Dot Your I’s – To Gender or Not to Gender, Is That a Question? (3-minute read)

Recently, as my team and I completed copy on different projects, I asked a young woman I work with to proofread some of the text. Although much of what I write starts its life in English, it gets translated into other languages, such as German. German makes use of the grammatical gender system where nouns are gendered. This is because, historically, a lot of nouns denoted males only. In asking the young woman for support in the matter, I wanted to make sure the language we use is inclusive. The German language, and by extension, culture, has been subject to reexamination for over six decades. Feminists in the 1960s, in a bid to make women more visible, began using a slash to show that both men and women could be, for example, a teacher — Lehrer became “Lehrer/innen”. This first gender variant was met with resistance, even among feminists. They criticised the subordination of women to one another. “Women”, they felt, should be more than an appendix.

Gwendolyn Masin by Balazs Borocz DSC 2429 Gwendolyn Masin
Photo: Balázs Böröcz

From the late 1970s onwards, feminist linguistics and the concept of gender-equitable language boomed. Guidelines from international organisations followed — including the UN's Guide to Non-Sexist Language in 1987. Gender-equitable language was particularly popular in academic circles, but far from mainstream. The next step in the evolution of gender-inclusive language was the use of an indented “I” for ease of reading. Thus Lehrer/innen became LehrerInnen.

The queer community was critical of a binary form of language. In 2003, Steffen Kitty Herrmann suggested an underscore to include people who define themselves neither as a woman nor as a man. Lehrer_in was then acknowledged too. The spelling was mainly used in queer-feminist circles but didn’t catch on with the general public. In the 1990s in English-speaking countries the * became part of words to describe trans people and was named “trans asterisk” or “trans star”.

Fast-forward to today and, increasingly, the use of a colon is implemented — Lehrer:in. This is read as a short pause by screen readers for the visually impaired or blind and is therefore considered more inclusive. It has come to my attention that, unless one cares about the topic of inclusiveness, issues fall to the wayside —in favour of what?, you might wonder — in favour of the beauty of language, its natural flow and ease of reading. This is the answer I most readily hear.

So, this young woman set about proofing the copy I had written, which was gendered in the ways I described above, offering the masculine and feminine endings of nouns. It was then passed back to key people whom I trust and who have a track record of contributing beneficially to society. It just so happened that all five of these people were white men over the age of 50. They are also used to being authorities in their field. All five pointed out that the texts, although rich in content, read awkwardly. In fact, one of the men was repulsed by how clumsily the text read when gendered and indicated that we should only correct typos instead ruining the German language.

When I forwarded this feedback to the young woman, she became irate. She exclaimed, “What do I care about the opinion of Old White Men on this topic? I do not value it.” When I asked her whether she was sure she wished to phrase her opinion in this way despite not knowing the people she was speaking of, and whether perhaps she might make a distinction between Boomers (currently aged 57-75) and Gen X (aged 41-56), she repeated her first statement and added: “A lot of people have taken a lot of time to think about this issue.”

Her words sat down and nursed a drink at the bar of my offence. I was taken aback by how quickly she dismissed a person and the value of their opinion with no regard for the reasoning behind it. This won’t help move emancipation forward. How can one shroud an entire section of the population in a blanket of chauvinism? Ageism, it seems, is the last socially-acceptable prejudice. On the other hand: what is a bit of awkwardness in the construction of a sentence in exchange for recognising more than 50% of the world’s population? What price are we willing to pay for equality? And might the search for new ways of expressing society give rise to new, clearer and more poetic uses of language?

Speaking about the issue with a number of linguists, including a German Studies professor who is a student of mine, a sociolinguistic lecturer, a fine arts professor of the Zurich University of Arts who specialises in topics around identity and gender, and two translators, a number find that gendering the German language robs it of certain aesthetics. Critics find that asterisks, underscores, colons and so on make reading difficult and that indicating binary and non-binary forms make for overly long sentences. They argue that in the grammatical gender system, nouns are assigned with gender categories that are often not related to their real-world qualities. Whether something is masculine or feminine, in other words, leaves them cold. What interests these academics is the inflection, intention and context of things. The assumption amongst them is that all genders are respected within the context of language and that gender is just one way of describing something, as opposed to valuing that thing based on its gender.

I believe that the underlying issue is not one so much of prejudice or aesthetics as difference in perspective. When one has never had to raise their voice in order to be seen, heard and respected, and particularly, when one has never had to fight for their rights, they have little business getting stroppy about a sentence becoming longer in order to include everyone, not just yourself. In fact, as someone who has raised their voice for other reasons, I can tell you that it’s hard, painful and scary if you’re the only one in the room standing up for a whole (often underrepresented) community of people. It should be saluted that, for example, the LGBTQ+ community who are famously individualistic, have gathered together and are persevering.

We have seen language develop and change for centuries. It is important that we remember language to not just be a thing of poetry and prose, a tool for the arts and academia, but also that it is a basic means of expression. Despite what history shows us, we have not developed the easy expertise that comes with experience. Humans are not yet so far as that we see what lies at the root of the whole debate – our humanity.

It is still unclear whether the gender colon will triumph. But, a turning point can already be discerned: a few months ago, the German dictionary “Duden” abolished the generic masculine in its online dictionary. The language now explicitly makes the effort to speak to both the masculine and feminine, to both the actor and actress, the hero and the heroine, and also, to the firefighter, the chairperson, and the president.