Feminine-specific language adopted at German university

17/06/2013 | Hayley

A university in Germany has turned its back on tradition and revealed it will be using the female version of nouns in official discourse.

According to The Local, going forwards professors at the University of Leipzig in Saxony will be referred to as Professorin – the feminine form of the word – whether they are male or female. The University Charter will explain in a footnote that this term encompasses both the men and women working at the institution.

In the past, it was common practice to use the male form of nouns to describe both men and women, such as “mitarbeite” for “employees”. However, as thinking and etiquette changed, it became typical for both the male and female version of nouns to be used together – even if this was a bit of a mouthful.

Now, that cumbersome practice is to be no more, as the university replaces the use of both the male and female form of ‘professor’ with just the female form in its charter. Website Deutsche Wellev reports that it was a snappily made decision, which may suggest the university has taken the step more to save time than to make a particular statement.

The website spoke to linguist Luise Pusch who welcomed the news, calling it a “step forward” for the whole country as it had prompted people to think about linguistic equality. “Every opportunity to think about our male-dominated language is good for the language as a whole, because the German language is very biased,” she added.

Pusch explained that because the German language is gender-specific, it can also be suggestive. As speakers are likely to use the male noun rather than say both, it can reinforce male associations in the mind of the listener. She pointed to studies that have shown people who hear stories where only masculine nouns are used will then select male names for the protagonists, as the image that has been conjured in their head is that of men.

The linguist stated that using the female form of nouns would help redress the balance, as the masculine form has been the default for centuries. “The feminine is not only better for women, it also appeals to the rotation principle – now it’s women’s turn,” she explained.

Baby steps could be the way to approach removing the sense of gender inequality from the German language, as the linguist says that while she would start by making the feminine the default, ultimately the goal would be to remove the feminine ending altogether. English is an example of a language where no gender-specific nouns feature. By removing the feminine ‘in’ from the end of German words, they could also be made gender-neutral, and then ‘der’, ‘die’ or ‘das’ can be added to denote whether they are masculine, feminine or neutral.

German is not only gender-specific but also futureless. This means it does not differentiate between the present and the future, as languages like English do. A study conducted by economist Keith Chen at the Yale School of Management investigated how whether or not a language was futureless effected a person’s perception of their actual future.

In the UK, a person might say “it will thunder tomorrow”, while in Germany they would say “it thunders tomorrow”, meaning there is no distinction made between the present and the future. In fact, this one facet of the language was so powerful that Chen concluded that whether a person’s language was futureless or not could, to some degree, affect their behaviour in other areas of their life. Indeed,┬áit might actually have an impact on the national savings rate of the country where that language is spoken.

The reason for this is that because the German language does not separate today from tomorrow, the future doesn’t seem so far away. On average, people in Germany are more likely to save regularly and also less likely to indulge in potentially harmful behaviour than those in the UK, where the language could result in the perception that the future is a long way off.

If the language a person speaks can affect how big their rainy day fund is or whether or not they quit smoking, it’s not too much of a leap to speculate it also impacts on their perception of people based on gender. It is still too early to tell whether or not the German language will undergo the overhaul suggested by Pusch. For now, Language Insight will be interested to see whether any other institutions follow the lead of the University of Leipzig.

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