Gendering, part 1: Why oneword uses gender-neutral language and others should too

Regardless of how heatedly the topic of gendering is currently being discussed and what one’s own position on this matter is, there are many reasons why it is both currently relevant and important. As language experts, this is even true for us on several levels, both as service providers for the communications of our customers and for our own communications. The reason is that we use gendering ourselves. In the first part of our three-part post, we explain why we do this. 

Language as a social factor

Language reflects society and shapes society. As early as the 19th century, Wilhelm von Humboldt declared that it was the basis of all thought, for we can only think what we have expressions for. 

This realization is more important than ever, as a change has now taken place. As early as the 1990s, the “classic” division of roles, in which women do the housework and look after the children while men work in paid jobs, became unpopular. The German dictionary Duden, which in Germany is regarded as THE authority on all matters relating to language and spelling, has adapted this division of roles accordingly to reflect the changed reality and is turning away from the generic masculine form. The Duden online edition no longer uses only the masculine form of nouns, where girls and women are simply supposed to feel included, but instead is becoming more differentiated: For example, the German words “Ärztin” (female doctor) and “Arzt” (male doctor) now have equal status.

The fact that official linguistic usage of terms is changing makes it clear that something is also changing in society. Perhaps it is even the case that something has already changed and the official linguistic usage is now following suit. This is the usual pattern when it comes to linguistic-social development, even when there has been new agitation around this since then, surely in connection with the fact that it was only a few years ago when the Federal Constitutional Court recognised “diverse” as a non-binary third gender. The development continues.

Language as a factor that raises awareness

Many see the decision whether to use the generic masculine form or to prefer a gender-neutral form as an individual choice. From a socially responsible perspective, however, this can neither be an individual decision nor can it remain one. There are simply too many people who cannot feel included and who are either made or remain invisible – which is the very definition of discrimination, irrespective of whether this is done consciously or unconsciously. Precisely because many types of behaviour are only unconsciously displayed, due to stereotypes internalized during one’s own socialization, this is a necessary starting point for change.

The situation is similar in the conscious use of language, as this prime example illustrates: In the academic language of universities, many texts in German are still in the generic masculine form, which continues to make women appear as an exception. Women are not mentioned and remain invisible both in the scientific context as well as in the imagination of the reader. Examples of this are also those women who made important contributions to the moon landing, stem cell research or the like and are still a media sensation in the 21st century.

That is why it is not enough to simply use inferences to “include” women scientists and researchers in texts or all women in all fields. Our common goal must be to address people of each gender equally and to make women linguistically visible as a matter of principle.

In our view, gendering is a contribution that raises awareness, because it has been proven to work. Gender-neutral language is neither cumbersome nor brings about unnecessarily long words if the right linguistic strategies are followed. Of course, this requires the willingness to break a few formed habits and to interact with the language consciously and creatively. As language experts, this is also what inspires us over and over again.

We want a gender-neutral society and know the effect of using the right language – that’s why we use gendering

For all of the reasons above, oneword will continue to use gendering for external communication in the future. In written language, we have chosen to use the colon notation (for our German content). There are three reasons behind this decision:

#1 The colon is the most inclusive form. Screen readers that aid people with visual impairments read it aloud as a short pause in speech instead of just skipping it. They also don’t read special characters out loud. Instead, they pause, which corresponds to the human glottal stop. The colon is therefore the closest possible thing to spoken, gendered language.

#2 The colon blends into the word without standing out in any particular direction or conspicuously separating the parts of words. This is in line with our perception of gender-neutral language that integrates into everyday life rather than being perceived as disruptive.

#3 The alternate spellings use asterisks or underscores, which are HTML characters that can be used as start and end characters to trigger certain formats (bold, italics) and then disappear as characters themselves. 

In spoken language, we use the above-mentioned glottal stop where applicable. This is a small pause that is inserted during the pronunciation of an individual word to change its meaning, sometimes drastically. 

This little pause has always been part of the German language, and we use it every day. For example, in “um-armen” (to hug). Or in “Spiegelei” (fried egg), to differentiate between “Spiegellei” (mirror effects) and “Spiegel-Ei” (fried egg). Or “ver-eisen” (to ice over) from “verreisen” (to take a trip). Sometimes there are even two such pauses in one German word, as in “be-in-halten” (to contain), which can be distinguished from “Bein halten” (to hold the leg). 

We also insert exactly the same small pause for “Mitarbeiter:innen” (employees), “Kund:innen” (customers) or “Übersetzer:innen” (translators). This is important to know, because many “language-nurturing” people are currently claiming that gender-neutral spelling and speaking are “artificial”, disrupt the feeling for language or are even destroying our entire German language. 

In the light of and in view of the glottal stop, this argument is false and probably simply an excuse for other motives. Our richly diverse language simply has one more element that helps us express ourselves more precisely.

Gender-neutral language is part of the whole

We know that our position will also raise criticism, as it deals with the way we speak. To call for a new way of thinking here is asking a lot. Moreover, the debate about language must not overshadow what needs to be discussed at societal level: Real equality does not automatically follow from linguistic equality, and the discussion about gendering must not become a substitute for the discussion about gender.

Furthermore, there will continue to be people who simply find gender-inclusion annoying. It’s the same situation for genus and case, alternating prepositions, future tense I and II, genitive instead of dative, and many other subtleties that make our language relatively complicated. But anyone who, like us, regards language not only as a necessary form of articulation, but as an essential contribution to purposeful communication and interpersonal understanding, cannot refuse to use gender-neutral language. Even if it takes a little effort to use it at first. Language has never been a rigid construct, so it will get easier very quickly.

It helps to just keep reading, for example, with part 2 of this post: How other languages do gendering and what that means for translations.

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