Sunday, March 2, 2014

Von „Päpst*innen“ und „schwangeren Bürger*innen“

Citizens vote on January 26
I’m of the school of thought that we should take every opportunity to fight gender discrimination.  That means, among other things, that I go with the crowd who uses “he or she,” or (now much more frequently) “they” where once we allowed the masculine third-person pronoun to stand for both men and women.  I follow the convention now well-established in English-speaking countries and say, “Everybody is entitled to their opinion” (or his or her opinion) even though I learned as a kid that “everybody” was singular and that their is therefore grammatically incorrect.

Remember the riddle,

A man is driving his son to school.  They get into an accident and the man dies.  The son is rushed to the hospital, but when he arrives for emergency surgery the doctor says "I can’t operate on this boy.  He is my son.”

How is this possible?

The answer is that the doctor is the boy’s mother.  The reason the riddle works is that when most people hear the word doctor they think of a man.  It takes extra brain power to recognize doctors can be women.  For that reason, children’s book publishers now make efforts to include pictures of women when they portray doctors.  Switching from the “universal he” to “he or she” or “they” is part of the same process of moving away from gender bias.

Outside the English-speaking world, in other countries with a highly developed feminist consciousness, the same kinds of linguistic and other changes may be noticed.    Sometimes this leads us into a minefield of complications and unforeseen consequences.  In German, the complications begin with the fact that not just pronouns are gendered, but nouns as well.  English has one word, student, for both males and females.  German has Student for a male, and Studentin for a female student.  The plural of Student is Studenten.  The plural of Studentin is Studentinnen.   The convention, when addressing “dear students” in German is to use both forms, and the feminine form first – “Liebe Studentinnen und Studenten.”  Clumsy, but most people feel worth the effort for the sake of gender equality.

Similarly, “Dear Voters” would be “Liebe Wählerinnen und Wähler” (masculine singular nouns ending in –er have the same form in both singular and plural).  And so on: investors: Anlegerinnen und Anleger; foreigners: Ausländerinnen und Ausländer; forklift drivers: Gabelstaplerfahrerinnen und Gabelstaplerfahrer.

In other words, the problem we once had of subsuming the feminine under the masculine has largely gone away.  We no longer say “gays” for both men and women.  We say “lesbians and gays.”  We no longer say “chairman” for a woman, but “chairwoman” – or “chairperson” or “chair”.  We’re on our way here!  But the problems are not over.

For one thing, we have become more aware of other folk that have long been “subsumed.”  Transsexuals, for example.  And, more to the point for linguistic purposes, people who resent being labeled with either gender and see themselves as “intergender.”   “Gays” became “Lesbians and Gays,” became “Lesbian, Gay and Bi,” became LGBT, became LGBTI.  And because these issues are often contested, some prefer queer as a portmanteau word covering a wide range of “non-standard designations for sexual identity.” So LGBT became LGBTQ (or even LGBTQI). Some go with I, some insist on using both to cover all the bases.  Australia, for example, has an organization called the LGBTI Health Alliance.    In the U.S., there is a publication called LGBTQ Nation.   And it should surprise no one that there are people who would expand that even more to LGBTQIA, where “A” can stand for either “Asexual” or “Ally”.  Sometimes “Allies” may include “cisgender friends,” “cisgender” being the word for people for whom gender and biology match.

As with all social change, progressives try to keep up with the evolution in consciousness and respect the desire to be recognized in a world accustomed to a limited number of boxes.  Conservatives recognize the boxes male and female but, depending on the degree of conservatism, begin to balk as one moves down the line all the way to LGBTQIA.  (“What the hell are “allies” doing in there!?”)

And just as lots of people once felt free to laugh at gays and lesbians – and of course retrograde folk still do ­– now there are people who don’t, but still laugh at transgender people.  The farther down the line, the more the ridicule and the slower the resistance to recognition and change.

I had a falling out some time back with a person born female who wanted henceforth to be addressed as “he.”  I accepted that, believing one should be entitled to determine one’s own gender and not be boxed in by traditionalists.  But he went further, and resented my personal questions.  I was curious about this change, and in my search for understanding asked some impolitic questions about sex and gender.  My bad.  I was willing to apologize for that.  I also suggested that insisting the world give up the use of third-person pronouns entirely was going to go nowhere, that it might evolve in time, but certainly not overnight.  This person was young, impatient, and quick to see hostility. That marked me in his eyes as an Uncle Tom in the LGBT world.  I couldn’t apologize about that in good faith, so I’m sad to say we simply had to go our separate ways. 

Ridicule is very familiar to lesbians and gay men, and even more to transsexuals.  The current willingness of LGBT people to fight back against it is long overdue, in my view.

The memory of that Uncle Tom label I got slapped with (“Gay men are the worst offenders!”) came rushing back this morning when I came across an article in the Berlin paper, Der Tagesspiegel.  The headline ran:

Von „Päpst*innen“ und „schwangeren Bürger*innen“

Ignore the asterisks for a minute.

An English translation might run something like this:

            On “Popes” and “Pregnant Citizens”

But you see immediately the problem with this translation.  The grapheme (as opposed to what once was simply called a “word”) means the reader has to choose which parts apply.
So what the sentence

Von „Päpst*innen“ und „schwangeren Bürger*innen“

actually means (still ignoring the asterisks for the moment) – and you can see the absurdity – is:

            On male or female popes, as the case may be, and pregnant male or female citizens, as the case may be.

  • “Pope” in German is “Pabst”  – plural “Päbste.
  • Now “Pope Joan” may be a fictitious character, but real or fictional, she would have to be referred to in German as “Die Päbstin” – the (female) pope.  And if there were more than one female pope, they would of course be Päbstinnen.
  • Bürger is the German word for (male) “citizen” – plural forms are Bürger (male citizens) and “Bürgerinnen.

Remember that Germans are accustomed to having agent nouns that distinguish between males and females.  (Agent nouns usually mark a person by what he or she does or some cause he or she identifies with – actor, editor, pianist, dealer, raconteur, Marxist).  And while I said that it’s customary to put the female form first when addressing people publicly, in dictionaries, they are usually listed in the masculine, with the feminine form as an optional suffix:


And in print, evidently to save space, instead of typing Bürgerinnen und Bürger, or using the hyphen, it’s common to push the two words into one, and capitalize the i.  


And now there’s yet another way to go, at least in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, one of the districts of Berlin.  Instead of a hyphen or a capitalized mushed-together feminine ending, they’re using an asterisk. What has happened here is that advocates of language change want language to reflect newfound recognition that intersex people are left out by this binary, by having to choose between the –er and the –innen word endings.  So they have inserted an asterisk.  This new concoction,


is understood to include 1) Bürger, 2) Bürgerinnen, and 3) * (neither).

Not so much a “word” as a “grapheme” with parts to be chosen as they may apply.

Because of my bad experience in trying to caution advocates not to expect too much too soon, I’m more willing now to err (if that’s what I’m doing) in the opposite direction.  I’m climbing on the bandwagon here, hoping to make amends.

But that only brings me back to the next question – whether or not this headline was meant as ridicule.  I say no, that it was simply pointing out a logical absurdity created by the complexity involved.  What Der Tagesspiegel has done is to poke fun at the absurdities which can come out of what conservatives would call “politically correct language.”  (And note, here, that you don’t have to go very far to the right to be called ‘conservative’ in this instance.)

But that risks my getting slapped with the Uncle Tom designator once again.  I might, of course simply say this struggle is not a joke and we should all get behind the folks who identify as intersex, period.

My problem is I think “popes or popesses, as the case may be” is funny.  And so I laugh.  “Pope persons” would be funny, as well.

Much as you want change now, some things are going to take time.  My guess is this attempt to legislate change in the German language will work itself out.  We'll laugh for a time, and then we'll begin to take it in stride.

Think back to the early days of the move in English toward eliminating the “subsumed feminine.”  Remember the example of such constructs as

This coupon is good for a 20% reduction on all brassieres.  A customer may select the brand of his  his or her her choice while the supply lasts.

was a three-step learning process.  Step 1, the traditional grammatical, gave way to Step 2, the politically sensitive/correct, which then gave way to Step 3, reality.   Ditto for things like using “chairman” when we know the person is male, and “chairwoman” when we know the person is female.  The solutions don’t get legislated.  They evolve eventually.

The asterisk in Bürger*innen may or may not catch on.  There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  No need to say Päbstinnen und Päbste.   And one day we will not feel the need to indicate the possibility of an intersex pope.  We can just say Päbste, and accept that hell will freeze over before this patriarchal institution will have a legitimate female pope, much less an intersex one.  If I'm wrong, we can make changes then.

And there is no need to say schwangere Bürgerinnen und Bürger.  We can leave off the masculine form Bürger when referring to pregnancy.

In the meantime some of us old fogeys (male and female) will have a chuckle now and then, like the Tagesspiegel did, while things sort themselves out.

And those impatient for change will call us Uncle Toms.  (Or should that be Uncle Tom persons?)

It will all be fine one day.

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