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I’m writing a German locale for a project/game I’m developing, and some messages require a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a person. For example, one of the messages is:

They were a detective.

Does German have a pronoun that fits these needs, or is it better to somehow avoid this requirement and phrase it differently? I did a bit of research, and found nothing even close to a definitive answer.

Edit: To provide more context to the example message, this particular one is displayed in a game on the ID tag of a corpse upon a player identifying a body, immediately after the announcement that they have discovered it (“X has found the body of Y’). So, it’s referring to the player to whom the body belonged, whose sex is unknown.

  • Related (but not duplicate): german.stackexchange.com/questions/18744/… – boaten Jan 23 '15 at 1:20
  • In what context exactly. I'm asking because you could well say "der jemand" or "die Person", but only if the entity has been established before. – Emanuel Jan 23 '15 at 23:23
  • @Emanuel Apologies, the context I provided was incorrect. I've edited the OP accordingly. In English, the full message would look something like "X has discovered the body of Y. They were a detective." – caseif Jan 24 '15 at 1:30
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    "They were detectives" or "He was a detective" or what do you mean? – user unknown Jan 26 '15 at 2:31
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    "Das war ein Ermittler" would in my old-fashioned mind pretty much fit to both female and male detectives. – tofro Feb 22 '16 at 12:23
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What you are referring to is third person, not first person. The first person is 'I' or 'we' (German ich or wir). Also, what do you mean by 'requirement'?

Ahem

There is no such thing in German (if you are talking about persons), and not really in English. You would use er, just the same as English uses 'he'. Er in German encompasses persons of indeterminate sex just as 'he' does in English.

The 'gender-neutral' third person pronoun in English is 'it', which is used of inanimate objects, animals, and occasionally infants whose sex is not easily identifiable. German has es as a neuter third-person pronoun, but it is used to refer to grammatically neuter nouns, not 'inanimate things'. Since the gender of many German compound nouns is determined by the last component, you have the situation where Mädchen, which means 'girl', is not a feminine noun, but a neuter one because the suffix chen makes all nouns to which it is attached neuter. Das Mädchen, welches mich liebt, ist sehr schön. 'The girl who (or 'that') loves me is very beautiful'.

The German pronoun man, (not to be confused with der Mann, which means 'the man') which means 'one', is masculine (that means that masculine pronouns, such as sein, are used with it).

German declensions

It is used in situations where one would use a passive construction in English. Man glaubt = 'it is believed', man arbeitet = 'one works' etc. 'They were a detective' is improper in English anyway.

When the sex of an individual is indeterminate or unspecified, the pronoun 'he' is to be used; 'he' is to be construed as masculine only when the antecedent is identified as male; it is indeterminate or neuter if the sex of the antecedent is not specified. It includes males and females. Likewise in German, one uses er.

'One takes his place, and he must remain silent'. In German, it would be the same, and the possessive pronoun sein would be used. Man nimmt seinen Platz, und er muss still bleiben.

One must work hard at his job if he is to succeed.

Man takes a masculine declension!

Nominative: man

Accusative: einen

Genitive: sein

Dative: einem

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    @c.p. ... about "man"... Ornello is right that behaves like it is masculine. "Man kann das Orakel nicht finden. Es findet einen." Neither "eine" nor "eins" would work here. I disagree about "er" though. The only suitable nominative continuation for "man" is... "man". "Er" does strongly imply a subject that is male. The sentence "Man nimmt seinen Platz und er muss still sein" is correct only if "er" is a different entity than "man". The translation would be "One takes his place und he (someone else) must be quiet." – Emanuel Jan 23 '15 at 23:18
  • @Emanuel: "Man geht und nimmt seinen Turnbeutel mit" - "seinen", also sprachlich eine maskuline Fortsetzung. Über die Person und deren Geschlecht sagt das aber nichts aus: "Man kann die Pille oder ein Diaphragma zur Verhütung einsetzen." Ist hier irgendwas männlich? Was? Es ist kein Substantiv welches mit einem Artikel versehen werden kann. – user unknown Jan 26 '15 at 2:50
  • @userunknown... Dein Beispiel ("seinen") ist ein Beleg dafür, dass "man" nicht weiblich ist. Sonst wäre es ja "ihren Turnbeutel". Mein Beispiel ist 100% eindeutig. Ich ersetze "man" durch ein Indefinitpronomen und die einzige Form, die funktioniert, ist die maskuline. Daher kann man "man" als maskulin kategorisieren. Mit Substantiven hat das nichts zu tun. Hier geht es um Pronomen. In deinem Satz mit der Pille ist "man" maskulin. Wie überall sonst auch. – Emanuel Jan 26 '15 at 12:32
  • Please avoid overlengthy comment threads. Such discussions should go to German Language Chat. Once an issue was resolved all comments should be removed. Ideally all valuable comments that don't fit the post they're on should result in an own, additional anwer. Thank you. – Takkat Jan 26 '15 at 12:40
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Is this a game like Mafia or Werewolf where players eliminate each other?

In that case I'd go with "Er oder sie war Detektiv", or you could use tha player's name if you have that: "{Name} war Detektiv."

If gender is not important, you could avoid the problem by writing "Hier liegt ein Detektiv (oder eine Detektivin)".

You could also write "Das war ein Detektiv." but that could be misleading as it could be understood as "a detective killed that person". May depend on the context.

  • The gender is more referring the the actual human controlling the character that died, whose gender can't be known. Anyhow, "Das war ein Detektiv" would translate to something like "This (the corpse) was a detective", correct? – caseif Jan 24 '15 at 1:32
  • @mproncace Yes. I've updated my answer based on what you said about the game. – Robert Jan 24 '15 at 17:06
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Gender-neutral, yes (the es). Gender-neutral in the sense of either female or male, no (unfortunately).

And even if there was one, the problem would survive in the nature of German nouns: In English, "detective" can be used for both genders, while in the German singular one must choose between Detektiv and Detektivin (inferring gender).

However, some still consider/perceive the male form as generic, allowing

Das war ein Detektiv.

to be used in the way you need.

This has become quite disputed, though, and the disputes ultimately lead to "Gendering" in the German language. That means modifying nouns in a way such that they cover both genders (but only if the nouns refer to a mixed group or an unknown individual). Some examples:

Das war ein/e DetektivIn. (the big I is called Binnen-I)
Er/sie war ein(e) Detektiv(in).
Liebe Detektivinnen und Detektive! (so even the plural infers gender)

Optically, this does not look very pretty, yet most public text sources have adopted (some form of) this style. So if the first example doesn't look all too horrid to you, then that's lucky, because I really can't think of some worthy periphrasis (it's difficult without "detective").

Of course it depends on your audience (and eventually on your superiors) whether you can use the generic masculine or not.
For a game, I believe that a colloquial "Er oder sie war ein Detektiv" would be OK, too, but as said, this is subject to change.

Lastly, a natural solution would be to let the speaker assume a gender, which is then confirmed or refuted later on. This is often done in movies.

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    I have heard the title (not the job) "detective" left untranslated in German versions of US crime shows. Maybe in this specific context here one could leave "detective" in "Es ist/Das war ein Detective." – Chris Jan 24 '15 at 20:32
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    Es ist schlicht falsch, daß man Berufbezeichnungen wie Detektiv im Deutschen immer gendern muß. – Ingo Jan 25 '15 at 13:35
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    "Some still consider ..." ist ebenfalls falsch. Bezogen auf die Sprache gibt es hier nur eine Wahrheit, alles andere ist politischer Krampf ohne jede wissenschaftliche Basis und nur wenigen Milieus üblich und auch da keine etablierte mündliche Sprache. Es ist eine politische Kunstsprache von Aktivisten die damit etwas bewirken wollen, was außerhalb der Semantik liegt. – user unknown Jan 26 '15 at 2:36
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    @userunknown "Nur eine Wahrheit"... mit dieser Formulierung machst du dich lediglich selbst zu einem Aktivisten - der anderen Seite. – user6191 Jan 26 '15 at 17:36
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    "Gendering" of nouns is just modern bullshit IMHO, excuse the french. "Ein Hund" - ist maskulin, kann aber trotzdem ein Weibchen sein. Es existiert ein Unterschied zwischen grammatikalischem und physischen Geschlecht. Wenn die Herren und Damen Gender-AktivistInnen schon unbedingt was tun wollten, sollten sie als erstes die Begriffe "herrlich" und "dämlich" gesetzlich verbieten lassen..... (So, ab sofort bin ich wieder brav ;) ) – tofro Feb 22 '16 at 12:13
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X has found the body of Y.
They were a detective.

In this particular case there may be an elegant gender-neutral translation, by not using a pronoun:

X hat die Leiche von Y gefunden.
Das Opfer war Detektiv.

Leiche (f.) ‘dead body’ and Opfer (n.) ‘victim’ don’t imply a certain sex. Alternatively, it also works with using the name of course.

Y war Detektiv.

Using Detektiv as a predicative without indefinite article ein may still be considered sexist by some feminists, but I’ve yet to see a psycholinguistic study to prove there’s a (male) bias in this particular construct. Evidence that there’s a bias in some constructs has frequently been (ab)used to justify critique of other constructs.

Neuter nouns like Opfer, Tier, Kind or Mädchen may always be referred to by masculine base forms of actor nouns (e.g. Detektiv), which they share most inflections with (“grammatical agreement”), but the derived feminine form (Detektivin) can also be used if the sex is known to be female (“natural agreement”) – the tendency to do so is growing.

Although Leiche is feminine, it would be (semantically) odd to refer to it with sie, because not the body but the person was a detective. Also, sie may be thought to refer to the name thereby determining the sex of Y.

X hat die Leiche von Y gefunden.
?Sie war Detektiv.

It would be less odd with Opfer.

X hat das Opfer gefunden.
Es war Detektiv.

Alas, a sentence starting with es war may easily be misunderstood to be using a filler es as in es war Sommer. The neuter relative pronoun may be better.

Dieses war Detektiv.

That’s still sounding unidiomatic, though, but with an adverbial or a full verb it becomes okayish.

Dieses war zu Lebzeiten Detektiv.
Dieses arbeitete als Detektiv.

An apposition could also be used instead. It may be introduced by a colon, en-dash or comma and it’s also possible to surround it by parentheses.

X hat die Leiche von Y gefunden – ein Detektiv.
X hat die Leiche von Y (Detektiv) gefunden.

Singular they

There is no direct equivalent to English singular they in German. Since sie is already used for both, (feminine) ‘she’ and (plural) ‘they’, there can’t be.

On the other hand, German es (or other neuter pronouns) can be used a bit more freely to refer to human beings than English it.

It’s a detective.
Es ist ein Detektiv.

PS: I’ve used Detektiv as a translation of ‘detective’, but that’s a false friend if the rank or role within the police force was meant.

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Disclaimer: I am not in any way a German speaker. I’ve only just started taking German classes, and it’s the second week of school.

In my most recent class, we started talking about pronouns and how every noun in the German language is gendered. As a Gender Studies major, I got very curious about gender-neutral pronouns that weren’t es, because it’s the equivalent of it in English, and as far as I know, nobody particularly liked being called it. I did some research and found the blogs of some genderqueer people who live in Germany. Many of them use the pronouns xier or sien instead of er/sie. Others use the plural Sie. For nouns, I found that there is one professor in Berlin who prefers to be referred to as Professx instead of Professor/Professorin. So you could use Detektix, or a variation of that.

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    Welcome to the German Language SE and thank you for your contribution. As a native speaker, I'd just like to calibrate this answer by saying: These variants do not play any kind of role in standard or every-day german, but are specific to a certain subculture. I.e., the average german speaker will not understand xier, sien or Professx. – hiergiltdiestfu Sep 9 '16 at 7:28
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    Your really shouldn't use any of these unless know you exactly what you're doing, and certainly not as a learner of German. Acceptance is not exactly quit there yet, to put it mildly. – Ingmar Sep 9 '16 at 7:43
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    I agree with @hiergiltdiestfu and Ingmar. I'm a German native speaker, and have never heard xier, sien or any of the above, and I wouldn't understand them. So be very careful when using them. – raznagul Sep 9 '16 at 8:11
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    Good research, but terrible advice. Welcome! – Carsten S Sep 9 '16 at 9:30
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    There's an analog to this in English, something along the lines of "xer" (obviously conjugation is not an issue). However, it is extremely non-standard and generally only used in a specific context (relating to genderqueer-ness), and thus not particularly appropriate in this case. The difference is that the gender is simply unknown as opposed to undefined. – caseif Sep 9 '16 at 16:11
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In the German language it's the same as in the English language: The male form is the grammatical gender by default. It's the standard, generic form. ›Der Detektiv‹ can either be a male or a female.

One doesn't know till you give him more information. If it's a biological male it stays in the grammatical male form. If it's a female you'll usually put it into the grammatical female form (--› congruency) but that's not necessary.

A correct German sentence:

Sie war ein guter Detektiv.

The pronoun ›er‹ is generic, too. That's the same with ›he‹ in English. However, people tend to see solely biological males behind those grammatical forms as there's still a male bias in our western world. The same phenomenon appears when asked to imagine a child/Kind which is in its grammatical form neutral: You'll rather imagine a little boy than a little girl.

Because of that people come up with this:

Fun gender sensible form: Jeder oder jede, der oder die das macht, …

Correct form: Jeder, der das macht, …

Who tells you different speaks out of an ideology.

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