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How equality is changing the German language

A German flag is flown in a sports stadium - Credit: PA

TANIT KOCH on how the quest for equality is having an impact on the German language.

Some of us have put lockdown to great use and improved our language skills at home. Some, like editor-at-large Alastair Campbell, have even chosen German, despite the lasting damage done to its reputation by Mark Twain (The Awful German Language), Hollywood (“Achtung! Schnell, schnell!”) and the historian Gordon Craig, who once recounted an anecdote too good not to nick for Germansplaining.

It goes like this: An American woman visiting Berlin is keen to hear Bismarck speak. She hires an interpreter and obtains tickets for the Reichstag’s gallery. Soon after her arrival, Bismarck raises to speak. The topic is social legislation, the interpreter sits and listens intensely. After a while, the woman nudges him to translate. He remains silent. Finally she bursts out: “What’s he saying?!” To which the interpreter replies: “Patience, madam, I am waiting for the verb.”

You get the idea. German is complicated. It may not take an eternity to learn, as Mark Twain alleged, but the good news for anyone seeking a challenge is that it is becoming more complicated by the hour. And that is thanks to humanity’s constant, while not always beneficial, struggle for equality. 

To fully grasp this, please bear with my poor teaching skills for just one abstract: German nouns have a gender, albeit a grammatical, not a biological one. This accounts for a German girl being neuter (das Mädchen), the army feminine (die Armee) and peace masculine (der Frieden).

Insane, obviously. But when we talk about a witness, a friend or a French person, in German we immediately know if it relates to a woman or man, because there’s a word for both. Especially when it comes to professions: an actress is die Schauspielerin, an actor is der Schauspieler. Note the –in at the end, which for most jobs indicates a woman.

Last rule, and that’s where the recent trouble has started: In plural, the generic masculine version covers any mixed group. So, a dozen female activists are Aktivistinnen. Add one male and you get thirteen Aktivisten. End of German grammar lesson. But not end of discussion, because at some point feminists started to add linguistic visibility to women, using a capital i: so, AktivistInnen. Language has of course always been used as a political tool, but rarely grammar.

Once you’ve started doing it, we now realise, it’s difficult to stop. And so the I was kicked out by the ‘gender gap’ – Aktivisti_innen – to include people not identifying as men or women. Eventually, in order to pay more attention to those who identify as queer, the ‘_’ was dropped in favour of a little star: So, Aktivist*innen. And this has long since invaded the singular as well (Aktivist*in).

I am writing this as matter-of-factly as possible, but make no mistake: you will find few issues that are more emotionally and controversially discussed than gender lingo. I should add that these discussions take place between political opponents, in university faculties and of course in the media. In other words, among people who have time for this.

Maybe I’m being unimaginative, but while this has been going on for more than two decades, I think we have now reached a linguistic climax. Because the controversy has moved from written to spoken language, with the help of public broadcasters.

Before, there was no different sound for Innen and _innen and *innen. Now, with the ultimate, truly revolutionary version of barrier-free speech, there is: Aktivist:innen, and when saying it, you pause at the colon.

Try it. And imagine some (not all) of the hosts on BBC Radio 4 or Newsnight talking about “act(pause)resses“. Indeed, waiting for that pause to end doesn’t take nearly as long as waiting for a German verb. Instead it feels like listening to a performer on stage, the words flowing beautifully, and then: hiccup!

There is of course an entirely simple solution: a language without any grammatical gender. I’ll let you know when we’ll all speak Finnish.