Feminists say German language for being too sexist

DEU02072018AD001BERLIN – In the English language, a doctor is a doctor and a lawyer is a lawyer, regardless of whether they are male or female.

But in the German language, professional titles and nouns reflect the gender of the person. For example, a male doctor is an “Arzt” while a female doctor is an “Ärztin" – even a male patient is "Patient" and a female patient is "Patientin."

While it may seem a slight change to outsiders, such issues with the German language have been catapulted to the center of the nation's debate about gender equality as the #MeToo movement has hit Germany.

"It's a dramatic shift in German when compared to English," said Senta Goertler, an associate professor of second-language studies and German at Michigan State University, referring to gender inequality. "Germans tend to see themselves as very progressive when talking about things like maternity leave. But looking at the language and statistics about equal opportunities for men and women, they really aren't."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the longest-serving leader in Europe, and as of this year, Germany officially recognizes a third gender on birth records. So it's hard to imagine that gender inequality could even be an issue here at all.

But German women are still paid 21 percent less than men, according to government statistics, and many in Germany still see it as wrong that mothers work. And meanwhile, women's pensions are on average only about half as much as men's, according to a 2017 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study. That’s the greatest discrepancy of the 37 countries in organization.

Many don't consider how gender inequality in the German language finds its way into "every nook and cranny of society," said Luise Pusch, a German linguist specializing in the concept of feminist speech.

Most job vacancies in Germany, for example, use only the male nouns, meaning that “girls often have a hard time imagining that they're also being sought out," said Pusch.

"They're not only being shut out grammatically, but also through their own image of this profession," she added.

That's why many here have latched on to the connection between language and gender inequality as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in the United States has crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

But activists' fights against the rigid German language have mostly fallen flat.

Germany's Council for Orthography, which sets rules for spelling and grammar, recently shelved a highly anticipated debate about gender equality in language. Meanwhile, in March, a woman sued the German bank Sparkasse for the right to be addressed using female-only nouns without success.

Even German Chancellor Merkel, the nation's first female chancellor, dismissed calls that the German national anthem be changed to address the "homeland" instead of the "fatherland," saying through a spokesman back in March that she's "very satisfied" with the national anthem in its traditional form.

Meanwhile, neighboring Austria, another German speaking nation, omitted similar language from its national anthem in 2012.

Such roadblocks toward gender equality in language are unsurprising in Germany, said Goertler.

"Interestingly enough, in the United States, although many people speak only one language and normally don't learn other languages, people there are more conscious of the fact that language and values are linked," she said, referring to political correctness. "People here don't seem to be very conscious of that connection."

Still, some women in Berlin's hip Kreuzberg area thought it unimportant to focus on adjusting the German language when efforts could be focused elsewhere.

"I think that the gender balance in the German language is completely fine," said Swetlana Soschnilow, 33, an entrepreneur in Berlin. "It should be everyone's goals to have conversations about equality, but we need to make sure that things don't get carried away."

Others, like Sandra Pravica, a 40-year-old philosopher and university researcher currently on maternity leave, saw things differently.

After struggling to break into a male-dominated field for years, she thinks that adjusting formal language to bring women into the fold could grant opportunities to future generations who won't default to male versions of professions.

"These feminine forms (of nouns) suffer from the fact that they weren't ever used for years and years and weren't ever considered to be on par with the masculine form," she said. "It would make a lot of sense if school children could learn that there are two forms of nouns from a young age."

That the debate over making the German language more gender-neutral is even happening at all is something to celebrate, said Pusch.

"They used to call all of us crazy," she said of those who advocated the use of gender neutral language decades ago. "But now the issue has arrived into the mainstream of society. The more generations that pass, the more that this discussion will become obvious."

Photo: July 02, 2018 - Berlin, Germany - A standard letter from a dental practice has to employ both male and female versions of the word "patients" in order to be politically correct in the German language. While this letter does that, most firms can't be bothered and use only the male forms of descriptive nouns and titles in official correspondence. As the #MeToo movement has moved across the Atlantic Ocean, such gender-specific quirks of the German language have been catapulted to the center of the nation's debate on gender equality.
Credit: Austin Davis/ ARA Network Inc. (07/02/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/10/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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