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In German, a noun always has its own gender. However, there is a case I don't know.

Suppose that there is a class with many students, both males and females, and then when I want to refer to all students in that class, which word should I use when there are both, males and females and I want to include all of them in only one word, not only plural of "der Student" or the plural of "die Studentin"? Or when I see a name in a student list but I don't know the gender of that student. What should I say or write?

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    the first paragraph here might be helpfull
    – Pasoe
    Jul 3 '14 at 6:55
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    An alle Menschen und Menschinnen hier: übertreibt es nicht!
    – Ingo Knito
    Jul 4 '14 at 7:41
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    Oh my, prepare for truckloads of answers on this one. Though, unfortunately the general answer is "nobody really knows". ;-) Jul 4 '14 at 14:24
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    If the students attends a Universität or Fachhochschule then you call them "Student" in German. If they are younger they are "Schüler". Jul 6 '14 at 9:03
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    One of the most important rules is: never use the female form in a negative context. For example, "Studenten und Studentinnen", but not "Verbrecher und Verbrecherinnen". #ironyoff. Jan 4 '15 at 11:40

12 Answers 12

61

You are falling into the trap laid out carefully by German Gender Mainstreaming throughout the years.

No, in German a noun does not have a gender. It has a genus. This genus is a purely grammatical property defined by tradition. By default, it has nothing to do with biological sex or sociological gender.

The word der Student is a masculine noun describing people who study regardless of their sex or gender. A group of these people is described by the plural form die Studenten regardless of their sexual or gender composition.

Use these!

Another example for the same effect:

die Katze (gr. neuter): a cat, bio. male or female
der Kater (gr. male): a bio. male cat

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    If "The word der Student is a masculine noun describing people who study regardless of their sex or gender", what or who does "die Studentin" describe?
    – persson
    Jul 2 '14 at 20:52
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    @karoshi: Sprache ist nicht symetrisch. "Studentin" bezeichnet einen weiblichen Studenten, und nur einen weiblichen. Zwei, drei und 753 Äpfel sind auch immer Äpfel, nur der eine Apfel ist ein Sonderfall - wieso nicht für 0 Äpfel oder 2 auch eine eigene Form? "Wie kalt" oder "wie warm ist es draußen" kann man fragen, unabhängig ob man nun meint es sei wohl kalt oder warm. Aber niemand fragt "Wie langsam fährt das Auto" - immer nur "wie schnell". Sprache ist nicht symetrisch, d.h. für Gruppen, die nur aus Männern bestehen, gibt es keine eigenen Wörter (außer: Kardinäle). Jul 3 '14 at 1:51
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    +1 for "This genus is a purely grammatical property defined by tradition. By default, it has nothing to do with biological sex or sociological gender.". I suggest adding an example such as die männliche Katze or die männliche Fliege to illustrate the point. Jul 3 '14 at 13:26
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    @Toscho, although English has the word genus it doesn’t mean the same as German Genus ‘grammatisches Geschlecht’. A correct German translation of the former would be Gattung and a correct English translation of the latter would be gender, whereas the anglicism Gender in German is used exclusively for ‘soziales Geschlecht’. Your “answer” is just as prescriptive as you perceive political correct language to be. The pragmatic and empiric truth is that you’ll offend more people with generic Studenten than with Studierende or Studis.
    – Crissov
    Jul 4 '14 at 7:46
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    @Toscho: Likewise, Die männliche Fliege fliegt. Er fliegt schnell. sounds totally wrong, as opposed to the correct Die männliche Fliege fliegt. Sie fliegt schnell. So, in the second sentence, the feminine pronoun sie further highlights how an inherently male thing can have the grammatical genus neuter, thus underlining how gender and genus are unrelated. Jul 4 '14 at 20:54
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If you know the name, use the name. That’s the easy part.

You can often still get away with ‘generisches Maskulinum’, i.e. Studenten, but in a university setting, i.e. where you’d actually use Student and Studentin to refer to students (instead of Schüler and Schülerin ‘pupil’ in a school or most other courses), it’s becoming rather common to use Studierende.

Since that participle is a verb form used as a noun, it inflects just like an adjective (i.e. also by gender), which works well in definite singular der Studierende and die Studierende, but fails for indefinite singular ein Studierender and eine Studierende. The plural is always fine.

Please note that such words – although used like nouns – do not bear inherent gender. That’s restricted to proper names and proper noun stems, which can be overruled by derivative morphemes (e.g. die …+keit/+heit, der …+ling, das …+chen).

In non-formal contexts, e.g. amongst students, short forms can be used – Studi in this case, plural Studis, which could come from either Studenten/-innen or Studierende. Alas, such -i words are not perfect either, because they have a slight tendency to distinguish gender, too, but with +ne instead of common +in: ?Studine isn’t frequent (yet), but Hiwine (to Hiwi) you hear a lot already.

PS: Studierende is one of the red flags that reliably spawn an emotional discussion of the merits of exactly the thing you want to do, i.e. gender-neutral or gender-aware language which results in conscious word and grammar choices that may feel unusual.

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    "Der Studierende" funktioniert auch nicht im Singular, wenn ein Artikel gebraucht wird. Außerdem bedeutet Studierender etwas anderes als Student, untergräbt also die Sprache und den richtigen Gebrauch des Infinitiv. Es gibt ein Rumgetrickse und RUmgeeiere, weil man den politischen Konflikt scheut der darin bestünde die Sprache richtig zu benutzen, statt einer Propagandabehauptung von der Unsichtbarmachung von Frauen sich blindlings zu ergeben. Jul 3 '14 at 1:42
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    Studierende funktioniert insofern im Singular, dass nur noch der Artikel differenziert werden muss, also der/die Studierende, aber der Student / die Studentin oder der/die Student/-in und ein Studierender / eine Studierende oder ein(e) Studierende(r) etc.pp. Natürlich bedeutet Studierender im Sprachgebrauch nahezu dasselbe wie Student, nur die Konnotationen sind andere. Sprachlich richtig ist, was die Mehrheit stillschweigend akzeptiert, d.h. nicht als falsch bemerkt. Ich vermeide substantivierte Partizipien meistens, weil sie auf mich gestelzt klingen – aber nicht falsch.
    – Crissov
    Jul 3 '14 at 11:20
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    +1 für "Studierende", weil es, soweit ich weiß, ein sehr guter und wie du in deiner Selbst-Antwort ausführst geschlechtsneutraler Begriff ist. Es ist nicht wie bei "Konfirmanden" anstatt dem häufig gebraucht "Konfirmierten", denn man ist erst nach der Konfimation konfirmiert, aber vorher ist man "Konfirmant". Natürlich ist "Studenten" als Plural in Ordnung für gemischte Gruppen und "Studenten und Studentinnen" auch, aber "Studierende" spricht beide Geschlechter gleichermaßen an, ohne so langatmig zu klingen wie bei der zweiten Lösung. Jul 4 '14 at 8:05
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    Student spricht beide Geschlechter an, nur scheint man einer werden zu dürfen, ohne das kapieren zu müssen, sprich, heute bekommt man als funktionaler Analphabet der sich aus politischen Gründen, besser gesagt dem gutem, altem, deutschen Opportunimus ein bisschen doof stellt die allgemeine Hochschulreife. Wenn beim Artikel des Begriffs "der Studierende" doch differnziert werden muss, dann ist der Begriff auch nicht geschlechtsneutral. Vor allem aber wird der Begriff des Studierenden, wie er früher verstanden wurde, sabotiert. Dafür gibt es dann heute kein Wort mehr. Jul 5 '14 at 10:32
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    @userunknown, siehe „Langlebige Studierende“ im Sprachlog, auch wenn ich A. Stefanowitsch nicht immer und nicht in allen Punkten zustimme.
    – Crissov
    Jul 5 '14 at 14:45
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The noun has its own Genus. For "Student" it's masculinum, so you should use masculinum.

  • Der Student is "the student" - both male and female
  • Die Studentin is "the female student" - only female

In Indoeuropean languages, genus is the property of the noun, and there is only one "correct" grammar gender to refer to that noun.

English is a special case, where that concept is reduced. The nouns has no genus, a dog, for example, can be "he", "she" or "it". There are some exceptions, like "waitress" or "actress", but they are not commonly used nowadays.

There are artificial attempts in German to introduce pseudo-gender-neutral nouns like "Studierenden" but they are only pseudo-gender-neutral. In Singular, you have "der Studierende" or "die Studierende". Another problem is, that semantically, they have similar role to adjectives, so the constructs like "ehemalige Studierenden" makes not much sense. People also don't like when someone regulates what words should be used.

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In German we often use the male form of the job titles although we don't mean explicitely one gender (ein Student). In plural this is used really often (Studenten). But both uses depend on the context. You can use it this way if it's a general statement. If you refer to certain people then use exact expressions. In the ages of feminism there came a few alternatives to this. You will find "Student/Studentin", "Student/in" or "StudentInnen" (the upper I shows that you mean both genders, but this is the feminism Version). There are also examples where we use the female version although it could include male persons too (e.g. Putzfrau). Here you'll find more to that topic.

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Often for large groups of people of unknown or mixed gender the plural of the masculine form is used: "die Studenten" etc. This is known as the "Generisches Maskulinum". Of course, just using the masculine form is problematic as it ignores the women and there is an ongoing discussion about what a better alternative should be.

Also often used, especially when talking to them directly is using both, the plural of the masculine and feminine form: "Liebe Studenten und Studentinnen, ..." But always referring to both forms makes some kinds of texts hard to read (e.g. a legal texts): "Dem Studenten / der Studentin wird für die Prüfung ein Prüfer / eine Prüferin zugewiesen, der/die den Studenten / die Studentin über das Fach prüft." There are alternatives to shorten this, one for example is the "Binnen-I": "Dem/der StudentIn wird für die Prüfung ein/eine PrüferIn zugewiesen, der/die den/die StudentIn..." "Liebe StudentInnen" etc. Other possible forms are the "Gender Gap" (yes, the english term is used in german, that's why it has the capital G, see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_Gap_(Linguistik) ): "Student_in" or even combined: "Student_In".

There is not one standard way to use now as there are many arguments pro and con each way (see for example the arguments on the Binnen-I wikipedia page: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binnen-I ).

There are even more options than the ones described: Other, but very rare suggestions include just using the feminine form or switching between pure feminine and pure masculine forms between paragraphs.

So sadly, there is not one way to go but multiple alternatives to choose from and you will always find some people who don't like the way you have chosen... Trying to include everyone and not using the generic masculine is the best way to go as long as the text stays readable.

Most of this is also true when referring to one specific individual but when you address him or her directly (e.g. in a eMail), you should probably try to not use any pronouns and go by the name "Hallo Robin Meyer..." instead of "Liebe Robin Meyer" or "Lieber Robin Meyer" (Robin is a male name most of the time in germany, but you might expect a woman as you would think of Robin Scherbatsky from HIMYM...).

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If you go for the grammatically correct version, use "die Studenten". That's the generic masculine form.

But: Over the last few decades, there have been some people (mainly feminists / gender mainstreamers) who felt excluded by that use, so they invented quite a few ways to overcome that. If you speak to a crowd, you can't go wrong with "Studentinnen und Studenten" (you usually have to use the female version first). When writing you can use "Studentinnen und Studenten" or "Studenten/-innen" or something like that.

There are stronger forms of that as well like e.g. StudentInnen (this form is called Binnen-I), Student_Innen or Student*innen. While the Binnen-I is rather generally accepted the latter ones are not. All these forms are often used by liberals / feminists / gender mainstreamers / etc. while they are much disliked by most conservatives and people who know a lot about the language (e.g. Germanists).

There is even a very left-leaning university in Germany that went as far as to stop using the male version at all, so male students are addressed as "Studentinnen".

It is a very politically charged subject.

So if you do not want to take any specific political position, use "Studentinnen und Studenten" or "Student/-in".

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Why the fuss? The OP LITERALLY asked "how do Germans refer to people without caring about the gender?" and everybody is breaking out into philosophy/linguistics/emancipation...

Just say

Hi Leute! (hi people / hi guys)

If you want to say something about a person whose sex you don't know (for example they've sent you an email), just say

Er oder sie hat mir 'ne Email geschrieben. Sorry, ich weiß nicht ob das ein männlicher oder weiblicher name ist.

If you smile apologetically and make it obvious that you're not maliciously trying to challenge anybody's gender identity or whatever you will never run into serious problems.

Just, you know, relax :) It's natural language. It's not like talking to a computer, where forgetting a semicolon will result in carnage.

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  • No, the question was if there happens to be some gender-neutral noun for the plural to refer to mixed-gender groups, not what alternative words can be used.
    – Mr Lister
    Jul 5 '14 at 6:26
  • Quoting: "How do Germans refer to people without caring about the gender(?)", "What should I say or write?". Jul 7 '14 at 13:29
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Neutral and modern: 'Sehr geehrte Studierende'

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    Das wirft aber genau dasselbe Problem auf. Im Singular ist »der Studierende« ebenso maskulin wie »der Student«. Auch der Plural ist maskulin, nur fällt das nicht auf. Außerdem klingt das Wort krankhaft konstruiert, ähnlich wie wenn ein Politiker bei einer Rede in einer Fabrik die Arbeiter mit »sehr geehrter Arbeitende« ansprechen würde. Oder falls er in einer Brotfabrik ist: »sehr geehrter Backende« (statt »Bäcker«). Jemand, der andere unterrichtet ist ein Lehrer, kein Lehrender. Jemand der Wände ausmalt it ein Maler, kein Malender. Warum sollte man also aus Studenten Studierende machen? Jul 6 '14 at 9:13
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    'Student' ist lateinischer Herkunft und heißt 'Studierender' (PPA) ;)
    – furibund
    Jul 7 '14 at 11:32
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Proper german makes a difference between sexus and genus - the biological and the grammatical gender of things. They have very little in common and the grammatical gender is not an indication of biological gender.

For example: Der Manager (male) and Die Führungskraft (female) are both gender-neutral descriptions of the same person (your boss).

However, there is a political movement that doesn't understand this and is very strong, especially around academia. It insinuates that these two unrelated things actually are related and the generisches masculinum (generic male form) is oppressive male chauvinism (ignoring the question what the generic female and neutral forms are, which also exist).

If you converse with those circles, as seems the case, you can research the artificial forms they have developed, which usually tack an "In" (a common, but not universal indicator of the female form) unto a generic male (and sometimes other) word. For example, "Student" becomes "StudentIn". Unfortunately, there is no common way in which to tack on this suffix, because just adding it in proper german writing would simply turn the male "Student" into the female "Studentin". One form is the one I gave: The "Binnen-I" - a capital I inside the word. Others are "Student/in" or "Student*in" and I'm sure there are yet more. All of them will be marked as wrong in your spellchecker, but here we are.

Note that if you add an article, it becomes "der/die Student/in". Or whatever butchered sentence someone feels correctly expresses their gender-political position.

For some common words, new words have been created, for example "die Studierenden" (plural form of students, literally meaning "those who are studying".

For plural, pick whichever you like best:

  • Studenten (correct German, but it could be gender-political suicide)
  • Studenten and Studentinnen (explicitly naming both genders)
  • Studierende
  • StudentInnen
  • Student/innen
  • Student*innen

Yes, it makes an already difficult language even more so. I don't recommend you express your thanks publicly in a university unless you want to not work there anymore.

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Students (and of course all sexually reproducing creatures) don't have genders, they have sexes (male and female are different sexes; masculine and feminine nouns are different genders). The word you want is Studenten, which refers to both sexes, male and female, collectively. It is the plural form of both die Studentin and der Student. Otherwise, when referring to a single student, you have to use der Student if you don't know the sex of the student, and die Studentin if you do know that the student is female.

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German is a mess right now with regards to "gender" or "sex."

The roots are in the supposedly "Frauenfeindliche Sprache" where so many nouns that refer to professions are masculine gendered words. (But not all, siehe die Lehrkraft).

But the "corrective" action that is being taken, aside corrupting the original language, is going in the wrong direction: it is emphasizing and recommending a MORE BINARY approach, which is not actually more inclusive at all, instead reads rather hetero-normative. Ask any LGBTQ+ person.

I propose the solution is to dial back and start using the words traditionally again, where a masculine gendered word is understood to refer to both sexes (or any sex, or no sex at all, I nod to the LGBTQ+ community).

Finally, I thought that the plural forms of German nouns have no gender at all (even in grammatical constructions), so I don't understand the trouble to which public speakers go, to address both sexes with separate plural words. It does make for some very cumbersome speech.

Below I add a few words where I ask, what is the "feminine" form? I've not heard it yet (as of Sept. 14, 2021):

  • Der Gast, die Gästin?

And derivatives:

  • Fahrgast
  • Reisegäste
  • Hausgäste
  • etc.

Der Mensch Der Suchende (e.g. Schutzsuchende) Die Einsatzkraft Die Lehrkraft (instead of der Lehrer!) Can men not be referred to as "die Lehrkraft?" (NO! They would feel so emasculated!) Der Unternehmer (in recent TV "Trielle" Amin laschet failed to address Unternehmerinnen!)

For a moment I theorized that only nouns ending in "er" are victims of the linguistic gender war (i.e. Lehrerin, Bürgerin, ...), but on dradio.de have noticed Hörer used without a corresponding feminine gender (they do not acknowledge the existence of any Hörerinnen). Or what about Fahrer, like "Busfahrer"? Is there a feminine ever used (Busfahrerin)?

Also, I notice that when such a "personal noun" is part of a compound noun, the effort to include the feminine is abandoned. For example:

Korrespondentennetzwerk. (What of Korrespondentinnennetzwerk?) I suppose the female(s) cannot be included because the actual noun is "Netzwerk" - which has no female version... but then it also implies there are no female members as part of the "Netzwerk" - how can one reconcile this "sexist" output?

In sum: a mess.

I don't know the solution.

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  • Is that an answer or a long comment?
    – choXer
    Sep 14 at 20:19
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    Es ist nicht an Berufe gebunden, siehe Fußgängerampel, NIchtschwimmerbecker, Schläfer, Träumer, Brite, Esser, Verbrecher, Christ, ... Sep 15 at 1:17
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The correct term would probably be "das Student" (genderneutral) .. but german tradition forbids you to use it. Would be nice to see "das" used as the english "the".

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    This has been proposed indeed, e.g. by infamous Luise Pusch, but mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, often alongside an artificial male counterpart to +in. Low German (Plattdeutsch) has articles dat (n) and de (c), instead of die (f) and der (m). Some urban sociolects actually use da, as in daStandard.at
    – Crissov
    Jul 4 '14 at 7:54
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    Using "das" isn't like using "the" but like using "it". Using "it" towards a person is as disrespectful in German as it is in English. A comparable situation in English would be that you also don't use "it" for someone whose gender you don't know (e.g. if you talk about some company representative you only wrote to using their customer service mail address it would be very derogatory to call that person "it").
    – Dakkaron
    Jul 4 '14 at 8:03
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    @Dakkaron, it’s also been proposed for English to use it where you’re unsure whether he or she was correct. Currently, singular they is the most promising candidate to take that job.
    – Crissov
    Jul 5 '14 at 14:48
  • That's the way I know it aswell, using "they" in singular for a person of unknown sex.
    – Dakkaron
    Jul 6 '14 at 4:40
  • This is not a correct answer. It's a misunderstanding of German grammar, which does not allow you to simply switch out the grammatical gender of a word. It's not german tradition that forbids this, it's german language.
    – Tom
    Jul 10 '19 at 4:38

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