The Challenges of Gender-Inclusive Language

The Challenges of Gender-Inclusive Language
Language at the Crossroad - The Challenges of Gender-Inclusive Language

Language at the crossroad – which way will we go?

What Gender-Inclusive Language Actually Entails

The trend toward gender-inclusive language originates from the Anglosphere. And in English, gender-inclusive language has indeed largely been normalized.

Yet, not all languages are equally apt to embrace gender-inclusive language. Let me explain how policies of gender-inclusive language are implemented in other languages and how much of a distortion it can become.

English as the Prototype

In English, gender-inclusive language isn’t a big deal. The adoption of gender-neutral language is easy here because English doesn’t assign grammatical gender to objects and animals. Only people are gendered according to their biological sex, and even then, most words have a generic meaning and don’t specify gender. “Student”, “pilot”, “farmer”, “reader”, “traveler”, “American”, or “politician”, to name just a few, are gender-neutral designations that include all genders. Specifically feminine words referring to women only, like “actress”, “duchess”, or “fiancée”, are relatively rare, and the replacement of “wife” and “husband” by “spouse” is easy.

Similarly, also the adaptation of gender-neutrality in pronouns is easy in English. The third-person pronoun “they” was assigned a singular, gender-neutral meaning over six centuries ago, and the fact that it had been part of the core grammar before made it easy to give it a new, singular meaning.

In a nutshell, gender-inclusive language in English is straight-forward and implemented rather effortlessly.

In languages that mark gender on nouns, articles, and adjectives, in addition to pronouns, the issue is different. This is particularly the case in languages that have agreement rules, i.e. languages that assign gender not only to individual words, but to each word that is connected to the same referent.

Romance Languages and the Ubiquity of Gender

Romance languages fall into this category. For them to comply with gender-inclusive principles in accordance with English patterns, they have to introduce new forms that evade gender marking on nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns.

In Spanish, feminine nouns and adjectives often end in “a” while masculine ones end in “o”. To avoid this dichotomy when referring to human referents, the vowel “e” was proposed to replace gender-specific endings, as in “les niñes” instead of “los niños” for “the children”. As for gender-neutral pronouns, “el” and “ella” have been blended into a new pronoun: “elle”. Following the same principle, Portuguese has created the pronoun “elu” and French “iel”. Only Italian “loro”, which is equivalent to English “they” and should now be used with a singular meaning, is not a new creation as it had been part of Italian grammar before.

These rules seem manageable for learners of Romance languages and speakers of English. For native speakers of Romance languages, however, it is difficult to adopt gender-inclusive language because gender marking is pervasive.

German is a League of its own

German is a language in which each noun is marked with one out of three, not two, grammatical genders, i.e. masculine, feminine, or neuter. Gender is assigned randomly to objects; for example, the door is feminine while the floor is masculine, and the window is neuter.

With humans, the distribution largely follows principles of biological sex. The word for “man” is masculine while the word for “woman” is feminine. A male noun can refer to a woman when a female ending is added, i.e. a male reader is a “Leser” while a female reader is a “Leserin”. When male and female people are included, the masculine form – the so-called “generic masculine” – usually includes both, male and female people.

Gender-inclusive language aims at getting rid of the generic masculine form. At first, pairs like “Leserin und Leser” were established. Since such solutions tend to be wordy, however, shorter graphic forms were proposed, like “LeserIn”, “Leser/in” or “Leser:in”. The aim is to explicitly include male and female people within one single written word. In speaking, these concepts are represented with a so-called glottal stop, i.e. the word is pronounced with a short break and quick closure of the glottis preceding the feminine ending, as in English “uh-uh”.

But that’s not the end of the story. Given that these pairs do not explicitly include non-binary people, a new symbol has been proposed: the asterisk *. Gender-inclusive asterisks are meant to represent all genders, also non-binary ones, and inserted between the masculine and feminine endings, as in “Leser*in”. Previously, in fact, asterisks had been used to mark incorrect or assumed forms.

At the Cost of Precision

Such graphic solutions come with a number of challenges. In German, nouns, adjectives, and articles are also marked for case. A masculine noun marked for genitive, for instance, needs an additional “s”, a rule which doesn’t always apply to feminine nouns, so gender-inclusive genitives have to resort to marking case on the article only. As a result, gender-inclusive forms cannot adhere to both, grammatical rules and gender-inclusive principles at once, and they look very different from standard German, as in “des/r Leser*in”.

In losing such grammatical information, the language loses precision.

And it comes as no surprise that few language users employ these forms consistently, thus turning many a document, post, or e-mail into a confusing patchwork of forms. This in turn poses challenges to people who are unaccustomed to reading or those who read highly specialized texts.

In addition, many words have been altered to a degree of becoming unspecific. The masculine word for “employee/co-worker”, for example, is “Mitarbeiter”. It has been changed to gender-neutral “Mitarbeitende”, which is equivalent to “the co-working (ones)”. This works with independent nouns but not with compounds including the generic masculine, like “Mitarbeiterzufriedenheit” meaning “employee satisfaction”. To change these kinds of words consistently would be unmanageable. Also, some of the recently created words, like “Lernende” meaning “learners”, today includes all kinds of people who learn (also life-long learners), thus missing out on specifying what kind of learning process they are going through.

Does this sound confusing? Then take a deep breath. Because pronouns are even more complicated.

Also in German, a new gender-neutral pronoun has been proposed: “hen”. This adds a fourth category to German pronouns. And given that German case marking requires an additional “s” or “m” on genitives and datives, there’s also “hens” and “hem”.

German pronouns in fact mark gender and cases not only on personal pronouns but also on possessive ones, on which not only the owner but also the owned item is gendered. The possessive pronoun of a female dog owner is thus not the same as the possessive pronoun of a male owner of the same dog, i.e. “ihr Hund” for the former and “sein Hund” for the latter. If we are talking about a cat, which is feminine, the forms change to “ihre Katze” and “seine Katze”, respectively.

And then further creations regarding impersonal pronouns have been proposed. But I will spare you the details.

What is clear is that gender-neutrality in languages that mark grammatical gender is a major operation that digs deep into core grammar. Native speakers would have to acquire new words and rules in speaking and writing; it would uproot many of them. And it would significantly disadvantage specific groups of speakers and people with any kind of cognitive impairment.

Plus: it happens at the cost of precision. Because the proposed solutions are less specific and thus an impediment to clear communication and mutual understanding.

And remember, all of this is expected to happen in a time of massive digitalization, when digital communication is challenging language users to an unusually high degree.

Finding your Way in the Imbroglio

So, what can you do?

You will have to find your place in this. Universities across the board implement most of the new rules. Governments have implemented individual rules depending on their national languages. The US, for example, were quick to establish self-assigned pronouns in addition to other rules that had already been in place while other countries, like France and Switzerland, are still hesitant.

Companies are still walking a tightrope trying to find a viable solution. My recommendation for them is to find an individual solution that doesn’t require the demolition of language.

Words alone cannot resolve all societal malaises. In fact, we are currently creating new ones.

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About the Author

Consultant | Coach | Writer

Danae Perez is a versatile language expert with vast experience in both research as well as the corporate world and a contagious passion for languages and people. She holds a PhD in linguistics and has published her research on the evolution of languages in multilingual contexts with the most renowned publishing houses. Danae Perez has been providing language services and communication consultancy for corporate clients for nearly two decades and has worked in a myriad of countries, cultures, and industries. She has the rare gift of quickly grasping the essence of a message and putting it into the right words to facilitate communication between people, cultures, and disciplines.

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