I’m going to need to teach you some German before I begin this rant. I’ll keep it easy, please stay. If you’re interested in feminism and science fiction and words, then it will be worth it. So, let’s learn German! German words are gendered. Not just through the use of a gendered variant of “the,” but for every noun that describes a person. Take the word pilot, which happens to be the same in German as it is in English. If you are talking about a pilot with a penis, you say der Pilot. If you are talking about a pilot with a vagina, you say die Pilotin.
So people who identify as neither male nor female, or both, have no place in the language. Exhibit A.
This gets even more complicated—particularly from a feminist perspective—when you want to refer to a group of people. When you want to refer to a group of people, you use the plural of the word that refers to a man. So in our example, der Pilot becomes the plural die Pilote which means both (male) pilots and (a large group of) pilots (the contents of whose pants may vary). By the way, if you wanted to refer to a group of exclusively female pilots, you would take the plural of female pilot. Exhibit B.
You might have heard that women are constantly being written out of the story, and this tick of the German language is just another symptom of something that has been going on for hundreds of years and needs to fucking stop. Feminism is about writing women back in, and if we refer to groups of people that include women with the same word we use to refer to multiple men, we have an issue of erasure. Making the German language more gender inclusive/less patriarchal/more equal has been a topic in the headlines for the last few years. People—public figures, politicians, dictionary writers—have started to use the feminine plural instead. Though that tactic doesn’t create a gender neutral language, it is a step toward necessary change.
Enter this fucking article. “Die Entmannung der Sprache” (Translation: The Emasculation of the Language) by Rüdiger Schäfer which appeared in issue 56 of phantastisch! magazine (a German SF mag).
I was fucking appalled to see this article in phantastisch!. I had been sent copies to review, and so far, I’d been having a fun experience. So they cover a lot more Dr. Who and Star Trek and TV than I’m interested in, but they also have a lot of short book reviews and interviews and other fun stuff. Then I got to this article. At first I was intrigued; this promised to be the second installment of a new column discussing the German language. It began with a reference to 1984 and the way the government of that novel manipulates language in order to manipulate the potential thought processes of the masses.
Then it spent two and a half pages making fun of—no, actually, this was more insult and mud slingery than fun pokey pokey—the suggested language reforms and the people who want to make them. Though Schäfer neatly refuses to say whether or not language actually has an effect on any of the things that the reformists and the feminists say that it does, the rest of the article makes it pretty clear what he thinks about their reforms and, by implication, their ideology.
Privileged white dude. Writes about why it doesn’t matter when an entire gender is left out of a language’s grammar. Not to mention the fact that the grammar completely alienates anyone who represents outside of the gender binary. *shakes magazine, computer, world*
Let’s break it down. In the first paragraph, Schäfer says (my English translations will be in the text, original German in the footnotes below), “That our thoughts are strongly influenced by our understanding of language, by our vocabulary and our emotional semantics…”1 Unforunately, Schäfer then spends the rest of the article demonstrating how deeply he does not get how that point applies to gendered language. Schäfer also mentions that, yes, he knows that language is constantly changing. What annoys him about these changes are that they are being “forced” on the language through badly made rules. While I disagree that intentionality in language evolution is the equivalent of force, I can follow him this far without a problem.
Schäfer has one other excellent point: many of the formulations meant to foster gender neutrality in the language are incredibly awkward, as well as too focused on switching masculine for feminine rather than neutral terms (This guy must hate Ann Leckie and her Ancillary Justice/Sword). Yes, the reforms could use some work in those departments, less awkwardness, more neutrality. But that is where the evolution of language comes in, isn’t it? We recognize a need for change, and we start to play around with ways to realize it. People will eventually find a less awkward way to talk about gender neutral groups of people in German than they currently have because people are lazy and don’t like to say more/longer words than they have to and because other people are wordsmiths who won’t stand for it. We may be in an awkward phase, but it doesn’t void the necessity of the exercise.
The rest of the article? Oh. My. Fuck.
Again and again, Schäfer describes the language reforms and the feminists fighting for them in negative terms. The reforms are a “gender virus”2, the push for them “gender terror”3, and multiple times he uses the word cramp4—to describe the feeling of using the proposed language reforms, to describe the feminist rhetoric. Changing the gendered use of German is a—wait until you hear this one—”linguistic apartheid.”4 And of course, he uses the word “castration” to refer to the language reforms. Somebody get me a feminist detractors bingo card, because I’m pretty sure I’ve just filled in all the squares.
Perhaps in hopes of staving off arguments that as another white dude complaining about those damn feminists messing with his status quo, he doesn’t have much cred to dismiss this, Schäfer ends the article with a quote from Ingrid Thurner, a women, and an assistant professor at the University of Vienna who finds the gender-related language reforms just as “cramped” as he does. But, as is generally the case when this tactic is deployed, quoting a woman who agrees with your anti-feminist jargon does not discredit feminism.
Oh! But I forgot my favorite part. The part when Schäfer says that the academics are “butchering our beautiful German language!” in their attempts to find a gender-neutral form of expression.6 (That exclamation point is his, folks.) This was the point when I wrote BARF in the margins. I have heard this statement before, though it usually is trotted out when journalists are discussing the number of foreign words (generally English words) that have crept into the German language. While I understand the desire to make sure your native language does not disappear completely, I do not understand the resistance to linguistic evolution. German is beautiful now, and it was beautiful hundreds of years ago when it was a lot fucking different, and it will still be beautiful in another couple of hundred years when it will have morphed significantly again. The change is inevitable, and in this case, socially important. Why fight it? Is beauty a good enough reason to ignore and decry the suggestions of a group of people who have been systematically discriminated against for hundreds of years? Go read Goethe if you want to wallow in unchanging linguistic beauty—except, oh wait, Goethe’s German was a hell of a lot different than the German used today. Schäfers article is bathed in his privileged position and lacks empathy. Why not offer a few constructive suggestions for smoothing out all those awkward phrases? Because Shäfer is more interested in a slick phrase than feminism? Because his main argument seems to be “I do not like it when my language changes”? It sure sounds like it.
I would have loved to read an objective article on the subject. I would have loved to have seen both sides laid out, all the perspectives discussed, the pros, the cons, all of it. I am a word geek, and both the evolution of language and how it influences and is influenced by political issues fascinates me. This is not that article. This is a bilious, mean take on a nuanced issue. If phantastisch! was willing to publish it, then I don’t know if phantastisch! is a magazine I am interested in supporting.
What does this have to do with science fiction? Schäfer writes it, this article was printed in an SFF magazine, and that any issue of language effects every person writing and reading and speaking it. Now ta-ta, I’m off to look for a space in the German SFF community where feminists are welcomed, not derided.
1 Da unser Denken stark von unserem Sprachverständnis, unserem Wortschatz und unserer emotionalen Semantik abhängt…
2 Geschlechtervirus, also likely a play on the German word of STD
4 sprachfeministischer Krampf, feministische Krampfrhetorik
5 die sprachliche Apartheid
6 Sie verhunzen unsere schöne deutsche Sprache!