I noticed that while Arzt has a female equivalent, Ärztin, the female equivalent of Doktor seems conspicuously absent. The DWDS usage database does list examples of Doktorin in "die Zeit" going all the way back to 1947, but it's use continues to be rare and sporadic. It seems to be more popular in the spoken language though, judging by its appearances in subtitles. While Doktorin does have an entry in German and English Wiktionary, it's missing from DWDS. I won't ask people to speculate on why, but I was wondering if Doktorin shows signs of catching on, dying out or is it just treading water. Would it seem odd or normal to call a female Ph.D. der Doktor and if you did would she give you a nasty look? Is there a gender neutral word that's replacing both terms?

PS. Based on the answers I refined my searches to get a better understanding of what's being used. First, I restricted the search to 1998 and later to remove any mid-twentieth century style sexism. Then to eliminate the form of address vs. description issue I searched separately for Herr/Frau Dr./Doktor and Doktor/Doktorin der; almost everything you can get a doctorate in is feminine (somewhat ironically), so der should cover most descriptions of the form "Doctor of X". With the Herr vs. Frau searches the ratios were about the same as the ratios for Males vs. Females getting Ph.D.'s; see David Vogt's comment under one of the answers. For the -or der vs. -orin der results the ratio is much higher in favor of -or. I originally had the impression that Doktorin was more common in the subtitle corpus, but now I think that's incorrect.

For what it's worth, I did find a specific example where a female Ph.D. is called Doktor. It's from the series "Terra Nova" which I recently watched so I remembered who it was about. The quote is about Elisabeth Shannon, mother of three and one of the main characters, and the original English, from a fansite, is

... doctor of science in immunology, bacteriology and, couple other "ologies" I can't even pronounce.

The subtitles render this as

Doktor der Immunologie, Bakteriologie und... ein paar anderen Ologien, die ich nicht mal aussprechen kann.

Perhaps the translator didn't know the context and assumed male, but it seems unlikely.

  • Would it seem odd or normal to call a female Ph.D. der Doktor and if you did would she give you a nasty look? Odd, and possibly yes; more likely she will correct your grammar. – smcs Mar 11 at 15:15
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    For what it's worth: The Austrian ministry of education, science and research says the following: "Absolventinnen, denen früher ein akademischer Grad in der männlichen Form verliehen worden ist, sind berechtigt, den Grad in der weiblichen Form zu führen. Im privaten Bereich kann auch ein geschlechtsspezifischer Zusatz (z.B. „Dr.in“) geführt werden." – Heinzi Mar 11 at 15:54
  • @Heinzi: Interesting. One the one hand it's good to see Doktorin is getting government support. On the other hand it's a bit scary that the government felt it was any of their business. It kind of implies that before they stepped in you had to use the exact word on your diploma or risk fraud charges. I guess enough people commit diploma inflation that they need to worry about that kind of thing, but it doesn't seem like adding an -in would count. – RDBury Mar 11 at 16:35
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    @RDBury: Oh, we Austrians just love (a) our titles and (b) to regulate things. Sonst könnte sich ja ein jeder Hofrat nennen, und wo kämen wir denn da hin... – Heinzi Mar 11 at 17:06
  • Good question! Doktor comes from the Latin doctor (and is used in this form in many languages). The female Latin form is doctrix, but that sounds somewhat weird. But have a look at this article from 2000. You see that things have changed in the last 20 years ;-) – Paul Frost Mar 12 at 0:57

It depends:

  • When emphasizing the degree of an individual woman, e.g. by using it as synonym for her name in a newspaper article, Doktorin is completely fine and stylistically better in my ears:

Katrin Müller hat ein neues Buch veröffentlicht: Die Doktorin der Rechte beschreibt die Entwicklung des Völkerrechts aus einer diskursanalytischen Perspektive. (made-up example)

To say Katrin Müller, der Doktor der Rechte, would appear plain wrong to me, and I'm sure that most native speakers wouldn't intuitively make the connection between der Doktor and Katrin Müller, because we are talking about a female individual here.

  • For the degree itself, however -- especially if used in an address together with Frau -- Doktor is still much more common:

Guten Tag, Frau Doktor Müller!

  • NB: spoken as 'Doktor', but written virtually always 'Dr.'

Nach Abschluss der Promotion erlangt man den Doktor (=den Doktorgrad).

Frau Müller macht ihren Doktor. (colloquially for 'Ms. Müller gets her Ph.D.'; not possible: ihre Doktorin).

Note that Doktor is thus used for all addresses and the Ph.D. degree itself, while Doktorin is as of now just used regularly to refer to an individual woman with that degree.

Those different usage scenarios explain the biggest part of the different frequencies of Doktor and Doktorin when looking at frequency charts/plots.

When considering the scenario of my first example (where Doktorin would be used) only, another important point to take into account is the relative frequency of male and female doctors itself. Of course in a time with a lot more male doctors, Doktorin was even more uncommon for the few women with a Ph.D.; but even if the form would have been used exclusively in such cases for female doctors, you would still have seen it much less in the last decades.

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    Doktorin is very rare. This cannot be explained by the fact that there are fewer women than men with a doctorate (the ratio of men to women seems to be about 1.84:1, see destatis.de). – David Vogt Mar 11 at 14:26
  • @David Vogt: Thanks, I don't know what the ratio is in the US but about 2 to 1 sounds plausible. When you restrict the usage database search to Herr Doktor/Dr. vs. Frau Doktor/Dr. you get about the same ratios. But when you restrict to Doktor der vs. Doktorin der the ratio jumps to about 20 to 1. I looked at the last 20 years of data only (starting 1998). – RDBury Mar 11 at 16:18
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    The point about using Frau Doktor instead of Frau Doktorin seemed important enough that I went ahead and added it to the Wiktionary entry. Also, whether Doktorin would sound idiomatic or artificially politically correct was a big part of my question. – RDBury Mar 11 at 16:51
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    @DavidVogt No, according to my answer, the discrepancy of the forms Doktor and Doktorin is best explained by the fact that Doktor is used for both genders in addresses, and as name for the degree, while Doktorin is only used to talk about a individual woman that has an Ph.D. One would need to isolate the context where Doktorin is applicable and then compare how often Doktor and Doktorin is used in that situation. In a sentence like I gave as first example, Der Doktor der Rechte would sound odd to me to refer to Karin Müller. I guess many readers wouldn't make the connection. – amadeusamadeus Mar 11 at 17:40
  • @RDBury So I hope it came across that in the first example, Doktorin is definitely more idiomatic, while in virtually all other cases like addresses and talking about the degree, Doktor is used -- which explains the big frequency discrepancy. When Doktorin is used for the latter, the femaleness would sound prominently emphasized. In the cases where Doktorin is applicable (difficult to isolate for statistical purposes), I'm sure it is only as rare or as common as women with a Ph.D. were at a given time compared to men plus how equally they were perceived in media and society. – amadeusamadeus Mar 11 at 18:21

The main reason seems to me that, differently from other languages, there are very few contexts in which we would refer to a person as "der Doktor" or "die Doktorin" in German. In these few circumstances, Doktorin does get used. When we talk about an MD, we will say "der Arzt" oder "die Ärztin", and non-medical doctors are most likely refered to by their name or position ("Frau [Doktor] Maier", "die Direktorin", "der Lehrer"), not the word Doktor or Doktorin.

Doktor is almost exclusively used when addressing someone ("Frau Doktor Maier"), as part of a name ("Frau Doktor Maier"), or when talking about the title itself in the sense of doctorate ("Frau Maier hat einen Doktor in Biologie" or "Frau Maier ist Doktorin der Biologie"). In many contexts, it has fallen out of fashion to even mention the doctorate ("Frau Maier").

When used as part of the name or when addressing the person, the female form isn't used. A possible reason could be that, other than e.g. in English, the standard way to use the title would be Herr/Frau Doktor ..., as in "Herr Doktor Mayer" or "Frau Doktor Maier", so the gender is acknowledged with the Herr/Frau anyway. In a medical doctor's office or hospital, an MD in charge might also sometimes be referred to as "der Herr Doktor" or "die Frau Doktor". "Doktor Mayer" without Herr/Frau is also in use, but for female doctors it would more frequently be "Frau Doktor Maier" than "Doktorin Maier".

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    '... almost never just "Doktor Mayer"' I don't think that's true at all, I hear this form quite a lot, similarly to how people will often just say "Professor X" instead of "Herr/Frau Professor/in". – Peter Mar 11 at 14:09
  • @Peter: in what context? Also for women or only for men? Medical or otherwise? – HalvarF Mar 11 at 16:43
  • Both academic and medical, usually for men, i.e. my physician will call people with doctorates into his office like that and people tend to refer to medical doctors and academics like that when talking about them. I.e. "Wer ist dein Hausarzt? Doktor X". "Wer hält die heute Vorlesung? Professor Y". Although I would always add Herr/Frau when i.e. composing a mail to such a person. – Peter Mar 11 at 16:49
  • OK, I edited to reflect this better (hopefully). – HalvarF Mar 11 at 17:14

You found one point of a big discussion going on in Germany since some years: a lot of job titles and other German nouns describing humans exist in male and femaly form:

  • Der Doktor / Die Doktorin
  • Der Bürger / Die Bürgerin
  • Der Leser / Die Leserin
  • Der Mitarbeiter / Die Mitarbeiterin

Nevertheless in the past Germans almost exclusively used that male part for addressing both genders.

A lot of women feel discriminated against because of that fact and demand a gender neutral language.

That is why now the female forms are more often used than before.

Actually this question itself is quite dangerous as it might spawn a huge discussion around sensibility of this claim. I thought very long before writing the sentence about the discrimination: some may accuse me of saying: the women only feel that way but they are not really discriminated against. This is not what I meant.

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    Well, yes, but I think the way bigger part of the discussion is about the plural forms and the generic usage (Mitarbeiter/-innen, jede*r Mitarbeiter*in) than about using a form like Doktorin for a specific woman (most argued about is probably Frau Bundeskanzlerin). When talking about specific women, I think there is a comparatively big consensus to find it legitimate if the addressed person prefers the female version to be used. Thus a form like Doktorin is arguably less disputed. – amadeusamadeus Mar 11 at 6:51
  • My impression is the -er suffix seems to accept the -erin variation easily, but the -or suffix is more stubborn. By the way, the 1947 quote from Die Zeit shows that using Doktorin doesn't mean you're free from sexism. It starts Und auch du, kleine Doktorin, ... and continues in the same tone. As if the diploma she was given was drawn in crayon by her mom. It's a product of its time I guess. – RDBury Mar 11 at 8:13

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