A piece in today’s Times:
The most influential dictionary in Germany has irritated traditionalists and some linguists by issuing guidance to make the language more gender-neutral.
Critics say that the edict from Duden, which is similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, results in cumbersome and artificial phrases that are far removed from the way most people speak.
German has masculine and feminine terms to describe jobs. A male doctor ein Arzt, and a female doctor is eine Ärztin. In practice people usually use the masculine form when they refer to occupations in general terms. Sentences such as “I’m going to the doctor’s surgery” or “Is there a doctor on this flight?” usually use the masculine word.
This convention, known as the generic masculine, has become a cultural battleground. Reformists say that it entrenches centuries of sexism; conservatives say that efforts to get rid of it create unwieldy and unnatural “gender jargon”. About 12,000 words have been given new gender definitions.
In recent years councils and politicians have often tied themselves in knots as they try to adapt to the linguistic demands of a more liberal age, using exotic hybrids that combine the masculine and feminine forms with asterisks, forward slashes or underscores.
Now Duden has unilaterally abolished the generic masculine. Its online dictionary says that Arzt explicitly that means a “male person . . . who has received state approval to treat the sick” and therefore should not be used as the default term for a doctor of either sex.
Kathrin Kunkel-Razum, the dictionary’s chief editor, said that it had not thrown the baby out with the bath water but was determined to bring the language up to date. “The cross-gender use of masculine forms, especially in the plural, will still be illustrated by our editors in examples such as ‘The teachers in this school are very committed’,” she said, using the generic masculine plural Lehrer. “But this usage is being ever more intensely debated, because it’s often unclear whether it refers only to men or to people of all genders.”
Duden does not exert quite the same authority over the language that it once did but it is still a popular tool of reference. The German Language Society said the new gender-neutral definitions were the product of an “elitist milieu” that was trying to impose “politically correct expressions” on the population.
“The society Kunkel-Razum thinks she is addressing doesn’t follow these rules,” it said. “These gender terms are not used in normal interactions in the supermarket or the garage. Over the past two years numerous surveys have shown that this gendering has no support in society.”
Angelika Wöllstein, professor of German linguistics at Mannheim University, said that the recommendations were alien in everyday language. “When you hear a train announcement asking ‘Is there a doctor [Arzt] on board?’ it’s not only asking for a male doctor,” she told the German Press Agency.
Ursula Bredel, professor of language and literature at Hildesheim University, said that Duden’s decision to dispense with the generic masculine could end up discriminating against other people. “If the word Mieter (the masculine form of tenant) is only used to describe male tenants, that makes it harder to describe a range of people who feel that they belong neither to the male nor to the female gender,” she said. Gender-neutral alternatives include Mieter*innen, Mieter_innen and MieterInnen.
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