Genders done right – but how?

The different versions of gender-equitable spellings and words that you encounter in everyday life are now nearly as diverse as our society itself. An asterisk, camel case, underscore or using both masculine and feminine forms – you may be asking yourself: ‘How do you correctly account for genders in German?’

Good question. Tough question. In particular, the definition of ‘correctly’ is crucial in this case. Correct within the meaning of German grammar and the official spelling rules? That’s easily said. According to society, however, is another story.

Which forms are gender-equitable?

When searching for the best way to be gender-equitable in their language, most German speakers first reach for Duden. According to the ninth edition, the ‘politest and clearest option for linguistic equality’ is to mention both the masculine and feminine forms of a word – ‘Liebe Kolleginnen und Kollegen’, for example.

But ever since the inclusion of the third gender in the birth register in Germany, this option is actually insufficient. For this reason, a search is currently underway for a correct way to address all identities, and a number of creative word forms are being born. But some linguistically conservative people might say: ‘Hold on, that’s not what Duden says!’ And they’d be right.

If your aim is to stick to the currently applicable spelling and grammar rules, then your safest bet is to mention both the masculine and feminine forms, or to use a suitable abbreviated alternative instead. The emphasis in this case is on ‘suitable’ – although ‘Liebe Mitarbeiter/-innen’ works well, it gets tricky with other formulations such as ‘mit unseren Mitarbeiter/-innen’. Written out fully, this would be as follows: ‘mit unseren Mitarbeiter und Mitarbeiterinnen’, which is grammatically incorrect.

This problem crops up with the more creative solutions as well, in particular forms like ‘Kund*innen’, ‘KundInnen’ and ‘Kund_innen’. The word ‘Kund’, which serves as the basis for these spellings, does not actually exist. In addition to the solidus, an abbreviated alternative with brackets is also possible: ‘Liebe Kolleg(inn)en’. This is rarely used, however.

Nevertheless, Duden doesn’t just categorically reject all of the creative options; instead, it says this with regard to the medial capital I, for instance: ‘[This form] is very common in certain contexts; however, the official spelling rules do not provide for camel case – but they also do not explicitly reject them, because medial capitalisation is not a subject of the official rules.’ It takes a similar stance on the asterisk solution, saying that this form is new and that it simply isn’t factored into the established rules of spelling and grammar.

The German language also offers options for avoiding genders entirely, so-called replacement forms. These include changing verbs into nouns (‘Studierende’ rather than ‘Studenten’), a focus on the role or function rather than the person (‘Leitung’ rather than ‘Leiter/-in’), generic nouns without different gender forms (‘Person’ or ‘Mensch’), abbreviations (‘Prof’ rather than ‘Professor/-in’) or rewording using adjectives, passive voice or relative clauses (‘ärztlicher Rat’ rather than ‘Rat des Arztes’).

In job adverts in particular, an explanatory addendum in brackets is often the solution of choice: ‘Pflegefachkraft (m/w/d)’. Replacement forms don’t work in all cases; however, they can sometimes be quite helpful in a tricky (linguistic) situation.

Just put in a gender asterisk? It’s not quite that simple!

In the recently published 28th edition of Duden, there is now a separate chapter dedicated entirely to equitably dealing with genders in the German language. In this chapter, the Duden editors point out that, in practice, the form with a gender asterisk as well as incorrect abbreviations have been observed in addition to the officially correct options. They also emphasise, however, that these alternatives are not addressed under the official rules.

Nevertheless, Duden also allows for a certain level of wiggle room: ‘The Duden editors are not able to provide an official recommendation; however, anyone not operating in an official context should be able to make do with these creative solutions.’

In contrast, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (GfdS) recently published a press release which states their opinion that, from a linguistic perspective, written forms like those with the gender asterisk are not a suitable method for properly accounting for gender. Other opinions – for example that of Verein deutscher Sprache – add that using these creative solutions may even put off some readers.

Duden, however, points out in its newest edition that language is an essential factor in gender equity, which is also firmly anchored in the constitution of Germany. It also concedes that the generic masculine, which has been predominant to date, does not also clearly include other gender identities. The GfdS also generally advocates for non-discriminatory language. So there is no question that gender-equitable language should be used – the question remains, though, of how to properly accomplish this.

For now at least, it remains a balancing act: it is ultimately an individual decision of whether to go beyond the limits of the current spelling and grammar rules in favour of the greatest possible level of inclusion, or whether the wish is to stick as close as possible to the grammatically correct usage.

What is important to you? Which approach best fits your specific project? If you don’t have any character limits and aren’t dealing with headlines or bullet points, then mentioning both gender forms or using suitable abbreviations could be the way to go. But if you are limited in terms of space and you’re creating slogans or headlines, creative solutions for genders that go beyond the official rules can be tempting. In any case, you should be prepared for there to be some people who don’t agree with your choice. An analysis of your target group can surely be of assistance in this regard.

In our German proofreading department, we stick to the official provisions: we recommend mentioning both gender forms and suitable abbreviations and, when it comes to creative solutions, we point out that these are not (yet) officially recognised, or we explain why they don’t work in a specific case. Of course, we are also aware of the societal needs and are therefore prepared to provide consultation in the implementation of gender-equitable language.

Hannah Groth

Deutschlektorin, bei Wieners+Wieners seit 2017, brennt für Linguistik, Linguine und Limericks.