LinguaTute

Gender Inclusive Language Toys With Tradition: Spotlight On French And German

One of the most polemic debates surrounding European languages today revolves around gender. As the visibility of gender queer individuals increases, so too does the pressure from linguistic activists to adapt our spoken and written language to be more inclusive.

French and German neopronouns explained

In English, the pronoun “they” is commonly used to refer not only to non-binary people, but also to people whose gender is unknown or irrelevant. Neither French nor German has been able to adopt preexisting pronouns to fit gender-inclusive contexts in the same way, due to linguistic limitations. Some people mistakenly believe that German, with its three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) is already equipped to defy the gender binary. 

The neuter pronoun “es” is used in a similar way to the English “it”, for example “es regnet” (“it’s raining”) and “es ist schwierig” (“it is difficult”), and so referring to a non-binary person as “es” would produce a similar dehumanising effect as calling someone “it” in English.

Instead, a number of neopronouns (recently-coined pronouns which are not officially considered to belong to the language) have been adopted. The most common of these is “dey”. It is the result of mapping the English gender-neutral pronoun “they” onto the German sound system, which does not have the “th” sound. Another non-binary pronoun that is in use is “xier”, which is created by combining “sie” (“she”) and “er” (“he”). 

In French, “il” (“he”) and “elle” (“she”) have similarly been combined to produce the gender-inclusive neopronouns “iel” and “ille”. While German adjectives only vary according to gender when placed before the noun, French adjectives must always agree with the gender of the noun they are describing. One suggested solution to this is ending adjectives with “x” to indicate inclusivity, such as “petitx”. This solution can be found in Spanish, too, for example in the term “Latinx”.

What is the generic masculine?

French grammar states that in a mixed gender group, the masculine plural pronoun “ils” should be used and is referred to as the generic masculine. Thus, famously, a gathering of ninety-nine women and one pig would be referred to as “ils”, because pig (“cochon”) is a masculine noun in French. This example shows how counter-intuitive the generic masculine rule can be.

In order to see how proponents of inclusive language approach this issue in French and German, let us consider the scenario of a teacher writing an email to a mixed gender group of students. 

The traditional approach, which is now considered by many to be outdated, would be to address the group with the masculine plural forms:

Chers étudiants

Leibe Studenten

A more inclusive, but nevertheless binary, approach is to repeat both forms of the word:

Chers étudiants, chères étudiantes

Liebe Studentinnen und Studenten

In recent years, however, even more inclusive alternatives have gained popularity. In French, the gender-inclusive effect is most commonly achieved with the “point milieu” (“middle point”), which is inserted to allow both masculine and feminine endings to be included. German makes similar innovative use of special characters, and adds capitalisation to the mix as well. The result is as follows:

Cher.e.s étudiant.e.s

Liebe Student:innen / Liebe Student*innen / Liebe Student_innen / Liebe StudentInnen

In French, there is no obvious way to pronounce words containing the point milieu, and the general consensus is that the two forms must be repeated in speech. The above German pronouns are pronounced with a glottal stop separating the word stem (“Student”) and the feminine plural ending (“innen”). Glottal stops occur in some places where the letter “t” is used, and roughly sounds like a very brief silence between syllables, such as in the English word “water” (Received Pronunciation). While the German form with capitalised “I” was designed as a combination of the masculine and feminine plural forms, the special characters are intended to be inclusive of all gender identities.

Another commonly used form in German is “Studierende”, which derives from the verb “studieren” (“to study”) and roughly translates as “those who are studying”. This has the advantages of being concise, inclusive, intuitive, and grammatical, which has led to its widespread use in educational settings. Unfortunately, however, this method does not work for all words: while we could transform “lesen” (“to read”) into “Lesende” (“reader”), we could not create such a form from “Arzt” (“doctor”) as it is not a verb. It is for this reason that it is far more difficult to create gender-inclusive job titles, which usually have a masculine and feminine form and do not often have an associated verb.

The generic masculine in job titles

The generic masculine is also used to refer to professions, leading linguistic activists to argue that it feeds into gender inequalities in the workplace. There has been much research into how use of the generic masculine may affect the proportions of applicants from different genders, as well as the aspirations of children, who are subject to conditioning through language. The idea that language influences thought is known in linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, after the linguists who developed the idea.

Until recently the only way to say “nurse” in German was “Krankenschwester”, which literally translates as “sickness sister” and is therefore coded as feminine, excluding the possibility of non-female identifying nurses. In the last few decades, the modern German language has evolved to become more gender inclusive. Like English, where “fireman” and “policeman” have been replaced on a wide scale by “firefighter” and “police officer”, German has created new terms to replace the gender-coded words it previously used for many professions. A common way of forming these neologisms is using the suffix “-kraft”, which denotes someone whose profession it is to do something. In this way, “Krankenschwester” was gradually replaced by “Pflegekraft” (“care personnel”) and Putzfrau (“cleaning lady”) gave way to “Reinigungskraft” (cleaning personnel).

Attitudes to gender inclusive language in France and Germany

These terms are by no means universally used, however, and many stick resolutely to the outdated terms. This is similar to in English,  where the prevailing unshortened term for “postie” continues to be “postman”– “postperson” simply hasn’t caught on. Using special characters to create gender-inclusive terms is particularly contentious and is even banned in schools in multiple German states.

In some German states, students lose points each time they include these “gender signs” in marked work.

The French government similarly opposes gender-inclusive language, including use of the point milieu, and the Académie Française, a literary academy whose mandate is to define and protect French, is firmly against these practices. From the Académie’s perspective, gender inclusive language besmirches the French language. In 2021, Le Robert (a well-respected French dictionary) added the gender-inclusive pronoun “iel”, and its plural “iels” to their online corpus.

This was a bold choice which sparked renewed debate about the place of neopronouns in French.

Summary

Thus, gender–a prominent issue in all languages–is leading to new language use in French and German. Linguistic activists have tackled what they consider limitations of their tongue with impressive innovation, leading to the creation of countless forms that make particular use of special characters. In some cases, the formation of a completely new word has been necessary, and German–with its infamous building block approach to word formation–has risen to this challenge. Not all solutions are elegant or convenient in all situations; there is no doubt, however, that new and improved gender-inclusive forms will eventually be adapted into these languages in order to reflect the gaining momentum of positive cultural change with regard to gender issues.

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