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From Fräulein to the gender star: Germany's language revolution

Rachel Loxton
Rachel Loxton - [email protected]
From Fräulein to the gender star: Germany's language revolution
During a recent protest in Berlin, a woman holds a poster that includes the gender star. It reads: Parents for educators. Photo: DPA

Language is always evolving, thanks to a mix of social change and Jugendsprache (youth talk). But can German language ever be gender inclusive? We dug deep to find out how the current gender language revolution started and where it might go.


Change is in the air in Germany. It might not be immediately visible when you land in the airport looking for a kleiner Kaffee (small coffee) or head to a bar for a großes Bier (large beer). But study the newspapers, official correspondence, job applications, visit universities or speak to different groups of people and you’ll find a language revolution is well underway.

It concerns gender, which is a huge part of German language since every noun has its own gender article itself, much to the despair of non-native speakers who have to memorize them all.

SEE ALSO: German word of the day: Das Gendersternchen

But changing attitudes towards gender have been transforming German language over the years, and linguistic expert Horst Simon told the Local the discussion had been “invigorated” recently.

The development was shown just last month when the city of Hanover, in Lower Saxony, became the first in Germany to introduce guidelines aimed at creating gender equality through the language.

That followed the introduction of a new law at the start of the year that allows Germans to state a third gender option (known as divers which means diverse or various) on birth certificates.

SEE ALSO: Third gender option for birth certificates approved in Bundestag

The downfall of Fräulein

Simon, professor of historical linguistics at the Free University in Berlin, says modern debate on the use of gendered language became a hot topic following the 1968 student movements of Europe, which saw young people questioning their parents and perceived social norms.

An example of a gendered word falling completely out of favour during this time is Fräulein.

It’s the kind of word that might earn you a slap in the face, or at least a dirty look should you use it to address someone. Why?

Fräulein is the diminutive of Frau, which is today the neutral term for a grown up female. Fräulein doesn’t just mean ‘younger woman’, however -- its connotations are far deeper.

One use of Fräulein at a cafe in Berlin. Photo: DPA

It draws attention to a woman’s marital status, says Simon. And that’s what makes it so controversial. So a Fräulein would be used for an unmarried woman, while a Frau is a married woman.

Simon says the words Frau and Fräulein have “a chequered history” because they have changed meaning over time.

In the Middle Ages, the word frouwe was used for noble women. A woman of regular social standing would have been called a wip (nouns didn’t have capital letters in those days).

“What happened then was those words changed their meaning, a bit like inflation,” Simon tells The Local.

“So frouwe was used more and more often, not only for noble women but for any type of women. Wip somehow degenerated and was only used as a derogatory term.

“"They both somehow became lower in social status."

In the middle ages, frouwelein was used to describe a young noble women. It then became the polite way to address any young woman in the 18th century.

“It usually had the idea of young and unmarried,” says Simon. “That’s how it survived into the 20th century. It’s similar to the English terms Mrs (for a married woman) and Miss (an unmarried woman)."

The spelling of both of these words also changed over time to Frau and Fräulein.

Although many people probably had reservations about the connotations of these words far earlier in time, things changed dramatically in the 1970s.

“It had a lot to do with the post ‘68 movement and second wave feminism,” says Simon. “In the 70s for good reason people began talking about the fact there’s no equivalent on the male side.

“All men are addressed as Herr. In a sense to call somebody Frau or Fräulein draws attention to a marital status which should be irrelevant to a modern liberal society.

“So it fell out of favour to use it.”

Cafe 'Fräulein Frost' in Berlin. Photo: DPA

All woman are Frau

Nowadays, all women are referred to as Frau, including in official documents.

“Today, talk to any German and nobody will use Fräulein except for maybe 85-year-olds in the countryside,” says Simon. “It’s an outdated word.”

There are some noticeable uses of Fräulein, however. A German magazine called Fräulein claims to speak for “strong and self-confident women”, suggesting the word is being reclaimed.

There are also several cafes, shops and bars around Germany which use Fräulein in the title.

For Germans, the word paints an image of the olden days. But in this case, the use is probably “semi-ironic,” suggests Simon.

Getting rid of Herr and Frau

The focus on language, which became a big deal n the 1970s, is continuing today.

The recent ruling in Hanover has been put in place in a bid to move towards language that removes all gender attributes from words. Emails, flyers, letters, press statements and brochures -- all part of official communication -- will be written according to the new guidelines.

In German almost all nouns defining someone’s job are gender-specific. So a male teacher is a Lehrer and a female teacher is a Lehrerin. The plural for teachers takes the male form: die Lehrer.

So in Hanover, Lehrer (teachers) becomes the gender neutral Lehrenden, and, in a similar vein, Wähler (voters) is replaced with the gender neutral Wählenden. Lehrenden means somebody who is teaching, but isn’t grammatically correct. It does remove the gender association, though.

The city is also getting rid of the traditional salutations of Herr (Mr) and Frau (Mrs or Miss).

Although it should be noted that grammatical formations are nothing to do with biological gender, the issue is still a huge talking point.

'Recognition and visiblity'

It’s also raised the question of how language can be inclusive for all, including people who don’t identify as either male or female.

Markus Ulrich, spokesman for Lesben und Schwulenverband (Lesbian and Gay Association, or LSVD), which campaigns under the motto ‘love deserves respect’, tells The Local that reflecting in language the idea that there are more than two genders is “important for non-binary people and for people who are intersex”.

“It’s about recognition and visibility" in language, Ulrich says.

Non-binary people don’t identify as strictly male or female, while intersex is a broad term encompassing people who have sex traits, such as genitals or chromosomes, that do not entirely fit with a typical binary notion of male and female.

Although Ulrich notes that some people who would fall into these categories are not concerned about these issues, for some “it would be a big point for them to be acknowledged in language”.

He says there is power in language in driving forward social change as well as being informed by it.

“We have the idea that language reflects reality, but it also forms reality so it’s quite clear that language is a powerful tool which can be used to discriminate against people, but also to not discriminate against people,” Ulrich adds.

There are different ways that people using German, especially in written communication, can move towards gender neutral or inclusive language.

There’s opting for Lehrende instead of Lehrer, like what Hanover is doing. Ulrich says he would describe this as gender neutral.

A sign for the 'Dritte Option' or Third Option. Photo: DPA

“If people saw that they wouldn’t think there’s more than two genders, just that it’s about men and women,” he says.

Gender inclusive language, Ulrich believes is using more visible ways to highlight different genders, such as using the gender star or the underscore (called the Gendersternchen or Gendergap). Another option is the Binnen-i (which means in between or inside i).

The star and the underscore is inserted into words to make it possible to address all genders at the same time in written German. An example: Renters in the normally male plural of Mieter become the female plural of Mieter*innen. In spoken German some people pause where the star or underscore is inserted when they are saying the word aloud.

The Binnen-i is when you make the ‘i’ a capital letter in the word to express that you are talking about all genders: An example is MieterInnen.

'Everyone has to think about it'

Some newspapers and publications have style guides about which form to use, if at all. At the leftist Berlin-based newspaper taz, stories often have the gender star.

But Eva Oer, Europe editor of taz, tells The Local that the decision on what to use when it comes to gendered language is up to the writers themselves, there are no strict rules to follow.

Oer, who uses the Binnen-i, says how she can express gender and language as a journalist is something she thinks about often.

“For me the Binnen-i is the easiest option and it’s one way to really indicate it’s not only male, but it’s still easy for people to read,” she says.

“There are many people who are not in the habit of reading things with the gender star in between and I notice some people have a resistance to do it.”

However, Oer has been considering moving to the gender star because she believes it could better include more genders. 

“For myself it’s an ongoing question,” she says.

Oer says gendered language is “certainly is a topic” in Germany.

“Everyone has to think about when you write something that goes out to the public,” she says. “Even if it’s just a flyer for a club. Things change, language changes, the language used in public documents changes.

“You have to think about it all.”

'Language is a battlefield'

Linguist Simon says the debate over language is also reflecting a wider societal struggle.

As the idea of gender neutral or gender inclusive language comes into the public consciousness, there’s also the “central European backlash -- old white men, and the populist movement who are very much against all these things,” he says.

If you use the gender star or gender neutral language, you’re making a political statement in a way. You’re perhaps indicating that you have leftist beliefs and want to be perceived as progressive.

However, if you’re against modifications like the gender star, you’re positioning yourself in the traditionalist, conservative camp.

“In that sense language is being used as an easy battlefield for bigger ideological debates,” says Simon.

Ulrich says Germany’s new law which means people can state a third gender option on birth certificates, is helping to make the gender debate more visible.

The case came about after the highest court in the country ruled that it was unconstitutional to force people to choose if they were either male or female

Ulrich says a lot of companies, especially governmental bodies or NGOs, when looking for staff will now ask applicants to state if they are a man, a woman or diverse.

However he adds “most of the time they don’t use the gender star” in their documents. “But it’s the starting point of the discussion,” he says.  

“If you have a law that recognizes more than two genders then I don’t see why gender inclusive language is not something in daily use.”


Comments (3)

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Anonymous 2019/02/19 07:31
Interesting article and especially useful for my translator friends. I very much agree with MWBrown that there is a need for the German educational system to learn that "Ms" is the modern neutral option. I'm single and when people address me as "Mrs McDonald", I immediately think of my late mother, a lovely lady, but not me!
Anonymous 2019/02/17 01:45
Who gives a fuck? What a worthless article!<br />
Anonymous 2019/02/13 17:45
Someone needs to clue in German schools that "Ms." is correct now in English and equal to "Frau". It's still being taught, even at universities and in legal documents that all women are "Mrs." This is decades behind the multi-gender issue!

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