The fact that some public broadcasters are gendered is met with rejection, including by linguists. Within the guild, however, the topic is discussed controversially: Three experts tell ntv.de how much or little they think of gender.
Some formats in public service broadcasting are already doing this: they address their audience in a gender-equitable manner. The Berlin radio station Fritz, for example. He has been making the gender asterisk audible in his news for almost two years - "listeners" it says there, with a spoken pause. This makes the youth broadcaster exotic in the German media landscape. In most houses, including the RTL media group, to which ntv belongs, gender is not used. At least not with an asterisk, colon or underscore.
But gender is very important to many people: people who don't want to put up with the fact that women are always just "meant to". People who don't see themselves in the "dear ladies and gentlemen" that are greeted every evening on the "Tagesschau" - because they don't want to decide whether they are ladies or gentlemen. But also people who do not want to degrade their fellow human beings to social accessories when talking.
On the other hand, the special characters in particular make many people boil: entertainer Harald Schmidt, for example, claims that he no longer reads texts that contain gender asterisks. The "Bild" newspaper regularly works on "gender madness", "genderism" or "gender re-education". And CDU leader Friedrich Merz insinuated on Twitter in April 2021 that some people would work towards "playgrounds for children". Only to ask afterwards: "Who actually gives these gender people the right to unilaterally change our language?"
A number of experts are currently trying to bring a linguistic perspective into the often heated and emotional debate. In an open letter, they reject the fact that the so-called generic masculine noun excludes people: more than 250 experts have now signed the appeal "Linguists criticize ÖRR's gender practice". They accuse ARD and Co. of violating the principle of neutrality with their "ideological language practice". According to experts such as Professor Emeritus Peter Eisenberg or PEN General Secretary Claudia Guderian, the public broadcasters violated the applicable spelling standards and were treading on thin ice in terms of grammar.
In linguistics - among the people who deal with the language every day professionally, research, analyze and explain it - there are some very contradictory views on the subject: ntv.de interviewed three of them. They draw very different conclusions from their scientific perspective on the German language. There's only one thing that we can agree on.
Martin Neef, Professor of German Linguistics at the TU Braunschweig, has signed the appeal mentioned. He understands the desire to address as many people as possible: women, men and so-called non-binary people - i.e. people who do not feel that they belong to either of the two categories. However, the best solution for this in German is the generic masculine, Neef explains to ntv.de. "The listener" refers to a person who listens and is also a woman. The word "listener" contains the word "listener", this basic linguistic form initially only describes a person who listens - without any gender identification. In many places, the grammatical gender does not indicate a biological gender: "The spoon, the fork or the knife are good examples," says Neef.
The form "listener*in" used by the radio station Fritz, on the other hand, is predominantly perceived as female. "That doesn't get us any closer to justice," says Neef. The suffix "in" is a clear indication of a woman. The German language looks at the end of a word for gender information. "This basic logic cannot be reversed," says the professor.
Even the generic masculine is only so clearly masculine in the singular. "The Freiburger on the Münstermarkt" clearly makes one think of a man. This effect would also live on in subsequent sentences: "He has a bag with him," explains Kotthoff. In the plural, on the other hand, it is different. She is currently conducting a study on this, says Kotthoff. When it comes to "the people of Freiburg on the Münstermarkt" hardly anyone thinks only of men. The connection problems mentioned would also not exist here. After all, the postscript, "they have bags with them," does not convey a clear gender. The generic masculine is harmless in the plural, but not in the singular.
Declaring harmless the generic masculine noun like Neef and the other signers of the call in any form is more of a traditional view. It no longer represents the majority of science, says Kotthoff. The scientist would like more situation-dependent solutions: If non-binary people are to be addressed, generic terms are helpful. Instead of "employees", the linguist would prefer to read about "employees", "teachers" could well become "teachers".
For the linguist and entrepreneur Simone Burel, gendering, even with asterisks, makes perfect sense. It draws attention to existing social injustices and is at the same time a consequence of correcting them. Because there have always been feminine and neutral forms in German, says Burel: they are currently only being used more frequently. Women and non-binary people have gained more say in recent years, "language reacts to this in its diversity," explains Burel.
In this context, she sees the gender asterisk as a "hypercorrection": "Orthographic forms such as the asterisk make a social disparity clear," says Burel. The pressure created in this way will eventually shift in the direction of neutral designations, because asterisks and the like will most likely not be able to assert themselves.
"I can even imagine that at some point the generic masculine will be usable again," says the entrepreneur, who advises companies and institutions on the use of gender-neutral language. She adds: "When the social grievances have been resolved." But you probably won't experience that again. Until then, the German language could still be shaped from completely different directions: Burel names Anglicisms, youth language or Turkish as possible influences.
Burel believes that public broadcasting does not need to change. Those responsible just have to be aware that certain social groups are not being addressed. For example, young people: "It's more a question of generations than a battle between the sexes anyway." In this sense, the current approach makes sense to her: different formats choose very different forms of address, depending on the audience.
In principle, Martin Neef and Helga Kotthoff can also understand this practice. Above all, Neef wants to encourage media professionals to think, he says. About whether you really have to gender. "Many do not know exactly what they are doing when they use certain forms of gendering," says the professor. Above all, Kotthoff criticizes the extremes. The thoughtless use of the generic masculine on the one hand and the ever-changing special forms on the other: pauses in speech within words, new creations such as "guest", and new characters such as the asterisk and now the colon - many people find this extremely annoying, says the linguist .
Burel, Neef and Kotthoff, the three do not have much in common in their views. The only thing they have in common is that they give the gender star small chances of survival at best. The linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch from the FU Berlin sees it differently. In his eyes, asterisks and pauses in speaking are part of a kind of liberation: the German language is almost obsessed with dividing everything into genders. "Gendering is a breaking of this corset," said Stefanowitsch the "Stern". In the end, this corset constrains everyone, because German came into being in a very patriarchal society. According to Stefanowitsch, their ideas were deposited in the language structure. Gendering now makes it possible, contrary to traditional usage, to recognize "that there are other people besides men".
(This article was first published on Sunday, August 14, 2022.)