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Does German have a gender neutral third person pronoun?

In English, there is he/she. However, English does not have a Gender neutral/apathetic pronoun, where a person can be referred to without any context of gender.

Curious if German does? I thought the word is 'sie' but not sure.

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    As controversial as it is to some, English does have the singular they fulfilling that function. Jun 28 at 7:50
  • didn't know that @phipsgabler surprised english didn't come out with a separate word for 'singular' they
    – mattsmith5
    Jun 28 at 16:43
  • @mattsmith5 Well, it's not really a new phenomenon, it has been around for ages. It used to mean no more than 'an unspecified person from presumably a group sharing a characteristic': 'There was someone at the door. They came to collect my signature for a petition.' What happened is merely that use of singular they was expanded.
    – Jan
    Aug 11 at 16:58
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    Sorry, the answer is just no, I'm afraid no bounty will be able to change that. You could ask for the usual workarounds if that's of any help to you.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 11 at 19:14
  • Boyfriend Dungeon uses sier.
    – Carsten S
    Aug 19 at 8:11
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+50

The English word Gender can have two meanings:

  • the way one presents oneself to oneʼs surroundings in terms of male/female/non-binary/others; typically in this meaning it contrasts with the word (biological) sex. This relates to gender identity.
  • a grammatical feature of a noun in certain languages that determines declension of the noun, associated adjectives, the corresponding pronouns etc.; often described as masculine/feminine. To avoid confusion, this is often explicitly called grammatical gender. It does not typically contrast with (biological) sex; rather, gender can apply to nouns where assigning a biological sex is not sensible.

The answer to your question depends on which meaning of gender you intended to use.

If you were talking about grammatical gender, the answer is: Technically the neuter pronoun es functions as one, as it is neuter, not masculine or feminine. However, this would not be a reasonable question, as the grammatical gender unambiguously requires exactly one type of pronoun. Compare the following sentences:

Siehst du das Kind? Es spielt im Sandkasten.

Siehst du den Buben? Er spielt im Sandkasten.

Siehst du die Schwester? Sie spielt im Sandkasten.

But:

Siehst du das Mädchen? Es spielt im Sandkasten.

Using the examples above, it should become obvious that there is only one grammatically correct choice per word and it does not have to conform to the biological sex or the gender identity of the person in question. To further prove this, allow me to present the following three examples which could all be used to reference the same person (assume a chess club as the setting):

Der Mensch, der an Brett 2 mit Schwarz gespielt hat, hat seinen Geldbeutel vergessen.

Die Person, die an Brett 2 mit Schwarz gespielt hat, hat ihren Geldbeutel vergessen.

Das Mitglied, das an Brett 2 mit Schwarz gespielt hat, hat seinen Geldbeutel verloren.

(In the third example, neuter seinen happens to have the same form as masculine seinen.)

If you were talking about social gender (or gender identities), then no, German does not have a commonly used word that functions as a non-binary or gender-neutral third-person pronoun unlike English where singular they is (and has been) in common use. I seem to recall having read about a couple of people who attempted to introduce gender-neutral third person pronouns; however, unlike the use of they in English I have not come across any option ʻin the wildʼ in any meaningful degree.

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  • Ich verstehe das "aber" nicht. Etymologisch ist (das) "Mädchen" das Diminutiv von (die) "Magd". (das) "Bübchen" und (das) "Schwesterchen" wären genauso Neutrum.
    – danzel
    Sep 16 at 22:44
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English does not have a Gender neutral/apathetic pronoun

As far as I am concerned, there is: "they"

In the German language, we have the genus "es" (meaning "it") but it's rarely used in that context. We don't have a native word like "they", however, some suggested the use of "sie*er" or shortened as "sier" but that is still pretty new and non-standard.

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In German, we have 3 genders in language: männlich, weiblich and sächlich.

  • Der Löffel
  • Die Gabel
  • Das Messer

Many people confuse the gender of a word with the sex of a person, if the word denotes a person. This lead to pseudo scientific theories about the language and political policies, which don't fit to the rest of the language, while it often seems, as if it fits.

But note: "Das Weib" uses the gender sächlich, while the person is 100% female, and "Das Mädchen" is 100% female, too.

"Das Mitglied" uses the sächlich gender, too, while the sex of the Mitglied is either male or female but the sex might be unknown or of no significance.

"Die Person" is female, but regularly used for male persons without further ado.

But all those exceptions are ignored by those, who insists, that the gender of a word has to match the gender of the person, if a person is involved, and both genders, male AND female, have to be used, if the sex is unknown or both sexes are addressed.

"Sie" is a female word (if not used as the general plural: Drei Männer treiben Sport; sie tanzen. Drei Frauen treiben Sport; sie spielen Fußball. Drei Hühner gackern; sie schauen zu).

Die Koryphäe in Computerfragen, Donald Knuth, wird auf der Konferenz sprechen.

The word "Koryphäe" is female, while the person is male.

Die Reinigungskraft war heute nicht pünklich.

We don't know anything about the sex of the cleaning person.

Der Matheprofessor ist noch nicht benannt.

We don't know anything about the sex of the math teacher.

Der Krieg ist die Mutter aller Dinge (not Clausewitz, who used "Vater").

The gender of Krieg is male, but of Mutter, it is female. So you have to change the gender so that it fits to the word, you use.

The word "Person" itself is of female gender, so it is always "die Person", while most generic forms, like "Polizist, Schwimmer, Asiate" are male in the neutral form.

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    "Der Krieg ist das genderneutrale Elternteil alle Dinge" geht auf Heraklit zurück. Jun 27 at 22:58
  • ok, thanks for the info, so there is no answer in the German language?
    – mattsmith5
    Jun 28 at 1:20
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    @mattsmith5 exactly, ther is no gender neutral pronoun for persons like the English "they". We have to find a different way of putting it, like using "Person" oder "er oder sie" or similar.
    – HalvarF
    Jun 28 at 7:19
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    @mattsmith5: German pronouns match the noun previously used to describe the person or thing they refer to. So if a feminine noun was used, you use a feminine pronoun for a male person and so on. The pronoun gender does not indicate the gender of a person. Only context does.
    – Janka
    Jun 28 at 13:37
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    @HalvarF: Oh! Thanks, I was very confused - I had thought "Professorin" was not a word and one was forced to use "Professor" even in reference to an actual female person. My intended question, then, was how the discussion typically plays out, in terms of pronouns or gender clarification, when the discussion is of an actual person and there is only one choice of gender for the word initially used to describe the person - e.g., a male teacher described as a "Lehrkraft" (I assume there is no male version of such a word).
    – cruthers
    Aug 13 at 14:54
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sie

Since German pronoun sie translates to both, singular feminine she and plural indeterminate they in English, it’s rather unlikely that something very much like indeterminate “singular they” in English will ever develop in German.

es

Relative pronoun

However, unlike English it, it’s perfectly normal to use the German neuter relative pronoun es to refer to people – but only if they have been referenced by a neuter noun before, e.g. Mädchen, Weib, Opfer. This used to be more common and could be continued throughout many sentences. Nowadays, personal pronouns may always – and usually do – agree with the natural gender instead of the grammatical gender (where they do not align with each other anyway).

Personal pronoun

As a personal pronoun that directly (deictically) references a single third natural person and not a noun or name within the cotext, the grammatical genders masculine and feminine must match the assumed natural genders (i.e. sexes) male and female, respectively.

er

Etymologically, pronouns and nouns with masculine grammatical gender primarily referred to concrete, individual subjects and feminine ones to abstract, collectives objects. Hence, the personal interrogative pronoun, whether the gender is unknown or not, is wer? – and wie? is already occupied by the modal interrogative pronoun.

Synchronically, this observation is becoming less and less relevant, but still, masculine inflection is the default and so is relation.

This means that one may use er (and respective masculine relative pronouns der, dieser, welcher, jener) as a generic personal pronoun in some cases where the gender is unknown, unknowable or unimportant. In most cases this would require also using masculine nouns that have feminine derivates (often with an -in suffix) in close proximity, which is now often frowned upon. If one of the many more gender-inclusive phrasal alternatives is used, the pronouns need to be adjusted as well, e.g. er/sie, er_sie, er*sie or sie/er, sometimes (but rarely) contracted to the neologism *sier or *siEr.

man(d)

The usual general personal pronoun in German is man. It never refers to a concrete individual but to general concepts. It's also visible slightly altered in niemand (“nobody”, “noöne”) and jemand (“somebody”, “someone”). This can be used in a gender-neutral way, although it is homophonous and etymologically related to Mann (“man”, “male”).

Hypothetically, it could be extended to singular words for “everyone” / “everybody”, e.g. *allmand or *jedmand, since alle is plural. Other neologisms would be feasible then, e.g. *domand or diesmand for “this one”.

wo

In some Southern dialects of German, wo can be used as a relative pronoun to refer to people (cf. “who”). In the standard register, however, it is only valid for local references (“where”).

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I think you have wrong assumptions about grammatical gender. Grammatical gender is a grammatical feature, not a biological. German nouns have a grammatical gender. People don't. People have a biological sexus. Normally biological sexus and grammatical gender match, but there are also many exceptions.

The most prominent exception is the noun »Mädchen« which is a neuter (not neutral!) noun but it means »girl«:

Das Mädchen ist schön. Es hat langes Haar.
The girl is beautiful. She has long hair.

As you can see, in German it is perfectly normal to often use the neuter pronoun »es« to refer to a female person. The grammatical gender of the noun that a pronoun refers to, in this case "das Mädchen", takes precedence over the sexus/gender of the person.

English nouns do not have any gender. So, in English, pronouns can't refer to the grammatical gender of a noun. Instead they refer to the sexus of the person or thing that is named by the noun. This is a different mechanism than in German. And if this person or thing doesn't have a biological gender, you use the pronoun »they« or »it« in English. In German we don't care about the biological sexus of people when we use pronouns. We care about the grammatical gender of nouns.

I give you another example to make it more clear: In German you can use these three noun for an old shabby limousine:

  • das Auto (neuter)
    This is the standard-translation for "the car" and matches for any car, including old shabby limousines.
  • der Wagen (masculine)
    The original meaning was "carriage" or "wagon" but since there are cars, it also is used as a synonym for "Auto", especially when the car is bigger, so German »Wagen« fits well for a limousine.
  • die Karre (feminine)
    The original meaning was "cart", "barrow" or "trolley" but it also is another synonym for "Auto", especially when the car is rusty, old and shabby.

So, for a shabby and rusty limousine you can use all three nouns:

neuter noun needs neuter pronoun: Das Auto ist alt. Es ist rostig.
masculine noun needs masculine pronoun: Der Wagen ist alt. Er ist rostig.
feminine noun needs feminine pronoun: Die Karre ist alt. Sie ist rostig.


What does this mean for your question?

German doesn't have any gender-neutral words. Each word has one of these three grammatical genders:

  • neuter - Das Auto (car), das Messer (knife), das Mädchen (girl), das Weib (woman, wixen), das Kind (child), das Genie (genius)
  • maskuline - Der Wagen (big car), der Löffel (spoon), der Mann (man), der Champion (champion)
  • feminine - Die Karre (shabby car), die Gabel (fork), die Frau (woman), die Koryphäe (expert)

So, when ever you talk about a person, you have to use a noun to describe this person, and any pronoun you use must have the same grammatical gender as this noun. This is even true if the noun itself is not said or written. This may lead to ambiguous situations, where it is not really clear, which pronoun to use, and to use a pronoun that matches to the biological sexus is often a good idea in such a situation. But still if you do so, the pronoun in fact matches to a noun that is in the mind of the speaker, even if they don't use this noun.

Example:

A person, about 5 years old, with pigtails, wearing a pink dress, playing with a doll and named »Emma« by the other persons in the room hits her leg and starts crying. Someone who watches the scene could say:

Es hat sich verletzt.

So you know, the speaker refers to a neuter noun when they think about this person. This might be »das Mädchen« (the girl) oder »das Kind« (the child) which are both neuter nouns, also the person is female.

Another example:

In German you could say:

Die Koryphäe weis mehr als alle anderen über dieses Fachgebiet.

Although the noun die Koryphäe is a feminine noun, this does not mean, that the person meant by this word has to be female. Also a male person can be eine Koryphäe. The same is true for the masculine noun »der Champion« this can be a female or a male person.

Das Genie ist heute bei und zu Gast. Es hält einen Vortrag über Quantenkryptographie.

The word »das Genie« is neuter. It can mean a female or a male person.


Another situation is when you don't know the biological sexus of a person. Also in this case you have to use a pronoun that matches with with the noun you use to discribe this person:

In der dunklen Nische stand eine vermummte Gestalt. Gleich darauf verschwand sie.
A hooded figure stood in the dark alcove. Immediately after that they disappeared.

Here you have to use sie because this pronoun refers to the noun »Gestalt« which is a feminine noun. But the reader still doesn't know the biological sexus of this hooded figure. In English you have to use the singular they in such a case, because in English you always refer to the biological sexus of a person, but when you don't know it, you can't use he or she, so you use they.


Some exceptions:

  1. Since about 1970/1980 German speaking people more and more begin to use pronouns that match with the biological sexus if a word refers to a person and the grammatical gender of the noun and the biological sexus differ, and since about 20 years it no longer is considered to be wrong:

    • was always correct and still is correct:

      Das Mädchen ist schön. Es hat langes Haar.
      The girl is beautiful. She has long hair.

    • also correct since about 2000:

      Das Mädchen ist schön. Sie hat langes Haar.

  2. There are some German words that have two genders. See this list. That means, that you can choose a gender, but once you have chosen one, you should stick with it.

    But there is no Gernan noun without any gender. This is impossible in German. (In English every noun has no grammatical gender.)

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    "As you can see, in German we use the neuter pronoun »es« to refer to a female person ..." is misleading.
    – Olafant
    Aug 9 at 11:50
  • @Olafant: No, it's not, because it clearly is within the context of the noun »Mädchen« which can't be overseen if you read the whole sentence: "As you can see, in German we use the neuter pronoun »es« to refer to a female person, because in German grammar the pronoun has to have the same grammatical gender as the noun to which it refers." Aug 9 at 13:22
  • Ok. If you don't want to make it clear: it's your post not mine. -1
    – Olafant
    Aug 10 at 0:38
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    I tried to clarify. Please edit or revert if you don't agree with my wording.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 12 at 19:03
  • Leider ist "Mädchen" ein denkbar schlechtes Beispiel weil es das Diminutiv von "Magd" ist. Daraus lassen sich keine Aussagen wie "it is perfectly normal to often use the neuter pronoun »es« to refer to a female person" ableiten.
    – danzel
    Sep 16 at 23:08
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As a German teacher in the US, I had to think about a possible solution replacing the German pronouns er/sie (he/she) for my students, since here it is officially they/their. I came up with Euer.

I have students that are gender neutral, but also a new student whose appear and first name gave me no clue of they's gender. Having a German pronoun "they" for both genders would be wonderful and so convienient. No more uncomfortable situations! But everything that I researched so far makes it too difficult for me to speak. Obviously there is no agreement yet, I need a solution for next year teaching.

At least for he/she, his/her, him, ... - articles and endings for professions is a different chapter. I think that I will just use Euer for now instead of he or she, his or her, etc. - since EUER was once used it doesn't feel so odd to me when speaking or playing "Guess Who".

I hope Euer is able to cover all of our 4 cases - will find out ... but I think Euer could be helpful just to get around for now, to avoid an uncomfortable situation if I had to guess a gender preference of a student or if one asks what "they" is translated into German.

One thought about "Sie" ("you" used for unfamiliar adults) or "sie" for 2 or more persons, it is the feminine form for all - any thoughts on this?

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    While I share your desire for a good German translation of singular "they", using "euer" feels very wrong to me. It's second person possessive to me. I don't have a better suggestion though.
    – Arno
    Aug 4 at 19:52
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    If you teach German as a second language, please don't do this. It's fine to be inventive but not helpful to your students. After all, no native speaker would understand this as it is not an accepted approach in their language.
    – Roland
    Aug 5 at 6:34
  • Could you elaborate on “since EUER was once used”?
    – Carsten S
    Aug 5 at 8:55
  • It is possible that he is reffering to the Pluralis Majestatis, where one referres to someone royal in the second person plural. It is simmilar to the "royal we", but in contrast to the English language where "royal we" is used by e.g. the king/queen, Pluralis Majestatis is also used by someone speaking to or about said royal.
    – Malik
    Aug 6 at 7:15
  • Das Plural sie und die Höflichkeitsform Sie sind nicht feminin, sondern Plural bzw. Höflichkeitsform. Aug 17 at 2:23

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