17 August 2016

Gender in German: Time to abolish it (or change its name)

After a long hiatus, there was a topic that came up in an online conversation that has inspired me to write about a topic near and dear to me: German grammatical gender. Mind you, I have mastered German pretty well — in fact I can write paragraph after paragraph of flawless German (though for some reason every four or five paragraphs I have one that goes completely all to hell). I also actually think I do get why German has gender — and (hopefully) can show you how it works so that you can appreciate it.

What bugs me is the way grammatical gender is perceived, both inside and outside the German-speaking realm. This is what Mark Twain, in a fit of frustration, wrote about the subject:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. [...] A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female -- tomcats included, of course; a person's mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it -- for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person's nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven't any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.


In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not -- which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds -in, and that stands for Englishwoman -- Engländerin. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die Engländerin," -- which means "the she-Englishwoman." I consider that that person is over-described.

So it is easy to make fun of — if you don’t understand what gender is for and what it really is.

Grammatical gender in German actually has nothing — I mean nothing — to do with “gender” in the sexual sense. Zero. De nada. Twain’s observation above that a girl (das Mädchen) and a female (das Weib) are both “neuter”, while a cat is female regardless of its real gender (die Katze), should clue you in on this, but Twain definitely missed the point.

After some 20+ years of speaking the language on a daily basis, I think there is another explanation for the origin and purpose of grammatical gender. If you look at how plurals are formed, they are fairly consistent across each of the three genders. Usually this is taught as “if it is masculine, then it forms the plural like this”. I think that that is actually backwards. It is “masculine” because the plural is formed a certain way, not the other way around.

If a word’s plural adds an umlaut and an -e, like Topf -> Töpfe, then it almost certainly is masculine. Or if it remains unchanged in the plural, then it is also most likely masculine, like der Knochen -> die Knochen or der Knoten -> die Knoten.

If a word’s plural adds an -en or -n, like die Frau -> Frauen or Lampe -> Lampen, then it is almost certainly feminine.

If a word ends in a diminutive (-chen or -lein, such as Mädchen), or adds -er to form the plural, then it is almost certainly neuter. Hence das Mädchen becomes die Mädchen in the plural, or das Kind becomes die Kinder.

In the end, the “gender” is thus a tool for marking words for forming plurals in certain ways. It is nothing to do with sexual gender.

Granted, there are exceptions to these rule above, and Germans reading this will no doubt start posting them in response. The thing is, no language is 100% consistent — English is a particularly sloppy and irregular language. While German is indeed far more regular and systematic than English, that does not mean it is completely consistent. I submit that the plural is the real basis for the so-called “gender”.

So why bother with grammatical gender? Well, it actually helps make the language far more supple and subtle in phrasing and word order. German is able to play with word order in sentences in ways English can not remotely compete with. Consider the following three sentences:

Der Junge gibt dem Hund den Knochen.
Den Knochen gibt der Junge dem Hund.
Dem Hund gibt der Junge den Knochen.

All three nouns in this are “masculine” — der Junge (the boy), der Hund (the dog), and der Knochen (the bone). All three sentences thus mean almost exactly the same thing: The boy gives the dog the bone. The only subtle difference is one of emphasis. Where the first version matter-of-factly says the boy gives the dog the bone, the second emphasizes that the THE BONE was given, and the third emphasizes that THE DOG was given a bone. All this just by swapping word order — something which is impossible in English without adding prepositions. The bone gives the dog the boy means something completely different and only makes sense when we add those prepositions or use passive voice: The bone was given by the boy to the dog.

English had this same system once upon a time, when it was still Anglo-Saxon, before the Norman invasion of 1066. The genders, along with nearly all traces of the cases (dative and accusative), were lost over time as English became the language of simple peasants, while the elite spoke Norman French for some 300 years. We get by without it in English, but I think the language is actually somewhat poorer without it. Yes, it is easier to learn for new speakers, but it is also far less flexible and efficient in expressing complex thoughts.

Seen that way, the “gender” could really just as well have been called the “flavor”, with “der” words being sour words, “die” words being sweet words, and “das” words being salty words. The masculine, feminine, and neuter labels have caused all sorts of misunderstandings — and not just by non-native speakers.

To illustrate this misunderstanding: German and English have diverged dramatically in the way they try to become “gender neutral”. Where English tries to abolish all traces of gender from daily language, such as avoiding the -ess ending and preferring neutral terms instead — flight attendant instead of stewardess, chair instead of chairman, etc. — German has gone the polar opposite way.

German feminists get really offended if you forget the -in feminine ending for a woman’s job position, for example, or forget to use it in the plural. So instead of forming the plural for der Lehrer as die Lehrer to encompass all teachers, whether male or female, they insist on using the plural feminine form of -innenLehrer und Lehrerinnen — or sometimes resorting to the rather clumsy short form of LehrerInnen with a capital I.

This results is some really tortured and clumsy grammar. Where politicians, for example, would address others as a group as liebe Bürger (“dear citizens”), now they resort to liebe Bürgerinnen und Bürger (“dear female and male citizens”).

In our church, this had an even more strange effect — one that I tried to point out at our synod in a debate on the subject, but which unfortunately got nowhere. You see, our church — the Old Catholic Church in Germany — is quite vocal about supporting women’s ordination. Which is fine, I support it, too. But part of the point of women’s ordination, I think, is the notion that a person’s gender should not matter in performing their function as clergy. Otherwise, if there is a difference between the genders, that unwittingly opens up a hole for arguments as to why women should not be ordained.

Either gender matters for the priesthood, or it doesn’t. I happen to think it does not. But if it does…then what? And if it does not, then why insist on it being mentioned?

So ironically, by insisting on saying die Priesterinnen und Priester (“female and male priests”) instead of just die Priester to mean “priests”, the feminists among us are in effect forcing us to note the gender where gender isn’t supposed to be relevant.

This on top of the fact that science is showing us how gender is far more complex than a mere binary of male and female. It just is not the case that a person is solely male or solely female. The two blend into each other, like a continuum. Some people are well on the male side of that continuum, some are well to the female side, but in the middle there is a grey area. What about intersexed or transsexual people in Germany? How are feminists going to label them? Would an intersexed priest — not outside the realm of possibility! — be a Priesterin or a Priester? Would a transsexual teacher be a Lehrer or Lehrerin?

If we simply dump the whole idea of grammatical gender having anything to do with biological or sociological gender, then the whole problem disappears — while maintaining the grammatical flourishes and subtlety that grammatical gender provide.

For those Germans reading this (and I would be happy to translate this into German to make it easier for them to read!), think about it. If you really want German to be an inclusive language, and I hope you do, then let’s stop using “masculine/feminine/neuter” to describe grammatical gender. Or at least stop mixing grammatical gender with gender politics. Because it just makes no sense to do it.