Language is randy …

Well, not always. Because somehow I’m annoyed by the gender-conflicted writing and language use in politics and reporting media, which thereby vigorously represent their own media interests. On the one hand, they report about LGBT, PRIDE and Christopher Street Parade – we are diverse – and on the other hand, it is the same instances that press language from a principally asexual understanding into a binary, more precisely bisexual form.

(For those of you whose native language knows only one grammatical gender for nouns – such as English –  and conveniently side-steps the issue, German has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. This does NOT mean the gender is determined by an object’s physical characteristics. So a table is masculine, a snail, though a hermaphrodite, is feminine and a girl is neuter. Seriously. Harlequin BCO)

Until recently, Germans automatically used the word for German, reader and spectator to refer to all people who meet this criterion. For example, “dear reader”, according to common understanding meant all men, all women, but also all “diverse” people. The appellation applied equally to pensioners, children and the handicapped. These words in German, however, happen to be masculine, e.g. “der Leser”.  What happens if you invent new words in order to treat sexes equally? Is it only a question of time until we modify our punctuation even further? Let’s examine this more closely.

In accordance with gender-fair language use, primarily so that women feel addressed, media hosts welcome us to the evening’s entertainment nowadays with ” liebe Zuschauer und Zuschauerinnen“ – literally “dear viewer and vieweresses”. In magazines this is elegantly compressed into one word – “liebe Leser:Innen.“ But what has happened to the children and old people, as well as the representatives of the rainbow society – gays, lesbians, non-binaries and drag queens? They are now, by definition, covered by the feminine part of the gendered spelling! But if the feminine part of gender-equitable German word in “liebe Leser*innen“  (“dear readers*esses“) is supposed to include the diverse, then why can’t “dear readers” include the female readers (and anyone else)? That alone I don’t understand, but it doesn’t stop there.

Because it makes even less sense to me to gender words that are inherently gender-neutral. Still, I keep encountering the equivalent in German of “members*esses ” or “humans*esses“, ouch! Perhaps this is because it is simply not possible to determine whether a word refers to a certain gender ONLY from the article. For example, the German for “one”, meaning “people in general” – “man” – is grammatically masculine. But the word refers to both men and women and of course – non-binary persons.

Those who learned German as their native language should intuitively know whether a word has der, die, or das as an article. Non-natives, on the other hand, are left with nothing but memorization, since there are no tangible rules for determining the article. Since language evolves, we cannot expect logical rules. If that were the case, and there are “Bürger*innen“ (citizens) and Meister*innen (masters), shouldn’t a mayor then be called “Bürger*innenmeister*in” in the sense of gender-appropriate language? A bit unwieldy, but this formulation would be consistent. But who is supposed to explain this to our immigrants?

In addition, I am shocked by the claim that gendering – allegedly – with stilted language and interspersed punctuation marks such as colons, underscores and asterisks positively influences people’s thinking and actions. But it is not the syntax of a word (the spelling) that is right or wrong – but, if anything, our idea (the semantics/meaning) that we associate with those words. Thus instances can make words taboo – in other words forbidden – but that does not address the attitude, the thinking of the reader. Therefore, in my opinion, prescribed language use in the context of “political correctness” and gender-appropriate language might be well-intentioned, but it also shows a lack of appreciation for the interplay between syntax, semantics, and the needs of those who have not yet been caught by the colon. If this approach even half worked, we wouldn’t need to ban cigarette advertising, but simply replace the term cigarette with joss stick, and turn tobacco into dried leaves. And abracadabra, the republic would be well on its way to becoming a non-smoking country.

I do not know, for it nevertheless the attitude, the thinking of the humans concerned would have to change and not (only) their language use. And if you already want to change grammar and rhetoric, why then dear readers*esses in a bisexual format? That is still the spirit of yesterday. The world does not consist only of people who define themselves as male or female.

As a child I found all the effort spent on German at school, with dictations and those boring essays, rather laborious and rather annoying, because I could already speak German – ok, just a child’s view. Or maybe not? By the age of 6 a child masters – just by listening – the major part of the grammar of his mother tongue. What should/do you need to still learn at school? If you want to know more about this topic, you should visit the website Welt der Sprachen.

In comparison, I might have had to cram a lot more for English, but the grammar was easy. No more differences in address, with you one/woman/child was (almost) always correct. No illogical gender in nouns, because rivers were finally neuter, “the river Thames” and not linguistic mythical creatures, like der Rhine or die Weser. (By the way, a still largely unexplored battlefield for the quarrelsome tom-cats and queens of gender-equitable language.)

The current language disputes are all the more incomprehensible, the more you look at the changes in the German language over the last decades. Language is always a reflection of the respective society and therefore ALWAYS in change. This does not have to be fixed in guidelines, this change comes all by itself. Even such institutions as the Alliance Française struggle with diminishing success to combat the tide of “alienation” – lately in the form of anglicisms – of their native languages. Efforts to artificially influence its development by the deliberate creation of official new words can only succeed if older alternatives are excluded – through strictly enforced nationwide propaganda. Language is as the primary form of human communication by its nature constantly changing, subject to the diverse contacts of all its users. The success of new coinages often depends on pure chance, just as chance videoclips can go viral and the disappear without trace shortly afterwards.

One example of such change is today’s use of “you” varying from country to country, depending on various criteria, such as the degree of acquaintance (relatives, friends, colleagues, etc.) and social position. German still has fairly formal distinctions in comparison with Dutch speakers, using two forms of address, while the English and virtually all Swedes use one word for everyone. This was not always the case: As late as 1900, it was common for children in Germany to address their parents with the formal form “Sie” and “Herr Vater” and “Frau Mutter”. And the more democratic-sounding English word “you” was originally the polite form “ye”, as opposed to the informal “thou”, which has died out except in certain dialects.

But let’s return to the headline of this post, Language is randy. If I had used the German phrase “Sprache ist geil” at school or at home, a slap in the face would have been the least I could have expected. But now the term is socially accepted and in the media market, even stinginess is horny. But how did that come about? I once did some research and noted some cornerstones:

The term “geil”, or more precisely the syntax, has survived for more than 1000 years, continuously changing its meaning – without people being encouraged or forbidden to use the term. The term “geil” was already known in Old High German, but at that time it meant “foaming up while cooking” and had nothing to do with the later, sexual meaning, but was more a technical term from the culinary field.

While it was still neutral-positive in Old High German, in late Middle High German, around 1500, it had an additional negative connotation. The person referred to can thus be described not only as sensual and pleasurable, but also as greedy – for sexual acts. This continued, the sexual connotation became stronger and stronger, and in the prudish 19th century, “geil” was considered a taboo word for the first time and the sexual connotation became the main use.

Linguists realized around the turn of the millennium that youth language is important for language change. Youth language does not replace words, but adds new ones to the vocabulary or somehow develops them further. Youngsters spotted the potential in the word “geil.” According to the Duden dictionary, the original meaning of the word is still used rather pejoratively for “sexually aroused,” but young people don’t care, they gave “geil” the new meaning of “beautiful,” “great,” or “awesome.” A word that has now also arrived in everyday language use for adults.

Finally, I would like to thank all the protagonists. Without TV presenters, feminists, journalists and the usual know-alls, I would not have undertaken this excursion into linguistics. But it was really fun and in the meantime my originally liberal attitude towards this topic has given way to a clear realisation. Changing language in a targeted way is like learning to fly from Douglas Adams. But be careful …

There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Pick a nice day, it suggests, and try it.

The first part is easy. All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt. That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.

Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.

From “Life, the Universe and Everything”

Original text: UTO
English translation: BCO


  • DSCN1561 (4): UTO
  • IMG_0048 (4): UTO
  • IMG_0117 (4): UTO

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