Language plays an important role in every-day teaching. Whether spoken, in form of texts, or as body language, it is the main form of communication for teaching. Language creates relationships between people. It transports norms, ideas and connotations and thus shapes our consciousness. It is easier for us to imagine things for which we have words. The way reality is described – be it a person or a job – has a strong influence on how we perceive this reality, ourselves and what we are capable of achieving.
As most of the vocabulary and grammatical aspects we call attention to refer specifically to the German language, we have have left most of the examples in German. If you are teaching in English, we recommend the Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language.
Three good reasons to use gender- and diversity conscious language:
In Germany, there are legal guidelines for the use of gender-neutral language. For example, equal treatment of women and men in language is recorded in the Rules of Procedure (Gemeinsame Geschäftsordnung) for Berlin administration (GGO I, § 2 Abs. 2). Freie Universität Berlin has pledged to employing gender-neutral language in its 1990 Guidelines for the Promotion of Women (Frauenförderrichtlinien) (FFR, § 29 Abs.2). In the context of the General Law on Equal Treatment (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz) (AGG §3), it is possible to take legal action against discriminatory language.
A single correct solution for gender- and diversity conscious language does not exist. In the following, you will discover what you can look out for, and will learn about different possibilities for using language in a creative way that will include all addressees. Using language in a skillful and inclusive way has a lot to do with routine and becomes easier with time.
In the German language, the so-called “generic masculine” (generisches Maskulinum) is commonly used in order to address everyone. However, when the masculine form is used exclusively, this can often create the impression that only men are addressed. Furthermore, in German the masculine has precedence in the plural. Luise F. Pusch describes this in the sentence “99 Sängerinnen und ein Sänger sind zusammen 100 Sänger“ (Pusch 1990, translated as: “99 (female) singers and one (male) singer are 100 (male) singers together“). It has also been empirically proven that the impression of reality created by the “generic masculine” does not consistently include women (Stefanowitsch 2011, Vervecken Hannover 2015)
This is problematic because women and their achievements are made invisible through this use of language. Especially when it comes to naming role models and those who play an important part in society, specifically in research and universities, it is essential to word things exactly.
In the following, you will find a selection of gender conscious alternatives to the German „generic masculine“:
Wording sentences in a gender-neutral or open way:
A useful and economical way to word sentences in a gender conscious way in German is the use of participles and adjectives used as nouns. In particular, these are easy to use in the plural. For the singular, we recommend other forms.
Many people cannot or do not want to classify themselves under the norm of only two genders, and appellations or greetings such as “Bewerberinnen und Bewerber” do not correctly address them. In German, the underscore (Gender-Gap) or the asterisk open the possibility not only to make men and women visible, but also transgender and intersex people and all those societal positions that exist beyond female and male genders. Both forms are spoken with a “glottal stop”, a brief pause, where the underscore or the asterisk is.
Another way to refer to people without making an assumption about their gender is to refer to the function in which the person is active. Not only can this be done by naming the existing function, but German also offers the possibility of using suffixes such as “-kraft”, “-hilfe”, “-ung”, “-leute”.
When writing or speaking exclusively about women, this should be made clear. The gender of the noun and the person it describes should grammatically coincide.
Examples in German:
When addressing women as well as men, this should also be made explicit, instead of merely implying that women are included.
Examples in German:
Other shorter alternatives when speaking about women and men are the forms with a forward slash or the “Binnen-I”. The “Binnen-I” is used to mark a feminine ending added on to a noun. The feminine endings of nouns in German are built with a -in in the singular, or -innen in the plural. The so called “Binnen-I”, or interior I, capitalizes the first letter -i of these feminine endings and thus serves to make the feminine ending visible in the noun. A noun with a “Binnen-I” then included both male and female addresses.
The forward slash and the “Binnen-I” are suitable both in writing and speech. A “glottal stop”, or brief pause, marks them when speaking. In speech, these forms cannot be differentiated from the underscore or the asterisk and are therefore sometimes only used in written texts, and when spoken, the masculine and female forms are both used.
Examples in German:
Rephrasing or introductory sub-clauses can be used in order to avoid wording sentences in which assumptions about people's genders are made.
Impersonal pronouns such as “wer”, “wenn”, “alle, die”, “diejenigen, die”, as well as directly addressing a person or the passive form can all be used to the same purpose. In many cases, the use of the plural can also be helpful.
Examples in German:
Equal treatment through language does not only take place in relation to gender, but also in relation to further categories of diversity and inequality, which also play a role at university. Here too it is important to avoid discriminatory expressions and terms which are historically linked to colonial or Nazi history, and instead to employ valorizing and inclusive language.
Here are a few suggestions on how to speak and prepare course material in a diversity conscious way:
If you are unsure of how to designate or describe certain people or social groups, it is better to use the terms used by organizations and advocacy groups instead of external designations (Fremdbezeichnung). Many advocacy groups and associations offer guidelines and advice on language and how to use it.
There are texts and handouts with background information, explanations on common self-denominations, and further tips on a diversity conscious use of language, for example in the context of racism, disability, gender identity and transgender themes.
When talking and writing about marginalized groups, one or the other feature is often singled out, thus neglecting the manifold aspects of people as well as the heterogeneity of the respective groups.
For this reason, in German it has become customary to talk about “Menschen mit Behinderung” (person with a disability) instead of “Behinderten” (a ‘Disabled’, nominalized adjective). At the Toolbox we have chosen to write “BeHinderung” (disAbility) with a capital H, aligning ourselves with the concept that the capital letter serves to highlight the fact that it is through socially constructed obstacles that it is made more difficult for certain people to participate: they are then made disabled.
Instead of focusing on disabilities, people’s competences and abilities can be brought to the fore by avoiding sentences that present disability as a stroke of fate. For example, instead of “despite”-sentences or presenting someone as a victim, disability can be thematized as one of many aspects of a person instead of the only determining factor for their personality.
The contributions of people belonging to marginalized groups as well as the causes for discrimination are often rendered invisible through what seems at first glance like a neutral and unspecific representation. For this reason, try to explicitly name acting subjects, interests and existing conflicts.
You can also make authorship clear by including the first names of authors in bibliographies.
Terms change with time. Words that used to be used by many people only a few years ago are now recognized as being discriminatory and can be avoided. Belittling, clichéd, exoticizing or discriminatory terms are such examples. Alternatives exist for many discriminatory terms. Discriminatory ideas and unnecessary sentences can be left out.
Think about what exactly it is you want to say, and what wording your need for this.
Examples of German sentences that bring the abilities of people to the fore instead of being disparaging:
Language itself can constitute a barrier, for example if the language used is not someone’s first language or if a disability requires a specific use of language. Here too it is difficult to give general advice, since the needs and scope for action can be very different. Some aspects can however be implemented in all lessons:
Academia uses specific field related terminology, and one of the important aims of studying is to learn and assimilate these terms and how to use them correctly. However, especially when speaking, try to avoid unnecessarily long sentences, and remember to repeat important points and to transmit content in simple sentences. Even when explaining organizational points such as registration and examination procedures, this can be very helpful for many students, and will also reduce misunderstandings and questions.