A guide for language learners
German, like Spanish, French, and many other languages, has gendered nouns (definite articles: der, die, das), and nouns that refer to people and professions are often binary, with die/der variations. However, it is important to distinguish between grammatical gender and gender in the way that we talk about gender identity in society and culture. Grammatical gender is quite random, for example: a fork, knife, and spoon all have different articles (die Gabel, das Messer, der Löffel). When we refer to objects in German, instead of saying “it,” we use the gendered article or pronoun. Der Tisch? Er ist neu! For German learners, that takes some getting used to.
But what about talking about people? How can we make our language more inclusive? How can we use gender-neutral language when we don’t want to specifiy a person’s gender? What pronouns do German speakers use when they identify as non-binary or genderqueer?
Gender Inclusive Language
Language has always changed depending on the needs of its speakers. In English, gendered terms like “mailman,” “policeman,” and “chairman” have been replaced by postal worker, police officer, and chair. Instead of saying “man-made” we say “synthetic.” When using pronouns, many writers and speakers now use the gender-neutral pronoun their to refer to people instead of “his” or “her”: “Someone left their laptop on the table!” or “The next player needs to take their turn!”
Why does this matter?
There are certain social and cultural structures within binary languages that may affect how we think of gender roles in society. In German, for example, feminist activists have argued that using the generic masculine terms for certain professions (saying “der Arzt” when we want to refer to a generic doctor) may affect how we visualize or conceptualize these professions and the people who occupy them. While in English we can say “the professor” and refer to a man or a woman or a non-binary person, in German the word Professor or Professorin is gendered.
Here’s another concrete example: A 10th-grade teacher might say “Alle Schüler auf die Plätze!” (Students to their seats!), and use the masculine plural Schüler to refer to a mixed group of Schüler and Schülerinnen (fem). Many people think this kind of language can be exclusionary. For example, in 2018 a group of girls in Germany made a powerful video called “Sichtbar sein” (Being visible), arguing that they want to be made visible in the language, not just always included within the masculine plural. In the video, they rap: “Er sagt ‘Politiker’, ‘Wissenschaftler’, ‘Arzt’, ‘Astronaut’, aber seien wir doch mal ehrlich, wer denkt da schon an ‚ne Frau?” (He says the generic, male terms for ‘politician’, ‘scientist’, ‘doctor’, ‘astronaut,’ but let’s be honest, who then pictures a woman?)
Solutions: How can we make German more inclusive?
There are several ways to make language more inclusive in German. Here are some of the most common strategies:
- Chosing terms that avoid gender binary terms: die Person, der Mensch, das Mitglied, der Gast
Another common example in the university setting is using “die Lehrkraft” instead of Professor/Professorin.
- Plural terms that avoid the binary (ex: Studierende): Whereas the English word student is gender-neutral in English, the traditional word for student in German (Student, Studentin) is now often replaced by the gender-neutral Studierende (plural), or more informally die Studis. So instead of saying “Die Studenten lernen Deutsch” we can say “Die Studierenden lernen Deutsch” – and this sentence is gender-inclusive. Die Studis lieben Deutsch! See the dictionary below for alternative terms for other nouns.
- Doubling (Paarform), or using both feminine and masculine terms (ex: Studentinnen und Studenten): When you hear politicians give speeches, they now say “Liebe Bürgerinnen und liebe Bürger” – dear citizens and citizens… When this doubling happens, the feminine plural is listed first.
- Gender star (Gendersternchen): Ex: Student*innen: Especially in writing, this option is common to refer to a mixed group. (Other options include capital “I” StudentInnen, or underscore Student_innen.)
- Using different formulations such as “wir” or relative clauses: Instead of “Alle Studenten…”, try: “Alle, die studieren…” or “Wer studiert, …” “wir am College…”
Note that this language is not yet standardized. The German Duden (a standard reference work), notes that there is “no norm,” but many options for writing gender-neutral language in German.
In your German classes…
Gender and Pronouns
If you are learning German, you have probably already learned the first-person pronoun ich (Ich komme aus den USA) and second-person du (Kommst du aus Michigan?), or Sie (Kommen Sie aus Berlin?), and plural pronouns wir (we), ihr (y’all), sie (they). These pronouns are not gendered depending on who is speaking, or who is being addressed. Similarly, plural articles are not gendered in German, and the definite article die is used for groups no matter their gender. Ein-words like meine are also neutral: meine Studierenden.
Third-person pronouns are gendered and traditionally binary: sie (she), er (he), ihr (her), sein (his).
- Meine Tante wohnt in Berlin. Sie wohnt in Kreuzberg.
- Das ist meine Mitbewohnerin, Alex. Sie studiert Chemie und Deutsch.
- Mein Vater wohnt in Detroit. Er kommt aus Deutschland aber seine Arbeit ist in Michigan.
What gender-neutral pronouns can I use in German?
When you study abroad in a German-speaking country, you may encounter people who are familiar with gender-neutral language, and non-binary pronouns, and people who are less familiar. You may find that the university setting is different from what you are used to in the United States, or at your college or university. Whereas asking for gender pronouns has now become a standard part of course introductions at many U.S. institutions, this is not yet the case (generally) in Germany. Just as there is regional and cultural diversity within the United States, you will find a great variety of responses to these issues in the German-speaking world.
When introducing yourself to groups, classes, or faculty members, you can identify yourself with the language above (“Guten Tag, mein Name ist _____, mein Pronomen ist _________.”)
Updated September 2022.
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