Grappling with language sexism

March 5, 2011


Jacinta Nandi lives and works in Berlin, and her first book will be published by Periplaneta this month. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host a follow-the-sun live blog on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2011.

It’s quite interesting to compare what’s considered sexist language in Germany with what’s considered sexist in the English-speaking world.

The main difference is a grammatical one: whereas English is basically a gender-neutral language, German nouns are always gender-specific. So, a lot of the time, when English speakers talk about professions, such as, for example, doctor or pilot, the terms they use have always been gender-neutral and probably always will be.

There are, however, some jobs which used to have female forms – classic examples being words such as authoress, sculptress, poetess – but this usage is considered old-fashioned and sexist nowadays.

There are, of course, some jobs which have male and female forms in English – you’ll still hear people talking about manageresses, comediennes, air stewardesses and waitresses, although these terms are considered by many to be somewhat quaint or even, to put it bluntly, politically incorrect. In fact, Britain’s bastion of political correctness, The Guardian even had a headline with the words ‘female actors’ in it a few months back.

The weird thing is, however, it’s a totally different situation when you’re speaking German. You always know whether the person you’re talking about is a boy or a girl. A Mitbewohnerin has to be a female roommate, a Therapeut is blatantly a male shrink, your Nachbarin has to be your female neighbour and your Frauenarzt is not, as I once thought, a lady doctor, but a male gynaecologist.

So, a few years ago, people started adding “-innen” onto the end of all words denoting people – basically, just to make it clear they were talking about both men and women. “Liebe Studentinnen und Studenten,” for example, or “Hartz-IV-Empfängerinnen und Empfänger“.

There’s a fairly sarky but very entertaining article (in German) from Bastian Sick explaining the whole business over on Spiegel Online, if you’re interested, and it’s a good article to read if you want to get to grips with the whole thing.

The female perspective on the whole “-innen” issue can be found in Germany’s most popular feminist magazine Emma, which published an informative but provocative article, bemoaning the fact that a lot of women from the former East Germany don’t really get into the whole “-innen” thing.

Apparently, at a lecture at university in the former East, the lecturer asked a group of thirty or so female students how many of them would feel insulted if they were called “Studenten” instead of “Studenten und Studentinnen” – and the only people who put their hands up were the three students from the former West.

And in the article the journalist kind of lays into women from the former East for being too blaze with language, and not realizing the importance that sexism in language has on female achievements.

The truth is, it’s almost impossible to truly understand the “-innen” debate when you come from an Anglo-Saxon country, where the epitome of politically correct language is to call firemen “firefighters” and stewardesses “flight attendants”. But it’s good to know we all have our own linguistic battles to fight.

Photo Credit: A woman reads the screening schedule as she waits for the box office of the Berlinale International Film Festival to open in Berlin, February 7, 2011. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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