I just finished my last German final, and now I can begin the swift process of forgetting a year’s worth of material. But even if verb order and plural endings don’t stick with me, a recent linguistics study about German articles made quite the impact. At the University of Leipzig, academics are taking feminism to the next level by attempting to change the grammar of German. In English we have no distinction between the gender of nouns–a table is a table, and that is that. Most Romance languages, like Spanish and French, have two genders: masculine and feminine. But German has three–masculine (der), feminine (die), and neuter (das)-and so there has been a big debate since the 1980s over the political-correctness of such forms. In many written documents both the masculine and feminine forms are included, but given the unbelievable length of some German words already (like the mouthful “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung” for the simple concept of a speed limit), this can make for a cumbersome read! When addressing a group in general, it has been common practice to use the male form. However, many linguists have shown that this can indirectly shape a person’s thought–remember this blog entry?
Think of it this way: In German,
male president = der Bundespräsident
female president = die Bundespräsidentin
But when the question is asked in general (thus employing the masculine form), “Who will be the next Bundespräsident?” an image has already formed in most listeners’ minds of a male president, since that’s what the grammar suggests. Little fräuleins’ dreams everywhere of holding high office are dashed.
Some linguists in Germany hope to someday replace the masculine and feminine forms with the simple neuter, representing both. How avant garde of them! Germans are at the cutting edge of automobile and sausage trends—why not grammar, too?
If you’re interested, read the full (fascinating) article here.
What do you think about these changes? Should a language be forcibly shaped by progressives and scholars? Or is it best to leave well enough alone, and have any language change be only the result of a naturally occurring process?