German Speech Disorder

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
Emperor Charles V

The German language has male and female forms for many words concerning people or job titles. Think of actor and actress, just for lots and lots of words more (yeah, I’m not a linguist, I’ll try to explain it with the words I know 😉 ). For example, for “employees” there is “Mitarbeiter”, which is the grammatically male form, but means male and female employees, and “Mitarbeiterinnen”, which means only female employees. If you would talk only about male employees, you would have to use “männliche Mitarbeiter” (literally translated: male employees). Women have a word of their own, men don’t.

Until a short while ago, people used the grammatically male form regularly, as this generic masculinum covered both men and women. But then some activists started to argue for using the male and female form. They argue that it is sexist to use only the grammatically male form. And they do not argue for using, e.g., “Mitarbeiter und Mitarbeiterinnen”, but — among others, for using “Mitarbeiter/innen”, “Mitarbeiter:innen”, or even “Mitarbeiter*innen” or “Mitarbeiter_innen”.

As if the writing wasn’t bad enough, some people (e.g., news anchors or academics at conferences) have started to speak the gap between “Mitarbeiter” and “innen”. While the written form is unaesthetically as hell, the spoken form sounds like a speech disorder. And even worse, when the speaker has to hurry (common occurrence in academic presentations), the gap becomes inaudible. Suddenly, the speaker is talking *only* about, e.g., female employees, or female participants.

Frankly, I’m becoming more and more disgusted by this kind of writing, and even more so, by this kind of talking. Text and speech, esp. in scientific settings, should be precise, clear, familiar, fluid, forthright, and concise (Alley, 1996). And this abomination violates these criteria.

Even more, the language itself should be invisible. In a good text or speech, your attention is not on the words, but on the meaning behind it. You don’t think about the text itself, or they way the words are spoken, but on what was done, or should be done. These gender-gaps point the reader/listener to aspects that are irrelevant for the issue at hand. They distract from what was done, or should be done. Suddenly, the scientific findings become subordinate to an attempt to “educate” the audience about the sex of the people involved.

You could argue that this is just a matter of time until people get used to this form of writing, or even to this form of gap-speech. That language develops. Personally, I don’t agree. Yes, language develops, but not via an edict by some activists who want to control how we speak or write. To put it mildly — they don’t have that right. And as for getting used to it — how can you get used to something that reduces precision and clarity, for the questionable attempt to make language “fairer”? That is setting the wrong standards.

So yeah, thanks but no thanks, keep your gap-speech-disorder-speech for yourselves. Writing and speaking is hard enough, and ideologically induced speech disorders have no place in my language.



Alley, M. (1996). The Craft of Scientific Writing (3rd ed.). Springer.