A master’s degree thesis at the mdw’s Department of Cultural Management and Gender Studies (IKM) looked at gender-inclusive language in cultural institutions*

“Gendering” is divisive. For some, it’s tantamount to the downfall of Western culture, while for others, it’s long since become the linguistic norm. But what are the objectively verifiable foundations of gender-inclusive language—do they even exist, or is everything pure theory, as its opponents are fond of claiming?

First things first: gender-inclusive language stands on a firm empirical footing. While theoretical discussions have been underway since the late 1970s, dozens of studies conducted since the 1990s (at the latest) have shown how “tacit implication” does not work: masculine linguistic forms evoke thoughts of men (see Irmen/Linner 2005 for an overview). Opposing arguments frequently refer to a “linguistic system” that could not possibly discriminate. These arguments can be subsumed under the two hidebound sayings “Genus is not sexus,” and “The generic masculine has always referred to both (all) genders.” Let’s take a brief look at these two arguments.

Genus & Sexus, or: The “Tough Lamp”

“Genus” is a term that refers to grammatical gender: in German, “the table” (der Tisch) is masculine and “the lamp” (die Lampe) is feminine. The idea that the table is therefore fundamentally tougher than the lamp actually was fashionable above all in the 18th and 19th centuries, though it may seem a bit strange to us today. And there are even studies suggesting that objects are indeed perceived differently depending on their genus (e.g. Boroditsky/Schmidt/Phillips 2003)—but this isn’t what gender-inclusive language is about. The point here is how we refer to people.
In terms of what people are called, above all in words that refer to their professions, the genus typically corresponds to the gender of the person so called—even if there are exceptions, such as Koryphäe [“eminent authority” (fem.)], Vamp [“vamp”(masc.)], etc. And in the case of nominalised adjectives—e.g., die/der Kranke [“the sick (person)” (fem./masc.)]—the genus is actually the only factor that we can use to tell whether the person in question is being referred to as male or female. So the claim that grammatical gender and (binary) biological sex have nothing to do with each other in German simply doesn’t hold water: men cannot become Krankenschwester [nurses, lit. “sick sisters”] or Hebammen [“midwives”]—for them, the terms Krankenpfleger [“carer for the ill” (masc.)] and Geburtshelfer [“birth helper” (masc.)] have been coined—and on the other hand, it is neither customary nor grammatically correct to refer to two women as zwei Ärzte [“two doctors” (masc.)].

The Problem of the Masculine Form: Who is Meant (and Implied)?

This brings us to the second argument, namely that the masculine form is “generic”—i.e., that it can stand equally for men and for women, and that it’s always been so. The short answer to this is: no! When a 19th-century law stated that every Bürger [“citizen” (masc.)] could be appointed to a particular office, women were not automatically implied. And as late as 1912, Karl Kraus—writing in his magazine Die Fackel—wondered whether jeder [“every” (masc.)] could refer to a woman, and he concluded that: “Jeder actually can refer to women; but the very fact that language chose the masculine form to denote people in general should get them up in arms.”

Precisely this ambiguity is the major problem of the masculine form. If we in the 21st century, for example, read a 20th-century text about an event that took place during the 19th century, we need to have a good bit of background knowledge. If the text is about the Revolution of 1848 and its Studenten und Arbeiter [“students and workers” (both masc.)], we need to know that women in Vienna were not permitted to study at the university level, but that there indeed were woman workers. We also have to know that it was not usual to represent women in language during the era in which this text was written. If we’re missing even one of these puzzle pieces, we won’t be able to decipher this text correctly no matter how hard we try. So the masculine form is indeed ill-suited to presenting facts in an unambiguous manner.

Implementation by Cultural Institutions

The master’s degree thesis mentioned above looked at three Viennese museums that “portray the world” in one form or another and are therefore particularly interesting in terms of how people are referred to: the Wien Museum, the Vienna Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art, and the Weltmuseum Wien.

All three of these museums address their customers in a gender-sensitive manner when communicating with them directly. This supports a thesis by Magnus Pettersson that is also discussed in the Duden volume mentioned below: the more concrete the individual or group of individuals being spoken of (or to) are, the more likely gender-appropriate formulations are to be used; the more general the individual or group, the less likely it is that this will be the case. This distinction is referred to as that of specific versus generic and/or class-related reference. A role is also played here by proximity and distance.

A further commonality of these museums is that their texts for special exhibitions are formulated in a gender-appropriate manner, while their texts for permanent exhibits are not. Interestingly enough, this is due to more than just the respective times at which the permanent exhibitions were conceived: even at the newly reopened Weltmuseum Wien, the permanent texts are formulated in the masculine, while the temporary ones (website, special exhibitions) are formulated in a gender-inclusive manner.

This hesitance to take up a definite linguistic stance is often attributed to the fact that gender-inclusive language is not yet officially normed. But the Council for German Orthography is now dealing with this matter, and in June 2018 they announced that they were in the process of preparing recommendations for state agencies.

The fact that the Council is dealing with this is significant. It shows that language is in motion, and that there is no going back to some imagined “good old days” before feminists started “making language so complicated”. After all, in an era in which all genders enjoy equal rights, the masculine form as an all-encompassing linguistic convention simply no longer suits.


*[Translator’s note: This article addresses gender inclusivity in the German language. All German nouns have grammatical genders, with those of nouns referring to people for the most part being suggestive of the binary biological sexes (male/female). German also features extensive use of gender- and case-dependent declensions, for which reason gender plays a far greater grammatical role in German than it does in English. Since gender-neutrality per se is often impossible in German, gender-sensitive solutions for referring to groups of people and to non-specific/unknown individuals need to be explicitly gender-inclusive, taking present-day understandings of gender into account. Any reference to a specific, known person, on the other hand, will always be gender-specific and should thus be made using a form that is appropriate to that individual. The English version of mdw Magazine aims to refer to groups of people and to non-specific/unknown individuals using the gender-neutral and/or gender-inclusive forms commonly preferred in modern English, including possibilities such as “s_he”, the singular “they”, and other widely understood alternatives to the generic “he” as well as newer gender-neutral versions of honorifics (such as “Mx.”) where desired by the individuals being referred to.]

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