s “Feministische Sprachkritik”:

Gorny’s article focusses on sexistische Sprachgebrauch, i.e. looking at semantic, structural and patriarchal markers in language use, as opposed to the different ways in which men and women use language. Feminist linguistics doesn’t see language as a gender-neutral mode of communication, but as reflecting social reality… Feminist linguists do not simply want to describe language use but to criticise and modify it.

What particularly strikes me is the Binnen-I (German link), as in RadfahrerInnen ‘bicycle riders,’ where the interior capital I (“Binnen-I”) indicates it’s to be taken as Radfahrer und Radfahrerinnen ‘male and female bicycle riders.’ It’s apparently quite controversial, and I can see why, but it seems like a fairly elegant solution in a language that already strews capital letters around freely.

Incidentally, I forget where I ran across this Binnen-I thing; if you recently wrote me about it or blogged about it, let me know and I’ll be glad to credit you.


  1. I think it was a discussion thread on the forum.

  2. RonObvious says

    As someone who has lived in Germany for going on 17 years now, and struggles with the language daily, let me point out that this “controversy” is – as far as I can tell – pretty well done and over and, if not extinguished, then reduced to glowing embers.
    Using the “Binnen-I” labels the speaker (or author) as leftist and/or progressive and/or somehow vaguely feminist. Using a slash instead (“Radfahrer/-innen”), or using a phrase (“Radfahrerinnen und Radfahrer”) labels the speaker/author as conservative. Interestingly, there seems to be no real movement to a consensus. The various camps seem quite content to be labeled and to see the other camps labeled as well.
    In any case, 17 years ago, when I started learning the language, people would get upset about this. That was long ago; people get more upset today about how many f’s to use in “Schiff(f)ahrt” – but that’s another story. 😉
    Ron Obvious

  3. David Marjanović says

    In Austria, the situation is very similar, except it has a vaguely socialist except just a vaguely leftist connotation: the Communist Students’ Association (KSV) spells itself Kommunistischer Student.inn.enverband. But then, there are of course hardly any communists in the first place…
    The more consistently you use it (e. g. when talking about peoples), the more leftist you are.
    One argument against it is that it can’t be pronounced. Our family lect solves the problem by inserting a glottal stop in front of the I (to mark the beginning of a new utterance), but that’s parodizing the situation, not using it — we don’t talk like that and mean it seriously.

  4. David Marjanović says

    I forgot to mention: it’s creeping into French! I’ve encountered étudiantEs in Paris. (How’s that for unpronounceable.)

  5. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Just to add a variation on the theme. In Czech and Slovak it is almost an invariable rule, enforced by law, that a woman’s surname is modified with the feminine ending -ova. Thus, Hillary Clinton in Czech is Hillary Clintonova. Recently, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, feminists and other women, especially with husbands from English-speaking countries, fought court battles not to be forced to add this ending to their surnames. A practical reason for that was that from a legal vantage, spouses bearing differently lettered surnames, would be treated as unrelated in the US or the UK. Quite a headache for married couples with children.

  6. David Marjanović says

    It is very practical for newspaper headlines, though. They can put “Clintonová” in there without having to spell out “Hillary” with all 7 letters and the space behind.

  7. michael farris says

    “One argument against it is that it can’t be pronounced. Our family lect solves the problem by inserting a glottal stop in front of the I”
    I like that! If I ever have reason to speak much German again I’ll probably adopt it (serious sounding or not)
    Also Polish names can change by s e x. An Asian woman I know who’s married to a Polish man was having trouble getting a new passport from her home country since her name in Polish ended -ska while her husband’s name ended -ski and her country’s laws didn’t allow for wives and husbands having ‘different’ last names while having her name changed to -ski on Polish documents would be odd. It’s accepted for women of Polish descent born outside of Poland, but I’ve never heard of it being used by women living in Poland.
    Similarly, for translation class I recently chose an article about someone who underwent gender reassingment surgery. That caused all sorts of problems:
    “When she was a man”
    “She (…) had enjoyed a normal s e x life with her two ex-wives”
    “[the doctor’ never checked that she was living full time as a woman”

  8. Christian Schneider says

    Well I agree with you, RonObvious. However I think the discussion has died because the more conservative people are overdoing it when it comes to politically correct grammar and those endorsing this tendency can’t very well talk back, since the discussion would reach the niveau of kindergarden.
    For example, someone fed up with the nuances of political correctness might write: “dein/e Radfahrer/in” –> “dein Radfahrer” in case of the cyclist being male; “deine Radfahrerin” if the cyclist is female. So I have the feeling the actual process of discussing this cannot be done in an unchildish way.
    However, as someone who writes scientific papers, I feel a) quite unsure of how exactly this gender-language issue should be handled and b) think that the whole “/”-thing really makes texts less accessible because frankly it’s very distracting.
    Maybe in a couple of years from now feminists will gain the convidence to actually be fine with the use of “Radfahrer” as referring both to female and male cyclists, to stay with the example from above. This would seem to happen in many languages: for instance in spanish, if you refer to a group of people with at least one male member, the entire group is referred to as a male, gramatically.
    Anyways, that’s just my five cent…

  9. Or we could use the Burarra system where the plural is feminine if it’s referring to a mixed group and the speaker is male, and masculine if it’s a mixed group and the speaker is female. These discussions often seem to default back to how the feminists lack confidence and they should be more reasonable by going back to the status quo (with masculine as the unmarked category).

  10. David Marjanović says

    The Burarra system sounds ingenious!!!

  11. Christian Schneider says

    Hi Claire,
    I apologize if my point came across as somewhat anti-feminism. Just as easily one could argue to use the feminine word instead. Actually I came across this in a couple of econ books, where the authors talk about “the individuum…” and then later refer to that individuum as female. For example they would go “the individuum has a certain utility function which allows the conclusion that SHE…”. I think most men would not be uncomfortable with this. I am not suggesting that feminists are unreasonable, I’m saying that the whole discussion seems unreasonable to me, which of course is easy to say if you’re indifferent between the status quo and some other mode. In the end I just think that in the German language in particular we (as speakers of this language) should find a less ridiculous way to refer to cyclists than “ein/e Radfahrer/in”. It would actually be interesting to find some empirical data as to how established publishing houses or newspapers handle this issue. For instance the most established daily paper “FAZ” has gone back to the “old spelling” versus the “new spelling” taught in schools. Maybe I’ll pay more attention to that in the future… would be interesting.

  12. Economists have weird pronouns … The rule in English (I’m assuming it’s the samein German) is that they alternate gender, so the protagonist in the first case study will be “she” and the next one will be “he” and so on. Someone showed me a paper recently where the author had extended this to inanimates as well, so that football fields were “she”.

  13. Tracy Wearn says

    Well, I’m just pleased that the work I put into that university essay has finally paid off, three years after the deadline! It’s amazing what a websearch on one’s own name can produce…

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