15

If I want to express myself gender neutral I always use the male version of nouns, as this feels to me to be the "default".

My colleague in the office is always nice.

Mein Kollege im Büro ist immer nett.

My question now is if there actually is a rule in the German language about using the "male version" of the word as the neutral/default expression.


This is not about being politically correct but rather because I want to know if there is a default version for neutral expressions or if I should use the according genus of the word appropriate to the person talked about even if it is not relevant for the context.

Example: A female colleague help to implement a certain feature.

Diese Funktionalität wurde, mit Hilfe einer Kollegin, implementiert.

Diese Funktionalität wurde, mit Hilfe eines Kollegen, implementiert.

Which would be the proper expression, in regards to the fact that this is a professional environment and the gender is completely irrelevant?


Before you answer or comment on this question, please read our guidelines for questions on gender-neutral language and similar.

  • 2
    The construct is called Generisches Maskulinum. I don't recognize the difference to political correctness, since the answer will be the same independent of your motivation. – guidot Aug 6 at 7:40
  • 2
    @guidot That’s patently false. Of course there are different answers for expressing gender-neutral genera (and this isn’t a new development either). Cf. the added link in the question. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 6 at 10:40
  • 3
    Any politically correct answer to this question might be outdated in a couple of months. This is a hot topic. The default, however, is the masculine form. As no convenient neutral alternative could be found/constructed (yet), it will probably not change. – IchBinDeinVater Aug 6 at 16:04
  • @KonradRudolph:I don't understand your comment (the added link is more than generic, and you don't give details what you refer to): I did not question existence of different ways but stated that I can't recognize, how the motivation influenced their existence. Since I clearly wrote "I don't recognize" your patently false statement seems inappropriate. – guidot Aug 7 at 7:51
  • 1
    @MichaelJaros It's not required, but possible and changes the tone of the sentence. In its current iteration, the focus is on the fact that the feature was indeed implemented. Without the commata the focus is on the fact that it was done with the the colleague's help. So wether it's correct or not depends on what OP wants to stress. – Suthek Aug 7 at 11:21
18

Oh boy, you just opened the box of Pandora as this is part of an ongoing discussion in Germany. I'll give an answer without politics first but I feel that this answer also needs to take a look at the political side because some people might feel offended which may cause problems at a workplace for you.

w/o politics

Generally speaking, German has the generic masculine i.e. every noun that exists in both male and female versions, is neutral by default in its male version. On the other hand using the female form automatically assumes that the person is female.

Ich gehe morgen zum Arzt. I go to the doctor tomorrow.

Ich gehe morgen zu meiner Ärztin. I go to my female doctor tomorrow.

If you want to emphasize that a doctor is male you can use pronouns or use both forms in a sentence.

Ich gehe morgen zum Arzt. Ich war schon länger nicht mehr bei ihm. *It's been a while since I last went to him.

Ein Arzt hat sich mit einer Ärztin gestritten. *A male doctor had an argument with a female doctor

In plural the male form is also generic while the female form is exclusively for all female groups. You can again use both forms of you want to clarify male gender. Still, it feels more natural to point out that they are male if you want to emphasize the difference.

Meine Kolleginnen im Büro sind nett aber meine (männlichen) Kollegen nicht. My female colleagues in the office are nice but my male colleagues are not.

Note from the comments:
If you're talking about a specific female person you should use the female noun instead of the unspecific general masculine:

Meine Kollegin Julia hat mir erzählt.... *My (female) colleague Julia has told me....

Instead of

Mein Kollege Julia hat mir erzählt....

w/ politics

That being said, especially but not only in formal letters/emails, people might feel offended if you do not use both forms.

Liebe Kolleginnen und Kollegen. Dear female and male colleagues.

This creates really cumbersome sentences, I'll just list some examples of general practices:

Separation:

Jede/r Mitarbeiter/in ist für ihr/sein Geschirr verantwortlich. Every worker is responsible for their own dishes.

Binnen-i:

Jede/r MitarbeiterIn ist für sein/ihr Geschirr verantwortlich.

More information about gender neutral speech can for example be found here:

[[Leitfaden Uni Köln]][1]

[1]http://www.hf.uni-koeln.de/file/7466

  • 3
    I like the first sentence ^^. But I think your answer misses a point, as it's technically "an option" to use the generic masculine in this case, but when talking about one specific female colleague it is rude to use the (generic) male form. – mtwde Aug 6 at 7:58
  • 1
    I may talk about a specific female person but the reader of the documentation does not know, will never know or have any contact with the person so why is specifically mentioning the persons gender more formal? This would for me seam unprofessional at least in objective documentation or scientific writing. – GittingGud Aug 6 at 8:58
  • 2
    I addressed this in the introduction: "I'll give an answer without politics first but I feel that this answer also needs to take a look at the political side because some people might feel offended which may cause problems at a workplace for you." – infinitezero Aug 6 at 18:39
  • 2
    Re "Because formal writing requires you to be politically correct": Actually not, sometimes to the contrary in conservative environments. But formal writing does require you to be factually correct; referring to a known female person with male nouns and pronouns is factually wrong: Without having any reference I'm convinced that the generic masculine is reserved for persons of unknown gender (i.e., usually unknown persons) or mixed groups. Is that not so? – Peter A. Schneider Aug 6 at 21:52
  • 1
    @infinitezero Well, you were answering GittingGud's comment question about "known [to the author, but not to the reader] female whose gender is irrelevant in context". You say "you could still use the generic masculine" (but perhaps should use the feminine for essentially PC reasons). I simply think that using a masculine word for a known (to the author) feminine person is not only not PC but is plain wrong use of the language (and "always" has been), independent of any contextual relevance. You appear to say so much in the answer (though I'd say "must"), but your comment was less clear. – Peter A. Schneider Aug 7 at 6:52
10

First, as others pointed out already, it is highly unlikely you will be able to completely stay out of politics on this one.

But ignoring politics, you need to understand that German has a grammatical genus for every word that has nothing whatsoever to do with biological sexus. Only certain political factions ignore linguistics and pretend that genus and sexus are the same.

You can find not only the Generisches Maskulinum (generic male form), but also generic female and generic neutral forms (Generisches Femininum und Generisches Neutrum).

For example, your boss can be:

  • Der Chef (generic male form)
  • Die Führungskraft (generic female form)
  • Das Chefchen (dimunitive neutral form, insulting, not recommended, used here only as an example for generic neutral)

We even have examples of generally male or female persons marked with generic forms of a genus not identical to their sexus. "Das Mädchen" is always a girl, but grammatical neutral ("sächlich"), because all dimunitive forms are neutral in German.

Or if you're talking about the soldier guarding the gate at the barracks, the German word is "die Wache" - generic female form, despite until recently there were no female soldiers.

So if you want to express yourself gender neutral but also grammatically correct, the best you can do is vary the words you use and it is likely that you will sometimes hit upon a generic male, sometimes a generic female and sometimes a generic neutral form.

It is wrong to state the the default is always male. It is not. "Die Person" (female), "die Fachkraft" (female), "das Personal" (neutral), etc.

If you can't find a generic female form for something, you can always see if you can use a plural form, because all plurals are grammatically female in German. It is "der Mann" (obviously), but "die Männer" (female!)

If the fact that we give a female genus to a group of men (btw. "die Gruppe", female) doesn't make it clear that the whole "generic male form is chauvinism" is pure rhetoric, I don't know what does.

  • You are formally correct ;-). – Peter A. Schneider Aug 7 at 6:57
  • 1
    Person, Fürhrung-/Fachkraft, Koryphäe und einige andere, bzw. Mitglied, um eine sächliche Bezeichnung zu nennen, die keine Verkleinerungsform ist, tanzen in der Tat aus der Reihe, sind aber seltene Ausnahmen. Weniger selten dagegen im Tierreich (die Katze, die Maus, das Reh, ...), das ja auch biologisches Geschlecht kennt. Dass der Plural (die Männer) aber feminin sei ist Quatsch. Das ist einfach ein Plural-die (-sie), kein femininer Artikel. Ebenso ist die höfliche Form 2. Person, Singular/Plural "Sie können reinkommen" nicht weiblich, nur weil die dritte Person, Singular ebenfalls "sie" ist. – user unknown Aug 7 at 14:44
  • @userunknown Es gibt Sprachwissenschaftler, die das so sehen wie ich, etwa André Meinunger (Institut für Germanistik an der Universität Wien). Mag sein, dass es da auch andere Meinungen gibt, aber ich kann meine zumindest damit stützen. (English speakers: userunknown claims the plural isn't actually female, I point to a scientist who supports my position) – Tom Aug 8 at 5:13
  • So, so. Und was ist seine Begründung? Hast Du einen Link zu einem Paper? Ist das durch eine Form von Peerreview gegangen? So wie die Grievancestudies youtu.be/kVk9a5Jcd1k oder die Hogwarts an der Oder spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/uni/… ? Kannst Du erklären, wieso es nicht umgekehrt ist, also nicht der Plural feminin, sondern das Femininum plural ist? Wieso sticht das eine das andere? Ein Appell an die Überzeugungskraft der Autorität genügt mir nicht. – user unknown Aug 8 at 8:04
  • Meine konkrete Quelle ist ein Welt-Artikel: welt.de/print/wams/wissen/article117793173/… -- ansonsten ist mein Interesse an Linguistik nicht im Bereich der Gender-Studies, daher keine Seiten von Primärquellen. Ich bin hier damit fertig zu sagen: Es gibt unterschiedliche Positionen, auch unter denen, die Sprache lehren. – Tom Aug 8 at 9:31
6

As others said there is an old (but since the 1980s highly questioned) tradition using the generic masculine (Generisches Maskulinum) when adressing a group of people of mixed gender.

But from my point of view that's completely irrelevant for this question, because you are talking about one person in particular. Your colleague is female and therefore the only option is

Diese Funktionalität wurde, mit Hilfe einer Kollegin, implementiert.

Calling her a Kollege the reader will assume she's male. Do you want that? Why do you want to use a "neutral" expression? I think that's rude.

I know it's all about context; and if you insist a gender neutral way you should switch to another really neutral expression like

Diese Funktionalität wurde, mit Hilfe einer weiteren im Unternehmen angestellten Person, implementiert.

  • But when you use the second variant, you may get accused of trying to hide the fact that the helping person is female. Whatever you do, there’s always room for allegations… – Holger Aug 7 at 6:46
  • Das ist Humbug. Du würdest auch nicht schreiben "Die Funktionalität wurde mit Hilfe eines männlichen Kollegen implementiert", also schreibst Du auch nicht "mit Hilfe einer Kollegin", wenn es eine Frau war. Außer Du willst unterstreichen, dass es eine Frau war, was aber ausdrücklich ausgeschlossen worden ist. Es wäre also sexistisch hier das Geschlecht des helfenden Kollegen hervorzuheben. – user unknown Aug 7 at 14:52
  • 3
    Nein, ich würde Kollege schreiben, wenn es ein Kollege war und Kollegin, wenn es eine Kollegin war. Dass Kollegin von einigen Menschen alleine schon als sexistische Hervorhebung interpretiert werden könnte zeigt einen Teil des ganzen Problems. Genausogut könnte man als als deskriminierend ansehen das Geschlecht zu verbergen oder gar potentiell ins Gegenteil zu verkehren. Will ich (aus welchen Gründen auch immer, wie hier gefordert) eine wirklich neutrale Bezeichnung verwenden, würde ich eine alternative, unzweideutige Formulierung wählen. Auch auf die Gefahr hin umständlich zu klingen. – mtwde Aug 7 at 15:36
5

It is not part of the German language, nor has it to my knowledge been proposed, that masculine forms are default forms in the sense that you can use them to introduce a referent you know to be female.

When introducing a referent and given a choice between masculine and feminine forms, listeners expect the masculine form to refer to a male individual and the feminine form to a female one. In your examples, listeners will assume you are talking about a man, which is not what you want to communicate.

This is one reason why forms such as the well-known Kollegx are being proposed – they would add a capability to the language that it does not have (a need that can only increase if the rejection of gender binarism keeps growing).

All the debates about non-discriminatory language have always been about what to do when one wants to refer to person whose gender is unknown, or a non-specific individual, or a mixed group. This is were the differences of opinion lie. But you are not talking about such a case.

  • 2
    If I hear the word "Zugfahrer" I don't think about a male train conductor but rather about the profession. And what I want to communicate is completely independent from the gender so I want a neutral expression. This is about a strictly objective use of words. If you address a group of people you use the masculine form: "Meine Kollegen sind nett." as "Meine Kolleginnen sind nett" implies that there are only females . – GittingGud Aug 6 at 8:52
  • 2
    This is what I mention in the last paragraph – if you are talking about either a mixed group (plural) or a non-specific individual or person whose gender is unknown (singular), this is different from the example you introduced where you are talking about a specific female colleague. – David Vogt Aug 6 at 10:05
  • 1
    @userunknown Daß man sich mit "Kollege" wie im Beispiel des Fragestellers auf eine konkrete weibliche Person beziehen kann, ist empirisch falsch. Die Antworten von infinitezero und mtwde stimmen darin mit mir überein (während die anderen Antworten größtenteils das Spezifikum der Frage, nämlich den Bezug auf eine konkrete weibliche Person, ignorieren). – David Vogt Aug 7 at 17:32
  • 1
    Ich wiederhole, ohne weitere theoretische Bemühungen, noch einmal den Gedanken: Welcher Muttersprachler würde den Satz ich schätze den Kollegen sehr je in Bezug auf eine Frau äußern? – David Vogt Aug 10 at 7:17
  • 1
    Natürlich kann man dem Hörer verheimlichen, daß man von einer Frau spricht, indem man diese als "Kollege" einführt. Dies würde ein Hörer, wenn ihm die Täuschung bewußt würde, aber nicht als "neutral" empfinden, sondern eben als Täuschung. Die Form Kollegin wird von Sprechern des Deutschen im genannten Kontext nicht als "Betonung des Geschlechts" verstanden. – David Vogt Aug 11 at 2:01
0

German is awkward in that often just the male form is applied when indicating a position or function but almost all terms are very gender-specific when applied to individuals. The so/so area where there is a bit of personal choice left is when very strongly referring to an official rank or designation, like "in ihrer Funktion als Sicherheitsbeauftragter unserer Firma hat Frau Müller ...". This can swing arguably either way. Without the extra stress and isolation of function/position "Als Sicherheitsbeauftragter unserer Firma hat Frau Müller" is already borderline offensive and "Unser Sicherheitsbeauftragter Frau Müller" is quite unacceptable.

As a generic task description "Es ist Aufgabe des Sicherheitsbeauftragten, ..." the male form is customary. There is a tendency to coin new terms that are intentionally neutral in grammatic as well as actual gender, so "die Putzfrau" has become "die Reinigungskraft" which has grammatic female gender but no implied natural gender, so "unsere Reinigungskraft Herr Maier" is perfectly standard and inconspicuous use of the female grammatic gender while "unsere Putzfrau Herr Maier" would be considered extremely derogatory even while "unsere Putzfrau Frau Müller" was considered quite normal.

Language perception and logic in this corner of German language are not highly related and it is a moving target that partly is addressed not by trying to change how terms are being interpreted but rather by coining new terms that do not carry the same kind of gender implications as the ingrained terms happen to do.

Discplaimers of the "when I am using gender-specific terms, this does not imply exclusion of members of other genders" kind were employed a few decades ago but are not really considered desirable any more as they can be seen as "you may make it into my workplace but not into my language".

In the examples you gave, it would be quite offensive not to use a female form (namely "Kollegin") to refer to the specific person: "Kollege" means a specific person here. You can write "wurde mit Kollegenhilfe implementiert" (and "Kolleginnenhilfe" would sound like awkward gender speech since it drags an individual into a context where a class is implied) but not "mit Hilfe eines Kollegen": that would require to be "mit Hilfe einer Kollegin" since it refers to a particular individual rather than a class of people.

So the language currently is undergoing tectonic movement in that area and you can expect to easily trigger eruptions. Check back in a few hundred years.

  • When referring to a specific individual, most Germans would use the specific genus, not the generic one. They would say "unsere Sicherheitsbeauftragte Frau Müller" in all sentences in your first paragraph. For the 2nd paragraph you are right. – Tom Aug 7 at 10:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.