Influential German dictionary axes general masculine job titles to make language more gender neutral


Duden (pictured), which is similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, has scrapped the masculine form of nouns to be used to describe whole professions [Stock image]

Duden (pictured), which is similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, has scrapped the masculine form of nouns to be used to describe whole professions [Stock image]

Germany’s most influential dictionary has stirred debate by issuing guidance to make the language more gender neutral.

Duden, which is similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, has scrapped the use of the masculine form of nouns to describe whole professions.

The change applies to some 12,000 words and has exasperated traditionalists and some linguists.  

German is a gendered language, meaning all nouns fall into either masculine, feminine and neuter forms.   

Some nouns, like jobs, have both a masculine and feminine form, with the masculine form being used to describe the occupation in general terms.

The Times pointed to the example of ‘doctor’. A male doctor is ‘ein Arzt’ while a female doctor is ‘eine Ärztin’. In sentences such as: ‘I am going to the doctors’ or ‘Where is the doctors?’, German-speakers use the masculine form of the noun.

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Likewise, the masculine form is also used in plural when referring to two or more doctors, provided at least one is a man. 

For example, a group of three female doctors would be referred to by the feminine form of the word ‘doctor’ but a group of two female doctors and a male doctor would be described using the masculine form. 

If there is one male and one female doctor present, the masculine form would be used to describe them both collectively.

Reformists say such language reinforces sexism while traditionalists argue that alternatives have so far been unwieldy and have failed to reflect the way people actually speak.

A similar debate is taking place in Spain and other Spanish speaking countries, which has seen some speakers replace the masculine ‘o’ or feminine ‘a’ at the end of nouns with an ‘x’. 

German linguists – and those working in other gendered languages – are reigniting the age-old debate as to whether the role of language is to shape a society or to reflect it.

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In recent years, German media and public documents have used an asterisk in an attempt to make gender divided nouns – so ‘Artz’ or ‘Ärzt’ would become ‘Artz*in’. 

But in August, The Association for German Language (GfdS) scrapped the asterisk option, saying it ‘does not conform either to German grammar or to the rules of spelling,’ Deutsche Welle reported. 

While Duden (pictured) does not control how German speakers express themselves or exert the same influence it once did, it remains an important reference tool, particularly for non-native speakers seeking to learn the language [Stock image]

While Duden (pictured) does not control how German speakers express themselves or exert the same influence it once did, it remains an important reference tool, particularly for non-native speakers seeking to learn the language [Stock image]

The GfdS has also sharply criticised Duden’s recent move to abolish the generic masculine, which means ‘Artz’ can now only be used to explicitly refer to a male doctor. 

Kathrin Kunkel-Razum, the dictionary’s chief editor, said it was determined to bring the dictionary up to date, The Times reported. 

The masculine form will continue to be used in plural to describe groups of multiple genders, Kunkel-Razum said, while acknowledging that this can also lead to confusion about whether a group is made up of solely men and/or boys or also includes people of other genders.

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The GfdS described gender-neutral definitions as the product of an ‘elitist milieu’ and accused Duden of attempting to impose ‘politically correct expressions,’ The Times reported.

‘The society Kunkel-Razum thinks she is addressing doesn’t follow these rules. These gender terms are not used in normal interactions in the supermarket or the garage,’ it said. 

‘Over the past two years numerous surveys have shown that this gendering has no support in society,’ the GfdS has claimed.  

While Duden does not control how German speakers express themselves or exert the same influence it once did, it remains an important reference tool, particularly for non-native speakers seeking to learn the language.



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