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'Non-binary' Scrabble letter blocks. Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon

German Spelling Council rejects gender-sensitive forms

For the time being, the Council for German Spelling has spoken out against the inclusion of the gender asterisk, the underscore, the colon or other abbreviated forms to identify so-called multi-gender names.

Published: March 28, 2021, 3:26 pm

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    The Spelling Council, which met on Friday in Mannheim online, continues to adhere to the criteria it adopted in 2018 on gender-sensitive language despite enormous pressure from gender activists, but it may change.

    Texts have to be factually correct, understandable, legible and also readable. They must also guarantee legal certainty and clarity, and be transferable into German minority languages ​​outside of Germany. Furthermore, gender-equitable formulations should not distract the reader or listener from the core information and should not make it difficult to learn the language.

    Ultimately, however, the decision on this is not just one that “can be solved with orthographic rules and changes to the spelling”, the interim report stated.

    The editor-in-chief of Deutsche Sprachwelt, Thomas Paulwitz, criticized the decision: “Ultimately, the Spelling Council tries to free itself from responsibility so as not to get in the way of the gender advocates.” It offers no argument in the statements for a “gender sensitive” spelling, but there are also no concrete observations against it.

    The Spelling Council does not have to present its finished report to the conference of ministers of education until 2022. That is how long the council wants to monitor developments.

    On March 10, 2020, in Mannheim on the sidelines of the annual conference of the Institute for German Language (IDS), its director Henning Lobin and gender activist Kathrin Kunkel-Razum, head of the Duden editorial team, agreed that Lobin should write a book for the Duden publishing house to denounce its critics. The Duden is a dictionary of the German language, first published by Konrad Duden in 1880, and updated regularly with new editions appearing every four or five years. The book Language battle – How the New Right Instrumentalizes the German Language was published just in time for this year’s IDS conference.

    The theme of the annual conference, “Language in Politics and Society”, naturally helped with marketing. The book is divisive, with a clear friend-foe scheme. In addition, it is brimming with war metaphors. Lobin describes various “language battles”, particularly addressing the “battlefield of gender-equitable German”, describes the German Language Association (VDS) as a “combat organization” and the German Bundestag as a “deployment area”.

    For the Duden editorial team, this polemic comes at exactly the right time, since the Duden has progressed very far in its “language battle” for gendered language. In the spelling dictionary at, it does everything in its power cancel the generic masculine. In January, the Duden editorial team had to admit that they wanted to change around 12 000 personal and professional titles over the course of the year.

    The Duden simply started trampling on linguistic reality, which is also reflected in legal texts, by subordinating it to gender ideology. The bad actors were men and the victims female.

    The VDS, in response, then launched the “Save the German language from the Duden” petition, which has now been signed by more than 31 000 people, including a few heavy-weights. They call on “the Duden to rethink its sexualization plans, to use the German language more sensitively and cautiously in the future, and to reflect on its original goals”.

    By the end of February the Duden had to row back a little. To the Sprachdienst, the journal of the Society for German Language, Kunkel-Razum explained that she wanted to consider adding the forms which “can also be used across genders” in the gendered entries.

    “In certain situations, the masculine form (e.g. doctor, tenant, baker) is used to denote people of all genders. With this usage, however, it is not always clear in linguistic terms whether only male persons are meant or others as well. That is why linguistic alternatives have been discussed for some time.”

    However, the editors did not change anything about the misleading entry “male person” for a tenant, that could also be a company or a woman. Meanwhile, ideology-free dictionaries such as the “Digital Dictionary of the German Language” continue to provide the correct linguistic definition. A “tenant” is therefore of course not a “male person”, but simply a “person who has rented something” without explicitly defined biological properties.

    The Duden is a long way from such scientific neutrality. Its new “online spell checker” allows for all gender spellings for “tenants”: “Mieter*innen“, Mieter_innen, Mieter:innen, MieterInnen“. Similarly “people” and “guests” have been subjected to these ridiculous forms.

    In his “language war”, Lobin blames all conservatives as well as critics. While many citizens are outraged at how the Duden and others instrumentalize the German language, he complains about “how the New Right instrumentalizes the German language”. Thus with the spectre of the “new right”, Lobin obviously wants to discredit any criticism of gender. According to his reading, the resistance to politically correct language and gender German is all part of a “new right agenda”.

    And by avoiding the definition of what constitutes this “new right”, Lobin can use it to label all gender opponents in his book. Lobin evidently imagines all of the criticism by publications, parties and associations – left and right – to be part of a “new right” conspiracy. Lobin clearly does not seem to want to get involved in any factual argumentation. Apparently he fears that he would lose his “language battle” in the process – and rightly so.

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