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Gender talk

Interview: Marie Todeskino / kbm
June 7, 2013

German is a gender-specific language, but the University of Leipzig has decided to bravely ignore the grammar rules. A ground-breaking feminist linguist tells DW why the German langauge needs to be overhauled.

Image: Fotolia/Marco2811

Since nouns referring to people are gender-specific in the German language, gender and language have been a topic of public discourse in Germany over the past several decades.

In the 1980s, it became common practice to always include both the male and female versions when referring to groups of people: "Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeiter" (female employees and male employees), "Kolleginnen und Kollegen" (female colleagues and male colleagues), etc. Previously, the male plural had been used to address mixed groups.

Now the University of Leipzig is taking gender equity in language one step further by implementing so-called "generic feminism" and using the female form to address males.

In the official university charter, a male professor (Professor) will now be referred to as Professorin, the female version of the word. A footnote will explain that both male and female professors are included.

The decision to modify the university's usage of the German language came about rather spontaneously after university leaders simply tired of the cumbersome double-gender abbreviation Professor/in and decided to scratch the slash.

Feminist linguist Luise Pusch.
Luise Pusch proposes gradually changing the German languageImage: J. Horsley/Suhrkamp Verlag

Luise Pusch, a major contributor to feminist linguistics, welcomes Leipzig University's unusual decision and spoke with DW about the influence of language on society.

DW: You have researched linguistic equity for over 30 years. What significance does the decision to use Professorin have for women at the University of Leipzig?  

Luise Pusch: It is definitely a step forward and not only for the University of Leipzig, but for the whole country. The decision is being talked about and that gets people thinking. Every opportunity to think about our male-dominated language is good for the language as a whole, because the German language is very biased.

Why is it so important for language to be unbiased?

It has a lot to do with the politics of identity. Women want to be just as visible as men are in the language because a male-dominated language represses any thought about women. Every sentence that refers to people in the masculine invokes male associations in our heads and that is a very big disadvantage for women.  

How exactly does language influence our social reality?

In German, we have a lot of suggestive sentences that reinforce a male image. When you hear, for example, "Wer wird der neue Bundespräsident?" (Who will be the next president?), then it's a suggestive question. The image of a Bundespräsidentin [the female version of the word] is disregarded. There have been many phsycho-linguistic tests which have proven the effect these kinds of questions and stories have when they are told in the masculine. When the test person is asked to complete the story, they usually select characters with male names, which means they imagine men.

When the double gender form is used in telling the story, it's equal - both male and female names are selected. And if the feminine were to be used, then they would probably imagine more women. And that's the point - that women also start having a place in our heads.

A woman speaks to a man.
The words we use impact the images in our heads, Pusch saysImage: Fotolia/Faber Visum

Opponents say that generic feminism doesn't help, rather only unnecessarily complicates the language. Isn't it a bit too cumbersome?

It depends on your values. If we want linguistic equity, then we need to use something other than the generic masculine. The double form, such as Professorinnen und Professoren, is generally accepted as being equitable, but is much more cumbersome than the generic feminine. The double form is really just a compromise for men so that they don't feel as threatened in their identity as women have been for thousands of years with the masculine form.

The feminine is not only better for women, it also appeals to the rotation principle - now it's women's turn -, and, thirdly, it's shorter. For the past 30 years, I've been calling the generic feminine form "empathy practice" for men so that they get an idea of what it's like to always only be indirectly included.

In your publications, you've proposed making much more fundamental changes to the German language.

I have always recommended a gradual process. First we have to bring women into the language with a generic feminine, but the goal should later be to do away with the feminine ending "-in." In English, for example, this kind of feminine ending derived from the masculine does not exist.

After getting rid of "-in," the next step is to introduce the gender-neutral form. So we would have der Professor, die Professor and das Professor. [Eds: der, die and das are the masculine, feminine and neutral articles in German, respectively.]

Words rolled up in a long scroll .
The German language contains three genders: feminine, masculine and neutralImage: Fotolia/arsdigita

Systematically speaking, the ending "-in" is not necessary. For people whose gender is unknown and who are referred to in the singular, then we have - unlike like the Romance languages, for example - the neutral form. So you could ask, "Wer wird das nächste Bundespräsident?"

To what extent is the discussion about feminist linguistics a very German phenomenon?

The state of Washington in the north-western United States has recently done something similar to the University of Leipzig. They rewrote the entire state constitution in gender-neutral language. So "chairman" was replaced with "chair" and "freshman" with "first-year student." In the English language, there aren't as many problems as in German because our language is particularly complex and difficult to adapt. But many other countries are dealing with this issue and making changes.

Prof. Dr. Luise Pusch, 69, has promoted linguistic gender equity for the past three decades and is considered to be a co-founder of feminist linguistics. She lives in Hanover and runs an institute for feminist biographical research, which can be found online at fembio.org. She has published numerous bestsellers on gender and language.