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Feminine sympathy and masculine distaste in German

The German language uses gender-inclusive personal nouns to express closeness and sympathy with the people under discussion and to ensure that all readers feel included when addressed. However, masculine language forms are used to express distance and distaste, reveals a new thesis on the German language from the University of Gothenburg.

Imagine what it would be like if all female teachers were called teacheresses, and all female doctors doctoresses. That's exactly how it is in German - women are feminine in the language, while men are masculine. This means that anyone who speaks German faces problems when discussing groups of people comprising both men and women.

"This is a hot potato, not only for linguists but for all German-speakers," says Magnus Pettersson, author of the thesis and doctoral student at the Department of Languages and Literatures. "Not least because it's tied up with the issue of how to make women visible in the language, and, as such, with the whole equality debate."

One option is to use only masculine forms, such as der Student (the student) or der Lehrer (the teacher). Here, the masculine form is given a general, supposed gender-neutral meaning.

But many feel that the masculine form makes women invisible and discriminates against them linguistically. Feminist linguists have therefore suggested the use of splitting forms like der Lehrer und die Lehrerin = the teacher and the teacheress. These feminist forms are used in written German in parallel with masculine forms and neutral forms where the speaker refrains from distinguishing gender.

Pettersson has studied the variation between such strategies, primarily in feminist magazines like Emma, where splitting forms are considered politically correct and are used liberally, but also in other types of contemporary text.

"It turns out that not even feminists are always consistent. A lot of masculine forms sneak in, generally when the people under discussion are in some way stereotypically male, or when the author wants to introduce an element of distance from them."

In this way, masculine language forms in a feminist context become a marker for distance and distaste. Another observation is that splitting forms are often used when addressing people, such as Dear reader and readeress.

"This targets women and men explicitly, as the readers being addressed should feel included, irrespective of whether they are male or female. On the other hand, it's not a problem in the same text to use masculine forms when dealing with mixed groups. As such, linguistic genus awareness is dependent in practice on communicative factors, the intentions of the writer and the type of text."

Pettersson's thesis is perhaps the first to examine the use of gender for German personal nouns from a descriptive and text-analytical perspective.

"Many of the people who've done research in this area have a clear language political agenda. They want to talk about how things should be, for example that masculine language forms when referring to women are an abomination. I'm not interested in that. Linguistic research is based primarily on describing how things are, and not on prescriptive discussions of what is right or wrong."

The thesis was successfully defended.

Title of the thesis: Geschlechtsübergreifende Personenbezeichnungen. Eine Referenz- und Relevanzanalyse an Texten.

Author: Magnus Pettersson,
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Helena Aaberg | idw
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