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Germany's Bavaria cracks down on gender-sensitive language

March 20, 2024

German texts are increasingly using symbols like asterisks and colons for more inclusive language. However, Bavaria's conservative government in southern Germany argues this trend is ideologically driven.

A symbol photo of gendered language being crossed out
The asterisk is one symbol used to make the German language inclusive of gender identities Image: Wolfgang Maria Weber/picture alliance

The conservative government in the southern German state of Bavaria on Tuesday signed off on an amended regulation limiting the use of gender-sensitive language in official documents and in public places like classrooms. 

Bavarian government: 'Language must be clear and understandable'

State authorities in Bavaria will no longer be allowed to use symbols like asterisks and colons in nouns to make them more inclusive. 

Florian Herrmann, a minister in Bavarian Premier Markus Söder's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) state government, said the regulation would apply to teachers. The rule would apply to text used in daily school instruction along with letters to parents and internal communications.

"For us, the message is: language must be clear and understandable," Herrmann said. "But it is also about keeping open the space for discourse in a liberal society."

It's unclear, however, what the punishment will be if teachers or other government workers break the new rules. 

How gender gets into German

Like many languages, German uses gendered words. While a Patient and a Patientin both hope to be treated by a doctor, German makes it clear that the former patient is male and the latter female. The phenomenon is more pronounced in the plural forms of many words when tradition would call for using the so-called "generic male" form, Patienten, rather than the female plural form Patientinnen.

In written language, it has long been common instead to write PatientInnen, with a capital i, to indicate that the plural being referred to likely contains a mixture of men and women.

Some however called for further efforts to make German more inclusive, breaking up words with symbols like an asterisk, called a "gender star," or an underscore, or a bespoke piece of punctuation dubbed the "gender gap," among other options to create the words Patient*in, Patient_in. In spoken German, the symbols are expressed as a pause or glottal stop.

In 2021, the influential German reference dictionary Duden began changing its entries for nouns referring to people to make clear feminine versions and point out the masculine version as explicitly referring to men.

Head of German Teachers' Association welcomes policy

The German Teachers' Association (DL) welcomed the policy. DL President Stefan Düll told German news agency dpa that official language should be centered around "respectful formulations that are gender-sensitive without marking it as such."

Düll added that the asterisk, for example, could be perceived by some as exclusionary.

The word "human" in German with an asterisk to make it more inclusive
Some German grammarians are resistant to more gender-inclusive language in writingImage: Christian Ohde/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

The DL president said the rule would not apply to students in Bavarian schools. Düll himself is a member of the conservative Bavarian CSU.

Although Bavaria is pushing back on gender-inclusive language, other parts of Germany, such as the city of Hanover, have opted to overhaul gendered language in official correspondence.  

wd/sms (Reuters, AP, dpa, KNA)