There are certain aspects of German that really make me appreciate the simplicity of English grammar whenever I have to grapple with them. Cases, for example, are a never-ending nightmare for me, but that’s an issue for another day. One of the big difficulties I have with German as a native speaker of English is the fact that, in German grammar, nouns are assigned one of three grammatical genders: masculine (der Boden – “the floor”), feminine (die Tür – “the door”) or neuter (das Fenster – “the window”).

For many German nouns that refer to people, including almost all job titles, the base form is grammatically masculine, taking the masculine article der and usually an -er ending, for example der Lehrer (“the teacher”) or der Bürger (“the citizen”). Obviously, the people these nouns refer to are not always male. This isn´t necessarily a problem when you’re talking about a specific man or woman or a group of people of the same gender, as each noun also has a female form (der Lehrer for a man, die Lehrerin for a woman). A problem does arise, however, when discussing a group of more than one gender or a person whose gender is unknown – in this case, the masculine form has traditionally been used to mean all genders (the generic masculine form).

Gendern (“gendering”) is the practice of trying to ensure that German nouns referring to people refer to all genders in these situations, as many people view the practice of using the generic masculine as something that contributes to the broader issue of gender discrimination and inequality, particularly in the workplace. In situations where the person could be any gender, using the generic masculine can result in sentences that lead the reader to believe that a specific male person is being referred to. For example, using the generic masculine in the sentence “The teacher must inform pupils about the test one week in advance” (where “the teacher” could be any teacher) would result in the sentence “Der Lehrer muss den Test eine Woche vorher ankündigen”. This would lead most German readers to believe that a specific male teacher is being referred to. When you consider that almost all job titles in German are grammatically masculine, it becomes clear why using the generic masculine form is something that many people view as a contributing factor to gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

In practice, gendering usually involves creating a hybrid masculine/feminine version of the noun, often with an additional symbol in the word to denote nonbinary people (Lehrerinnen, Lehrer:Innen) and, in the case of a singular noun referring to one person whose gender is unknown, using both articles (der/die Lehrer:In, der/die Lehrerin).

There are some obvious issues with this practice. While aiming to be more inclusive, it makes written texts much more complex and thus less accessible for people who have reading difficulties or come from different language backgrounds. It can also often be unclear which nouns have to be gendered and which don’t. Gendering all nouns isn’t always feasible or even necessary, and would potentially make some texts completely unreadable, so where should the line be drawn? You also have to consider the fact that not everyone supports the idea of gendering nouns in this way, which means you run the risk of alienating people whichever approach you decide to take. There is also no official consensus on which of the many different ways to gender nouns is the correct or best one.

It really is a very complicated issue – and it’s one I’m glad we don’t have to deal with when writing, translating and proofreading English texts at Diction! We have our own issues to deal with, of course. I’m not sure how many more dangling participles I can read without going completely mad …

Robert Fawcett, English team

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