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Gender-Neutral German: Das Gendersternchen Posted by on Dec 18, 2019 in Language

Guten Tag! You may have seen words like this in German: Einwohner*innen, Mieter*innen, Lehrer*innen. What’s the little star in the middle all about? This is called the Gendersternchen, and it’s what we’re going to talk about in today’s post.

As language learners soon find out, German is a very gendered language. That means, not only do German nouns come with one of three possible genders (der – masculine, die – feminine, and das – neuter), but words like teacher, lawyer, doctor, waiter (and so on) have both masculine and feminine versions of themselves. As an example, the German language calls a male teacher der Lehrer and a female teacher die Lehrerin. However, there are problems associated with this. For example, in a group of mixed-sex teachers, the plural automatically takes the male form, die Lehrer, despite there being female teachers present. The extent of German’s ‘gendered language’ has been criticised in recent years. There is a related blog post on the subject titled ‘Is German sexist?’ which you can read here.

Another issue people have with German separating into male and female, is that this largely ignores other genders/people who do not identify as either male or female. So the German language now has something that includes people of all genders in the written word – das Gendersternchen.

Image via Pixabay

Literally ‘little gender star’, das Gendersternchen is an asterisk that sits between the word stem and the feminine ending. So now our plural word die Lehrer (teachers) becomes die Lehrer*innen, which is designed to include people of all genders. It also works for singular words, so if you want to talk about a teacher but not use the male (Lehrer) or female (Lehrerin), you can write: Lehrer*in.

But this is not the only way that the German language makes words more inclusive: Use of an underscore (eg. Lehrer_innen) and use of a capital letter in the middle of the word (eg. LehrerInnen) are also recognised ways of being gender-neutral in written German. And earlier this year, Hanover became the first German city to use gender-neutral language in all official forms of communication. They do this by using gender-neutral versions of words. So instead of using the words der Wähler (the voter – male) and die Wählerin (voter – female), for example, they use the collective term die Wählende – the voters. Previously, the plural would have taken the male form and been ‘die Wähler’.

The Gendersternchen (also sometimes simply referred to as der Genderstern – the ‘gender star’) was voted the Anglicism of the Year in 2018. It borrows the word ‘gender’ from English. The real German word for ‘gender’ is das Geschlecht.

So if you see an asterisk, an underscore, or a capital letter in the middle of a German word, you know that this is gender-neutral language in action in German.

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and love writing about German language and culture. I also work as a group fitness instructor and am training to be a personal trainer.


Comments:

  1. Daniel:

    Why is it an Anglicism? It’s not used (or needed, usually) in English.

    • Sten:

      @Daniel Because “gender” is an English word introduced into German, and it being used in “Gendersternchen”.

  2. Mark:

    I understand identity politics and not wanting to offend anybody. I would like to know about the intersection between gender-neutral language and free speech. The German language, like many others, including english by the way assigned genders to nouns centuries ago. These gendered nouns have nothing to do with the context of the noun. Das Madchen does not mean everyone who identifies with being female now should be offended by the German use of the neuter gender of the word. This is another example of young people looking for an answer to a problem that doesnt exist except that they look for things like this to rationalize their “righteous” indignation. Free speech means someone could be offended. I thing president Roosevelt’s wife said it best, “No one can offend you without your permission.” We all need to grow thicker emotional skin, and tolerate different ideas. Today however it seems I and those of my ilk are doing all the tolerating. Young people choose not to tolerate or debate, resorting to disparaging and name calling their dissenters. This is not free speech in any language or society.