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Gendern: Why Germany still gets fired up about gender-neutral language

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
Gendern: Why Germany still gets fired up about gender-neutral language
A sign outside of the Deutsche Post headquarters advertises for workers in gender-neutral language. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lars Penning

This word has all to do with how to use German sensitively - but that doesn't always mean it doesn't rub people up the wrong way. So what do both sides of the argument have to say about 'gendern', and why is it so controversial?


Why do I need to know gendern?

Because you're bound to see this discussion crop up fairly often in Germany, and it's useful to know where you stand in the debate so that you make decisions about how you use the German language. 

What does it mean?

As you might have recognised, gendern is a verb built out of the English word "gender". To gender someone - or gendern in German - is to make an assessment of their gender identity, usually by defining them as either male or female.

As in English, this creates a bit of a linguistic issue when it comes to describing people in various professions. Traditionally, people often referred to a male actor as an actor and a female actor as an actress, and if they didn't know the gender or were speaking generally, the male version (actor) was used as the default. Over time, however, it's become standard practice to simply use gender neutral terms like police officer, firefighter, and so on, and it's also perfectly possible to talk about a "judge", "teacher" or "painter" without specifying a gender. 

In German, however, the issue isn't quite so simple. Generally, although some gender-neutral forms to describe certain groups exists (i.e. Studierende rather than Student/-in), these are far from the norm, and due to the gendered nature of definite articles, it can be very difficult to speak in a gender-neutral way. In recent years, this has led to a debate on how best to talk about the world around us without creating the impression that certain jobs, professions or groups of people only consist of men. 


When used in German, therefore, gendern describes the practice of trying to make both genders visible in your speech - which will often involve adding the female form or female plural form (i.e. -in or -innnen) in some way alongside the male one. However, even when it comes to finding the supposedly right way to gendern, even academics and linguists can't quite agree on what that is.

What are my options when it comes to gendern?

There are many options in German for trying to speak in a gender neutral way - and even Duden, Germany's standard High German dictionary, says people should be free to pick the one that suits them best.

One option is to use a pause while speaking and an asterisk, colon or underscore while writing, i.e. Schauspieler:innen (actors), Bauer*innen, (farmers) or Forscher_innen (researchers). The idea here is not only to consider both male and female genders, but also acknowledge people with a less clear-cut gender identity by adding the asterisk or space of some kind. However, it's worth pointing out that this practice - and particularly the so-called Gendersternchen, or gender star / asterisk - does have its critics.


In fact, a recent opinion poll by Stern found that almost two thirds (73 percent) of Germans were bothered by the use of the Gendersternchen - an issue that came to head recently when an Audi employee tried to sue his employer for using gender neutral language. (He failed.)

READ ALSO: German court rules against employee who sued over gender-sensitive language

That doesn't mean you shouldn't use it if you want to, but there are other options, such as:

  • Finding an alternative, gender-neutral formulation (i.e. Reinigungskräften instead of Putzfrauen)
  • Using a simple dash and/or a forward-slash (i.e. Polizist/-in)
  • Mentioning both genders alongside each other (i.e. Freunden und Freundinnen) 
  • Swapping between the genders while speaking 
  • Using either the male or female form as a generic term (a little like in English) 

If you want to simplify your speech or writing while still being politically correct, another option is to use an abbreviation in brackets after spelling something out the first time. For example, if you're talking about lawyers you could say Anwalte und Anwältinnen and then add (AuA) to make it clear you'll be using that abbreviation from now on.  

Why is this such a big debate in Germany? 

Like many of these social debates, discussing gendern can be deeply divisive - with some celebrating the linguistic changes and positive and others feeling like their way of life (and indeed speech) is under attack.

In the eyes of some, the relative complexity of gendering language in German has a slightly snobbish or elitist tinge to it: university educated German native speakers will happily conduct these verbal gymnastics in the name of social justice, but less well-educated people may struggle to do so.

An advertise for a hair stylist in gender neutral German

An advert for a hair stylist in gender neutral German. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

This feeling has been capitalised on by the far-right AfD party, who paint a picture of snobby liberal elites who live in major metropoles and try to police how other people speak. The fact that this kind of thing has become such a key campaign issue for the right-wing populists had led others on the right, like CDU leader Friedrich Merz, to claim that gendern should be scrapped entirely because obsessing over it "only helps the AfD". 

READ ALSO: From Fräulein to the gender star: Germany’s language revolution


Others, meanwhile, simply say it makes speech clunky and doesn't usually follow correct grammatic rules of the German language.

However, proponents of gendern argue that language has a profound impact on the way we think and see the world, and that making a small change to how we speak is a major step to a more inclusive and socially just world. For example, if a young girl grows up only hearing the male form of GP (Hausarzt), they argue, she may get the impression that this profession is only appropriate for men. If, on the hand, both genders are made visible, this can boost her self-esteem and her vision of what can be possible. 

Use it like this:

Es herrscht mal wieder eine Debatte über das Gendern in den Medien. 

There's one again a debate about gendering in the media.

Meine Meinung nach ist gendern mehr sozial gerecht. 

In my opinion, gendering is more socially just.


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