Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts on English and German language choices around men and women

leave a comment »

As I spotted when writing another text earlier today, my sources used phrases like “von Frauen und Männern” (“from women and men”), while I find it natural to stick to “men and women” in my own writings. As the situation in Germany is quite interesting (and highly unfortunate) a few words on these issues.

For starters, let us look at men and women in English:

Is it “men and women” or “women and men”, and why? Is it e.g. sexist to use the former or “progressive” to use the latter?

Looking at meaning and sentence logic, the order is irrelevant and it should (to those not subscribing to Feminist rhetoric or some extreme version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) almost always be “men and women” for reasons of rhythm and smoothness—and it should be “ladies and gentlemen” for the same reason, not “gentlemen and ladies”.

Start by saying these phrases out loud a few times, and note how differently they feel. In particular, the human (or English?) ear tends to prefer* trochaic and iambic rhythms and something that allows a pattern of some sort to form. With “men and women”, we have two trochees (“MEN and WOmen”), but with “women and men” (“WOmen and MEN”) we have more random** syllables. The latter can be made to sound good, but would then require a sufficient rhythmic context (or, possibly, an exaggerated pronunciation).

*But not to exclusion. For instance, the anapest (think Dr. Seuss) can be quite catching; for instance, cf. the dactyls below. To some part, I suspect, trochees and iambs are preferred because e.g. English is naturally filled with series of these or their approximations.

**It could be seen as a single choriamb, but four-syllable metrics are not usually applied (for good reasons) and there can be no pattern with just the one choriamb. It could also be seen as a trochee followed by an iamb, but this allows no pattern either, without a larger context.

Similarly, “ladies and gentlemen” is broadly* two dactyls (LAdies and GENtlemen”, while “gentlemen and ladies” is broadly* a dactyl followed by an amphibrach (“GENtlemen and LAdies”). (And a dactyl could, in this informal context, be seen as a “long” trochee.)

*I am not entirely certain whether to treat “gentle” as a single very long or as two separate syllables, as the final “e” is silent and the vowel sound of the “l” is weak or even optional. If two, there might be some dispute exactly how the main beat is to be placed. (Poetry-wise, I am an amateur. And, no, I do not have all of the Greek names memorized.) Then again, it can be disputed whether syllables or length/morae are more important, which would leave us with dactyl or “dactyloid” anyway. Of course, in the theatrical “Laaaaaaaaaaadies aaand geeeeeeeeeentlemen”, the two syllable version is almost bound to apply.

Then Germany:

Here the situation is much more complicated and unpoetic: a simple “Männer und Frauen” (two dactyls, again) compares slightly better than “Frauen und Männer” (another dactyl + amphibrach), but not as strongly as in the two English cases. (Possibly, because of flexibility in splitting the “aue” combination in “Frauen”. I take it as au-e, as the most likely syllables are “Frau” und “en” (with a diphthong “au”), but, with the added flexibility in the pronunciation, “Frauen” can be bent to fit other patterns.)

However, if we look at current German use, we are bombarded with phrases like “Bäckerinnen und Bäcker” (“[female] bakers and [male] bakers”), “BäckerInnen” (artificial word presuming to include both sexes; note capitalization of the internal “I”), and “Bäcker*innen” (ditto; note non-footnote star in the middle).

Here poetry is usually beside the point and other concerns apply, the most notable that these attempts at “gender-inclusive” language are entirely unnecessary in almost all contexts: “Bäcker”, like most* similar male-seeming plurals, is epicene, i.e. can refer to members of both sexes. Ditto the singular in a generic context, where a baker of unknown sex might be referred to as “der Bäcker”, but the known woman would be “die Bäckerin”. This does bring some ambiguity, in that some contexts leave it open whether a certain group is single-sex or not, but in most the “not” can be taken for granted and in many it does not matter.** The same applies, obviously, to the basic English “baker” and “bakers”, because there are no even optional female forms for most “traditionally male” professions (and vice versa). Indeed, many of the problems with Feminist language manipulation go back to the refusal to consider the epicene enough—actual “social” neutrality*** is needed. (Hence, e.g. the rejection of the epicene generic “he” in favor of the neutral or quasi-neutral generic “they”, even at the price of switching from singular to plural.) It is the odder in German, however, where epicenity is very wide spread, including cases where a man is legitimately referred to as “she”. (A more extensive discussion of this in German is present in an older text on gender-neutral language. This text is also relevant to some other points.)

*Including typical professions, but usually excluding e.g. “Männer” (“men”). Even for “Männer”, the inclusion of women could be argued when we do not intend it in the sense of men-as-opposed-to-women, but e.g. members-of-a-troupe-of-X (as with the similar use of “men” in English). An army officer holding a speech to his “Männer” might well take women to be included, as the word points to a certain role or membership, not a sexual division. Context can be important, as even the singular “Mann” is occasionally applied to women, even by other women, in sloppy language—just like some U.S. women might refer to other women as “guys” or even “dudes’. For instance, it is conceivable that an irate teen girl says something like “Du hast meinen Stift geklaut, Mann!” (“You stole my pencil, dude!”, except that “dude’ is less likely than “Mann”) to another teen girl.

**“Bäcker backen Brot” (“bakers bake bread”), e.g., is obviously not single-sex. Ditto e.g. “wir stellen Bäcker ein” (“we hire bakers”; few, contrary to Feminist propaganda, care about sex over ability to bake) and “Bäcker der Bäckerei X” (“bakers of the bakery X”; might be single-sex if few enough, but it would then rarely matter). In contrast, in “zwei Bäcker schlugen sich” (“two bakers were physically fighting”) the details might well be relevant.

***Be it through use of a grammatical neutral, something inherently “non-gendered” (arguably, “they”; but it might also be considered epicene), lengthy duplications (“Bäckerinnen und Bäcker”), or artificial words or constructs (“BäckerInnen”, “Bäcker*innen”).

As an aside, I note that these solution attempts are all “binary”, which implies that the “gender-inclusiveness” is not reached by modern standards to begin with. The epicene “Bäcker” does not have that problem …

To look more in detail at the three typical workarounds-for-a-non-existing-problem:

“Bäckerinnen und Bäcker” is lengthy for no good reason, with a negative effect on readers, writers, speakers, and hearers alike. Moreover, the prefixing of the female version makes the expression clumsier yet, as the second part is a substring of the first and rarely* adds any new real information. (And I see the reverse as poetically sounder.) That the prefix is almost always the female version, even with male dominated groups, opens the suspicion that specifically women should somehow be pushed. (As to the reasons, I can only speculate. Possibilities include “we need to compensate for centuries of oppression” and “we need to show women that they, too, can be X”. Sadly, I cannot, in today’s society, rule out that some Feminists or “gender scientists” put the female form first because they actually do consider women more important.)

*It is extremely rare to see a word like “Bäckerinnen” not followed by “und Bäcker” (resp. whatever male or epicene form applies). A word like “Bäcker”, on the other hand, might well see a more informative extension, as with e.g. “Bäcker und Konditoren” (“bakers and pastry chefs [?]”). If in doubt, what follows “Bäcker” is much more likely to be something other than an “und”, which brings the sentence forward (as with the above “Bäcker backen Brot”).

Interestingly, there have been cases of “innen”-forms used where non have previously existed grammatically, and the single form was then purely single-sex to begin with. Unfortunately, I do not remember exact actual examples, but consider, hypothetically, “Modelinnen und Models”, where the “Modelinnen” is a spurious female plural of the imported “Model”. The same type of problem is possible with the other two cases below.

“BäckerInnen” is pronounced exactly like “Bäckerinnen”, despite the different implications (men and women vs. women only), so this solution is useless for the spoken language and can cause confusion when reading a written text aloud. Moreover, even the optical difference is so small that mistakes of both reading and writing are likely. Those who subscribe to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, i.e. typically those who push this nonsense, should take great care, as this would be a school example of potential cognitive effects. Indeed, this is a case where even someone largely skeptical towards this hypothesis (e.g. yours truly) might well see a risk (I do). I have always been torn between considering use of this construct gross incompetence and an attempt to replace male/epicene forms with female or female/epicene* forms, the capital “I” being a mere alibi to use the traditionally female form. This type of internal capitalization is without precedent** and likely to cause confusion among those not used to it, including German-as-a-second-language-learners.

*Which, to avoid misunderstandings, would only acquire epicenity through this replacement.

**Barring company names, and similar, which typically arose after this idiocy reared its ugly head. The construct was in use when I first arrived here in 1997. (I do not remember my first own reaction, but I might well have thought it a typo.)

“Bäcker*innen”, a very recent invention, shares most weaknesses with “BäckerInnen”, while looking ridiculous, introducing unnecessary complications for e.g. spell checkers, and moving even further outside the traditional uses of characters. Indeed, a middle-of-word use of a star is usually the mark of a censored character, as with “f*ck” for “fuck”, which raises the question what has been “starred out” and why. To someone used to regular expressions and computers, it is idiotically shaped (cf. below), while a star in other contexts often implies something questionable (e.g. a disputed mark in athletics) or a pointer to a note of some type (as, indeed, in this text). In a linguistic context, which is obviously relevant, its main use is likely to indicate a form of a word that is only hypothesized, as with e.g. Proto-Indo-European reconstructions. (To which other, but less relevant, uses can be added, e.g. as an indicator of multiplication: the overloading of this character is too large to burden it with an additional meaning without a much better reason than claimed with “Bäcker*innen”.) The one advantage is a smaller risk of optical confusion, but the net result is a worsening. (There might or might not be some advantage in speech, e.g. that this could be spoken as “Bäcker-Stern-innen” (“Stern” = “star”), but that would be clumsy indeed, and risk confusion with “Stern” in e.g. the sense of an astronomical star.

How to do it better? Well, if it is not acceptable that “Bäcker” pulls double duty as the epicene term and the male counter-part of “Bäckerinnen”, it would make more sense to me to deprecate “Bäckerinnen” and just use “Bäcker” through out, as an entirely “non-gendered” term. (Effectively, follow the path of English in just using “bakers” resp. deprecating existing terms like “actress”.) However, if someone positively, absolutely insists on introducing new formations, they* should at least follow established conventions. For instance, “BäckerInnen” would better have been “Bäcker/-innen” in a regular writing context, while the pseudo-regexp or pseudo-computerese “Bäcker*innen” would better have been “Bäcker(innen)?” (or “Bäcker?(innen)”, depending on system) or “Bäcker[innen]”.** Of course, neither of these consistency improvements remedies the confusing impression or the pronunciation issues—so stick to “Bäcker”!

*As an aside, using correct and conventional grammar, anyone would realize that “they” refers to the formations (the one plural). With the perversion of the generic “they”, it would be more likely to refer to “someone”. Here the difference in meaning would be small enough to be tolerable, but in other cases considerable misunderstandings could arise. Indeed, the pollution with the generic “they” is so pervasive that I, proof reading, for a moment actually combined the “they” with “someone”, myself. Death to the generic “they”!

**But I would be willing to accept a “*” over “?” to reduce the risk of confusion with a question mark. Otherwise, in typical regular expressions, “?” indicates an optional occurrence, while “*” indicates an arbitrary number of occurrences. “ab?” would then be either of “a” and “ab”, while “ab*” would be “a”, “ab”, ‘abb”, “abbb”, etc. The incorrectly ordered and ungrouped “Bäcker*innen” would then amount to “Bäckeinnen”, “Bäckerinnen”, “Bäckerrinnen”, “Bäckerrrinnen”, etc.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 8, 2020 at 2:22 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s