Why I don't like to "gendern" in German — and why I do it anyways
As an English native speaker, explicitly calling out that I'm female all the time feels more backwards than progressive. Many German speakers feel exactly the opposite
I recently had conversation with my German teacher about gendern — an attempt at making the heavily gendered German language more inclusive of women and sometimes also of other genders.
Every word in German has grammatical gender. Most words for people like “doctor” or “actor” have a feminine version used for women and a masculine version used for men — and as a “generic masculine” for mixed groups of men and women and to refer to the concept in general.
To gendern means to use both the masculine and feminine versions of German words for people instead of the “generic” masculine. Directly translated to English, it’d be like saying “male astronauts and female astronauts” all the time instead of just “astronauts.” This is perceived by many German speakers as more inclusive.
I’m all for inclusive language. So it might sound a bit strange that I really, really don’t like to gendern.
This isn’t because I think women should just roll over and accept male dominance in language — I consider myself a feminist. It’s also not (only) because gendern makes German sentences so clunky that practically nobody bothers with it casual speech.
Nope: I don’t like to gendern because it runs just about exactly opposite to how I’m used to handling inclusive language in English.
Of course, my German teacher, a native German speaker from Austria, feels differently. To her, not using the feminine forms feels like erasing women from existence.
I found this mismatched perception fascinating and wanted to dig into it a bit more. This post explains what gendern is in German, why people do it, and why it short-circuits my anglophone brain — but still do it anyways.
Crash course in German grammatical gender
In German, all nouns are either masculine, feminine, or neuter. The words for “the” and “a/an” as well as adjectives and adverbs all change depending on a word’s gender.
The gender of words for people almost always lines up with the biological sex of the person being talking about. Women get feminine nouns, men get masculine ones. This means it’s basically impossible to talk about someone without bringing their sex into the conversation.
For specific people this isn’t usually an issue because their sex is known — but start taking about “doctors,” “politicians,” or other groups of people in general and things get tricky, fast.
The generic masculine
The problem is rather straightforward: German words for people are almost always masculine in their base or “generic” form.
To talk about a female doctor, artist, or murderer, you’d need to change the masculine generic form by adding the suffix -in and sometimes making some other small changes.
Here are a few examples:
The doctor: der Arzt (masculine), die Ärztin (feminine), die Ärzte (plural masculine), die Ärztinnen (plural feminine) The artist: der Kunstler (masculine), die Kunstlerin (feminine), die Kunstler (plural masculine), die Kunstlerinnen (feminine) The murderer: der Mörder (masculine), die Mörderin (feminine), die Mörder (plural masculine), die Mörderinnen (plural feminine)
Mark Twain famously complained about this in his essay The Awful German Language:
A German speaks of an Englishman as the ENGLÄNDER; to change the sex, he adds INN, and that stands for Englishwoman– ENGLÄNDERINN. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: “die Engländerinn,"–which means “the she-Englishwoman.” I consider that that person is over-described.
As women started to adopt traditionally masculine roles, the plural masculine form was used to refer to both groups of only men and to mixed groups. If you know Spanish, French, or another Romance language, you probably can tell where this is going. For doctors:
- A male doctor: Arzt (masculine, singular)
- A female doctor: Ärztin (feminine, singular)
A group of doctors that is…
- 100 men: Ärzte (masculine, plural)
- 50 woman + 50 men: Ärzte (masculine, plural)
- 99 women + 1 man: Ärzte (masculine, plural)
- 100 women: Ärztinnen (feminine, plural)
The masculine form is also used to represent concepts in general — basically whenever sex is unknown or irrelevant. This use is the generic masculine.
For instance, to speak about the concept of “doctor” or “doctors,” or about some undetermined doctor whose gender isn’t known or important, you’d use the masculine Arzt or Ärzte (plural) — even if you don’t only have males in mind.
But while masculine words can include women (i.e., either in mixed groups or referring in general to groups to which women can belong), their feminine counterparts almost always refer only to women and cannot by any stretch of the imagination include men.
Basically, masculine is to rectangle as feminine is to square — masculine words describe the general category to which the feminine special cases belong.
Confused? Maybe this helps:
- The concept “doctors” in general: Ärzte (masculine, plural)
- The concept of “female doctors” in general: Ärztinnen (feminine, plural)
- The concept of “doctor” in general: Arzt (masculine, singular)
- The concept of “female doctor” in general: Ärztin (feminine, singular)
Because the masculine is generic, to talk about “male doctors” specifically, you’d either need to make your usage clear from context or say something like männliche Ärzte — male (male) doctors.
Gendern - what is it?
Many German speakers rightfully feel that this system erases women, even if they’re technically “meant-together” (mitgemeint) in the generic masculine.
The solution is to gendern.
Gendern — from the English word “gender” — is the practice of explicitly including both the male and female forms of words for people in written, and sometimes spoken language.
In some cases, people also use special punctuation marks and insert pauses into their speech to include certain trans people as well.
What would gendern look like in English?
Directly translated into English, to gendern would mean saying things like this:
We are looking for an experienced male doctor or female doctor.
The male politicians and female politicians will vote on Thursday on whether female workers and male workers will receive a higher minimum wage.
The male teachers and female teachers and nonbinary teachers are on strike.
I don’t know about you, but reading sentences like that makes my anglophone brain really uncomfortable.
What gendern looks like in German
In German, things get even more complicated because adjectives, adverbs, and articles (the/a) all change depending on the genders of the words they describe. This means that explicitly including both forms can make sentences very long and clunky — a reason you’ll tend to see _gendern-_ed German in formal writing and official speech but not in everyday speech.
Here’s quick comparison of short phrases using the generic masculine to the same phrases when gendern-ed.
- The teacher: der Lehrer
- A good teacher ein guter Lehrer
- The teachers: die Lehrer
- The teacher: die Lehrerin oder der Lehrer
- A good teacher: eine gute Lehrerin oder ein guter Lehrer
- The teachers: die Lehrerinnen und Lehrer
In the first case of “the teacher,” you go from 2 words to 5 and from 3 syllables to 9 when you gendern instead of using the generic masculine.
German speakers use a lot of abbreviations in writing to get around the clunkiness of gendern. They also use special characters like * and : to represent nonbinary identities.
There’s a good summary on this webpage. But here are some examples of how you’ll see gendern abbreviated in text.
- The worker: der Arbeiter
- A good worker: ein guter Arbeiter
- The workers: die Arbeiter
- The worker (women + men): die/der ArbeiterIn
- The worker (+ nonbinary): _dieder Arbeiter_in OR Arbeiter:in
- A good worker (women + men): ein/e gut/er ArbeiterIn
- A good worker (+ nonbinary): _eine gut_er Arbeiter*in OR Arbeiter:in
- The workers (women + men): die ArbeiterInnen
- The workers (+ nonbinary): die Arbeiter*innen OR Arbeiter:innen
My problem with gendern
Although gendern is meant to make women feel included, I really don’t like it.
For one, I really don’t like having to use special feminine versions of words for people whenever I describe myself while men get to use words that feel more neutral.
I don’t think women are lesser or that being a “woman journalist” is somehow less than being a “man journalist.” But it’s wishful thinking to insist that the feminine and masculine forms play equal roles in the German language — the masculine forms are obviously the base form. They are shorter, easier to pronounce, and simpler and the female versions are clearly derived from them and not the other way around.
Also, the masculine forms can be generic, while the feminine forms almost always cannot be. Men get to refer to themselves using words that, in everyday German, refer to whole categories including both men and women.
Meanwhile, women must use the words that refer only to women. So every time I say I’m a Journalistin, it feels to me like I’m making extra effort to point out my sex in a way that a man saying he’s a Journalist doesn’t.
If the masculine forms also could only refer to men, there wouldn’t be the same imbalance. But given how wordy it is to constantly use both the male and female forms, the generic masculine isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s also just very useful to have a general word for referring to concepts like “artist” and “murderer” and “dentist” in general without needing to think of anyone specific (and their sexual biology).
I also don’t like to gendern because I feel like it forces me to explicitly bring attention to my sex all the time even though it isn’t — and shouldn’t be — relevant most of the time.
Seriously, why should anyone be thinking about my sexual biology when I’m talking about my job? What does it have to do with anything?
I don’t see my sex as relevant in most contexts and it feels very, very weird to me to — albiet indirectly — constantly bring my sex organs into the discussion and demand that others do the same when describing groups I belong to. I do the same work as a male journalist, so why should we use different words to describe the same work?
My native language influences how I perceive grammatical gender in German
In English, very few words for people have explicitly feminine forms. “Actor” and “actress” and “waiter” and “waitress” are the only common pairs that come to mind for me, though there are a few others. In the past, there were more — “doctoress” was really an English word. But most of these forms are very outdated now.
This means that even though the “generic” words for doctor, lawyer, runner, author, etc. in English used to pretty much only refer to men, they don’t feel masculine. They feel like… nothing. Today, they don’t have a sex baked in.
I think this is why using the explicitly feminine forms in German feels like it unnecessarily highlights people’s female-ness in situations where sex has nothing to do with anything — it feels backwards to me, not progressive.
Turned around, this is also the reason saying “male nurse” in English when a nurse’s gender isn’t important feels cringe.
Other English-speaking women seem to feel similarly and I presume this is why the trend in English has been to drop what few explicitly feminine titles that still exist (like actress) and use the same words to describe men and women whenever possible.
Using gender-neutral language like “police officer"instead of the gendered “policemen and policewomen” is considered more inclusive.
How I wish it worked: how German handles gender mismatch for animals
German is rather stiff when it comes to gender — but it can be still be far more flexible than people give it credit for. And there’s at least one common situation in which the language rather nicely handles mismatch between grammatical and natural gender: describing animals.
Mismatch between grammatical and natural gender is common for animal words. The words for dog, fish, and bird are masculine. The words for cat, snake, and owl are feminine. The words for horse, pig, and sloth are neuter. But there are obviously female dogs, male snakes, and sexed horses in this world.
How does German handle this?
There are sex-specific versions of many animal names that people use when it is relevant. For instance, a male cat is ein Kater. These sex-specific forms is useful when talking about breeding animals or otherwise when the animal’s sex is relevant and important.
But in everyday speech, you’re just not going to hear people use these forms much at all, even if they’re talking about an animal whose biological sex doesn’t match up with its grammatical gender.
Instead, the way this usually plays out in conversation when talking about an animal whose sex is known and is the opposite of its grammatical gender is something like this:
A: Your dog (masculine) ist very cute. What breed is it (lit: he, masculine)?
B: Thank you! She’s (feminine) a German Shepherd (masculine).
A: Stranger: She’s (feminine) really pretty. What a good girl (neuter)!
And in German:
A: Dein Hund ist sehr süß. Was für eine Rasse ist er?
B: Danke! Sie ist ein Deutscherschäferhund.
A: Sie ist wirklich schön. Was für ein braves Mädchen!
When talking about an animal whose sex you know, you’d use the corresponding masculine or feminine pronoun to talk about them. The species name is simply the name of the category to wich the animal belongs and its grammatical gender doesn’t need to match the animal’s sex.
Something similar happens when you use metaphors to compare people to an inanimates object in German — you don’t change the inanimate object’s gender to match the person you’re comparing it to.
This is basically how I wish it would work with gendered job titles and other words for people in German.
Here’s what it’d look like
A: And you, Marie (feminine name), what do you do?
B: I’m a teacher (masculine, general “species”/type)
A: My sisters (feminine) are also teachers (masculine, plural).
B: Do you know more female teachers (feminine) or male teachers (masculine)?
And in German:
A: Und Sie, Marie, was machen Sie beruflich?
B: Ich bin Lehrer
A: Meine Schwestern sind auch Lehrer.
B: Kennst du mehr Lehrerinnen oder Lehrer? (Or, yet weirder : Kennst du mehr weibliche Lehrer oder männliche Lehrer?)
The masculine base forms of words for types of people would behave like animal species names — like “species/type” categories that any person could belong to and which aren’t expected to line up with sex all the time.
Why it’s hard to find a good solution
Of course, there are excellent reasons that German speakers don’t do this, even though it’d be easier on my anglophone brain (and easier to say).
Unlike in English, almost all German words for people have either masculine or feminine gender. Imagine if nearly every word describing a person behaved like the “actress/actor” pair.
And I mean nearly every word for people, not just job titles. I jokingly called myself a “tyrant,” a Tyrann today in German class and my teacher corrected me to the feminine Tyrannin.
Because the feminine forms of German words for people exist and are used so often, the “generic” masculine form doesn’t sound generic like it does in English — it sounds masculine.
While “Journalisten” sounds like journalists to me , it sounds like “male journalists, and maybe women if you remember they also exist” to many German speakers.
Two schools of thought on representation in language
Beyond linguistic differences, this conflict seems to me like a mismatch between to different ideas of what it means to achieve gender equality.
On one side is the English viewpoint — equality between the sexes means using the same language to describe everyone whenever possible.
Make everything as gender-neutral as possible. Drop whatever remaining explicitly female forms remain are and adopt the “generic” (once masculine, now widely used) forms for everyone. On the most extreme end, try not to use gendered terms even for ideas directly linked to biological sex (i.e., birthing parent instead of mother, people with testicles instead of men)
On the other side is the German viewpoint — equality between the sexes means both sexes are equally visible. In practice, this means explictly pointing out women who are otherwise invisibly swept into the generic masculine.
So, lean harder into the male/female distinction in job titles and normalize use of the female title alongside the male version. Write “we want to hire a male doctor or female doctor” and not just “we want to hire a doctor (generic masculine).” Create new feminine forms of titles that didn’t have a feminine form before, like Bundeskanzler (prime minister) — Bundeskanlzerin. Explicitly note everyone’s sex and make sure women aren’t forgotten.
Why I gendern, anyways
I find the German philosophy on gender-inclusive language uncomfortable because it’s basically the exact opposite of the one I grew up with as an English speaker.
But I don’t feel it’s really isn’t my place to have strong opinions on what’s inclusive when I’m a “guest” in a new language. It’s all fun and games to imagine using German words for people the way animal species names work, but it’s just that — a fun thought experiment. It’s not something I’d ever try to convince anyone to adopt.
Ultimately, it’s not my opinion that matters: how German tickles my anglophone reflexes is not the point. It’s what German-speaking people feel.
And I certainly understand why someone who grew up speaking a thoroughly gendered language in which the masculine clearly dominates would think “hey, isn’t it about time that you include the women for once!”
That’s why I do gendern. Even if it gives me a bit of a stomachache.
What do you think? How is gender-inclusive language handled in your language?
I’d love to hear what you think about this. If you’re learning German, do you find gendern uncomfortable, too? How is gender-inclusive language handled in your native language or target languages? If you speak German, how well do you think the current solutions for inclusive language work in German?
Let me know in the comments below. Or shoot an email off to email@example.com or DM me on Twitter at @elisecutts.