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I recently heard a conversation among Austrians arguing that the use of definite articles before proper names (der Thomas, die Julia), a practice particular to Austria, should be eliminated in the interest of gender-neutrality and respect for non-binary gender.

My immediate reaction was: Wouldn’t this be like taking one bucket of water out of the ocean? Why not abolish gendered personal pronouns: er, sie, ihn, ihm, ihr, seine, ihre, …? And if we think it’s problematic to assign genders to humans, why is it not problematic to assign genders to absolutely everything? As a native English speaker, this is the most bewildering and difficult thing when first learning German.

So to put my questions more precisely:

  1. Is there a distinction, philosophically or grammatically, between definite articles and pronouns that explains friends’ position?

  2. Is there really a movement to eliminate gender from the German language to some degree? I am aware of the new proposals for inclusive plurals, but going full gender-neutral seems impossible without throwing out central structures of the language.


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

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  • 3
    Ah, you're opening Pandora's box. This issue (although it could be treated neutrally) always elicits emotional responses. Mostly negative. Hence the call to everyone to behave sensibly. Before you answer or comment on this question, please read our guidelines for questions on gender-neutral language and similar.
    – mtwde
    Aug 8 at 6:40
  • The question shows no research effort.
    – David Vogt
    Aug 8 at 6:56
  • @David Please, I am a novice in German, and I don’t trust my ability to research this thorny issue reliably, which as the first commenter noted is extremely emotionally fraught. I would like a native speaker to kindly guide me in the right direction.
    – mbsq
    Aug 8 at 7:10
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    I thought it was more of a Swiss thing, see my earlier question.
    – RDBury
    Aug 8 at 16:38
  • Aren't people also arguing for those things?
    – user253751
    Aug 10 at 11:29
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Grammatical gender and a person's gender are two different things, but there are areas where they intermingle, and one of them is articles before person names: the gender for the article is in this case directly determined by the gender of the person (die Alex, der Alex, die Angela Merkel, "die Merkel").

Consequently, using an article with a name is only possible if a) you know the gender of the person and b) there is an article for that gender. Thus, this may be deemed problematic by gender neutrality activists in light of nonbinary gender issues. Same is true for personal pronouns and other areas where grammatical gender is directly linked to a person (e.g. "Das ist Julia mit ihrem Auto."). It would be inconsistent to take issue with or avoid "die Julia" but not "Julia und ihr Auto".

However, most articles and pronouns we use don't directly refer to the gender of a person: Der Tisch, die Lampe, das Regal, der Dampfer , die Fregatte, das Schiff, die Person etc., even das Mädchen, have grammatical genders that don't refer to the nature of what they stand for, but their gender is just part of German vocabulary. There are no justice or respect issues linked to these grammatical genders, so they are not linked to the gender justice debate. I'm not aware of any "movement" or discussion of any relevance to abolish grammatical genders that don't directly refer to a person's gender from an existing language for gender justice reasons.

So what's left is the point that abolishing gender would make it easier to learn German as a second language. The solution to such a problem isn't to completely try to change existing languages, which would not work, the solution are linguae francae like English that are worth learning to some level regardless of how complex they are, or maybe artificial languages like Esperanto.

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  • Would it be conceivable that from some deeper critical perspective, grammatical gender is itself problematic even though it seems politically “neutral” from the native speaker’s viewpoint? One might imagine an argument that an obsession with the sexual binary has infected human thought so deeply that the entire language has been bukt to conform to it….
    – mbsq
    Aug 8 at 13:56
  • … has been built….
    – mbsq
    Aug 8 at 14:14
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    @mbsq: This becomes really opinion-based, and for me, I don't agree that the sexual binary is an obsession in that sense. It is a very basic fact of life that there are two genders in mammals with very different roles in reproduction, and to transcend that basic principle and recognize a spectrum of genders in actual individuals is a sign of an advanced civilization's respect to indiviuals, which is good, but it doesn't change the basic fact, and to change a language based on something like that would look Orwellian to me.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 8 at 14:30
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    AFAIK English isn't gender neutral in that regard: "Someone has forgotten his keyring" uses a generic masculinum, too. But since it doesn't adress men only, there is no need for intervention. You have to put wrong assumptions to the language, to make such claims. Aug 8 at 16:15
  • @userunknown English has singular 'they' for that: "Someone has forgotten their keyring."
    – HalvarF
    Aug 8 at 18:22
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Let's step into the minefield ^^.

Is there a distinction, philosophically or grammatically, between definite articles and pronouns that makes sense of my friends’ position?

Regarding the first part of your question, one must first say that the use of an article in front of a first name is a regional peculiarity that in northern Germany can even be taken as an insult.

See this question or this one (in german)

Quoting the second one

Wenn die Lotte und die Rosie Durchfall hatten, musste der Veterinär kommen, denn dann waren die Kühe krank.

If (die) Lotte and (die) Rosie had diarrhea, the vet had to come because then the cows were sick.

But back to your question. You could say your friends are right in a way. Let's say one of your friends was called Klaus-Maria. Always called Maria. Would it be polite to call him "die Maria"? Or is it "der Maria"? And what do you do with you new chinese colleague "Zhenqi", who wrote you an email last week and you never met in person? Man? Woman?

You can apply that to everyone. If you know about a person how they want to be addressed, you can use the corresponding article. In all other cases you could insult them in the worst case. Of course you can roll your eyes and say "We have always done it that way, he/she/it shouldn't make such a fuss." Or you could be considerate.


Is there really a movement to eliminate gender from the German language to some degree?

Well, many (especially those who are against it) say yes, but actually no. It's more about expanding the language. Nothing should be taken away from anyone, but language habits should be broken in order to represent all genders equally. One of the biggest points of contention is the generic masculine, which has been discussed here often enough.

An englisch teacher will always be a german "Lehrer" or "Lehrerin" - and today it's already a "LehrerIn / Lehrer:in / Lehrer*in / etc". In the future it might be possible to translate it as "Lehreron / Lehrerx". Always depending on the context.

Unlike the word "hen", which was officially introduced in Swedish in 2015 - and which has positive effects -, there is no neutral pronoun in German that is generally accepted (yet). However, there are a number of suggestions for gender neutral pronouns

sel, han, dey, em

and articles

dai, dier, del

But, there are also a number of laws and official regulations on gender-equitable language in German-speaking countries. For example the "Leitfaden für gendersensible Sprache bei der Hansestadt Lübeck" says

  • Do not use the general clause “that only the masculine form is used and all other genders are included ”.

  • Avoid role clichés and stereotypes such as mother-child parking lots or diaper-changing room for mothers. The same applies to language images such as need for a man or Milkmaid bill.

  • When using images, make a careful selection under the Asking who you want to reach and how all genders are taken into account can be.

  • Include the 3rd gender option. At the Hanseatic City of Lübeck, in In writing, the gender colon is generally used or formulated in a gender-neutral manner.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a change in society. You can hear gender speech on TV and the news. More and more advertisers are also using it. Twitter users and Bloggers write their preferred pronouns in the profiles. All of these are not yet a complete social change, but indications that we are in this. We don't know what will happen in the end, but something will happen. Whether one side or the other likes it or not.

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  • It’s not about wanting to be considerate or not; it’s just a question about whether the motivations for eliminating definite articles would apply equally to pronouns. I don’t have feelings about it because it’s not my mother tongue.
    – mbsq
    Aug 8 at 14:23
  • Wenn Du Zhenqi auf die Email antwortest, solltest Du "Du" oder "Sie" verwenden. "Er" oder "Sie" hat man nur früher gegenüber Herrschern verwendet. Und nur sehr wenige Twitteruser und Blogger markieren bevorzugte Pronomen, außer natürlich in Debatten zum Thema, da springen sie die, die das für eine gute Idee halten, natürlich verstärkt drauf an, so dass man von diesen Debatten nicht auf die Anzahl schließen darf. Ähnlich dürfte es bei Werbetreibenden sein, wo derartiger Sprachgebrauch auffällt, aber unter dem Verdacht stehen muss, des Auffallens wegen gewählt worden zu sein. Aug 8 at 16:26
  • 1/2 @userunknown In dem Teil der Antwort geht es darum, wie man VON jemandem spricht, nicht wie man MIT jemandem spricht. Werbetreibende machen solche Sachen natürlich nur sehr selten aus altruistischen Motiven und das kann immer Imagepflege sein. aber anscheinend sehen diese einen Markt der groß genug ist und von genug Kunden akzeptiert wird, dass sie die Zahl der Befürworter höher schätzen als die die sich davon vergraulen lassen. Es ist übrigens nicht schwer schnell deutlich mehr als 10.000 deutsche Twitter-Profile zu finden mit der Angabe. Im Verhältnis zu allen wenig, aber eine hohe Zahl
    – mtwde
    Aug 9 at 19:15
  • 2/2 Die meisten auch jünger. Und von diesen gehen in der Regel Sprachwandel, Wortneuschöpfungen und Neuerfindungen aus. Nicht von der alten Generation.
    – mtwde
    Aug 9 at 19:16
  • @mtwde: Jünger als was? Als Du? Was zeigt das? Wie kann eine Zahl im Verhältnis zu allen wenig aber gleichzeitig hoch sein? Wie viele dt. Twitterprofile gibt es denn insgesamt? Werbetreibende müssen gar nicht auf Zustimmung zielen, sondern auf Reichweite. Ein Streit, der in die Medien hochkocht, schafft eine preiswerte Markenpräsenz. Aug 10 at 22:57

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