Trial phase The discussion about gendering is fierce – instead of strict specifications, we need the courage to allow diversity

by Tanjev Schultz

Gender-sensitive language remains a political issue. For some it is essential, for others just a temporary fad. In academic, and increasingly also journalistic, contexts, attention is paid to whether male and female forms are used. The asterisk is also becoming ever more widespread as a way to overcome binary gender classification. Despite the growing popularity of such forms, language use is inconsistent across different social spheres and ideological environments. In some cases, there is strong resistance to any form of gendering. Many editorial offices continue to use the generic masculine form as standard.

It is by no means only the right-wing extremists of the AfD that rage against linguistic change with often polemic exaggeration (»gender gaga«). Many publishing houses consider gendering to be (too) cumbersome. The conservative Verein Deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language, VDS) and some linguists criticize gender formulations as unnecessary and confusing in terms of the language system (cf. articles in Meinunger/Baumann 2017). There is no fixed connection between the »natural« and »grammatical« gender, argues a proclamation by the VDS (2019).

While many women are fed up with always being implicitly meant when the generic masculine is used, there are others who do not mind at all. WELT journalist Hannah Lühmann, for example, writes that she believes in the right »to be largely spared ideological impositions in everyday language use« (Lühmann 2019). The question of whether or not gendering is good cannot be resolved through linguistic argumentation, she continues. After all, it is a question of worldview. »It is to do with whether one believes that language is a kind of ›instrument‹ that one has to carefully protect and obsessively guard, or, like me, one tends towards the view that language is something both wild-growing and archaic and, at the same time, ultimately limiting, which is not there to treat us ›well‹ or ›fairly‹« (ibid.).

Although I personally like the idea of gendering, I also see it as correct and important to listen to those who think like Lühmann. It is not true that she and other opponents of gendering do not have a sense of equal rights. Literary scholar Dagmar Lorenz actually sees gender-sensitive formulations as anti-emancipatory: »In that they restore precisely the discrimination of the feminine that they allegedly want to eliminate. While the traditional form of the generic masculine has developed towards an abstracting word meaning over time, feminization is far behind this historic development. It points again to the meaning – the natural (not generic) gender – from which it is to be abstracted in certain contexts in order to satisfy the principle of equality« (Lorenz 2017: 235).

There is undoubtedly much to respond to in Lorenz‹ argument. For example, experiments show that, when the generic masculine is used, people really do often only see male representatives (e.g. of a profession) in their mind‹s eye. But this is not true in all contexts. In compound words, few people will even notice if gendering is not used consistently, for example when a text uses the term »Bürgermeisterin« [mayor] instead of »Bürgerinnen- und Bürgermeisterin.« Lorenz‹ point relates to a fundamental dilemma of many fights for emancipation: the fact that categorizations, which can be used in a discriminatory way and need to be overcome, are first brought (even more) into consciousness and perhaps perpetuated and strengthened as soon as they are addressed and made explicit in the language.

It is ultimately down to the language community to decide how to deal with this challenge and what the meaning of certain forms is. When it comes to the way gender forms are handled, we are currently in an interesting phase of a potentially fundamental linguistic change. It can be observed that many younger people (students) already use the ›gender_gap‹ fluently. However, it is important not to forget that practices that are a matter of course in specific academic circles are worlds away from what is practiced elsewhere. Of course this alone is not an argument for or against a certain practice. I simply consider it presumptuous to believe that linguistic change can simply be decreed in this way.

An academic journal can make specifications, including for gendering. However, in the present constellation, I consider it neither clever nor appropriate to prescribe something that the various authors may not approve of at all, or that contradicts their own sense of the language. I am therefore in favor of allowing a diverse range of formulations and styles. Perhaps the language community will one day reach a point where a new standard emerges. We are currently still in a phase of trial and discussion. For me, that also means that I would welcome more editorial offices in journalism, too, giving their authors the freedom to decide whether and how they use gendering.


Lorenz, Dagmar: Gendersprech: Wider die sprachliche Apartheid der Geschlechter. In: Meinunger, André; Baumann, Antje (Eds.): Die Teufelin steckt im Detail. Zur Debatte um Gender und Sprache. Berlin [Kadmos] 2017, pp. 230-239

Lühmann, Hannah: Ein Denkfehler (Sprache und Geschlecht). In: Frankfurter Rundschau, 6.3.2019, (26.2.2020)

Meinunger, André; Baumann, Antje (Eds.): Die Teufelin steckt im Detail. Zur Debatte um Gender und Sprache. Berlin [Kadmos] 2017

VDS: »Schluss mit Gender-Unfug!« Aufruf des Vereins Deutscher Sprache (VDS), 6.3.2019, (26.2.2020)

Translation: Sophie Costella

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Tanjev Schultz: Trial phase. The discussion about gendering is fierce – instead of strict specifications, we need the courage to allow diversity. In: Journalistik, Vol. 3 (1), 2020, pp. 59-61



First published online

June 2020