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Gender Neutral Plurals

In English, gender-specific words for professions, such as "policeman" and policewoman," are relatively rare. Some professions that previously had gender divisions, such as actor/actress and hero/heroine, have seen the female usages fall largely into disuse. But in German, most professions are divided by gender: a male doctor is der Arzt and a female doctor is die Ärztin. Some more examples are der Polizist/die Polizistin; der Architekt/die Architekin; der Künstler/die Künstlerin.


Most German writing and speech up until the end of the 20th century discriminated grammatically against women by using only the male plural when referring to people in a profession. For example, it was common to see the masculine plural die Ärzte used to refer to all doctors, as if there were no women in the profession.


The simplest and currently standard solution for being more gender-inclusive is to state both gender plurals when talking about professions and other gender-specific words. Note that it's unnecessary in the following two cases to translate both German male and female nouns into English, since the equivalent English words "doctor" and "artist" are gender-neutral.


Ich möchte mich bei dieser Gelegenheit zuallererst an alle wenden, die als Ärzte oder Ärztinnen,  im Pflegedienst oder in einer sonstigen Funktion in unseren Krankenhäusern und überhaupt im Gesundheitswesen arbeiten.

I would like to take this opportunity to address first and foremost all those who work as doctors, in the field of nursing, or in any other function in our hospitals or in the healthcare system in general.

Captions 1-4, Coronavirus: Fernsehansprache von Angela Merkel

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Er ist über einen Kilometer lang und er wurde von 118 Künstlern und Künstlerinnen aus der ganzen Welt gestaltet.

It is over a kilometer in length and it [the artwork] was created by 118 artists from all over the world.

Captions 20-22, Eva zeigt uns: die Berliner Mauer

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Since the early 2000s, many German speakers began to reject the usage both male and female plurals, seeing it as an anachronism of a male-dominated society. The interim solution has been to combine the male and female forms and separate them with non-alphabetical symbols. The current symbols in use today to denote gender-neutral plural nouns are:


Der Gender-Gap (_) marked by an underscore;
Das Gendersternchen (*) marked by an asterisk;
Der Genderschrägstrich (/) marked by a slash;
Der Gender-Doppelpunkt (:) marked by a colon.


Instead of writing die Ärzte und Ärztinnen, you could utilize the system above and choose from die Ärzt_innen, die Ärzt*innen, die Ärzt/innen or die Arzt:innen. When speaking the words, you are supposed to make a slight pause where the symbol break happens, so as to distinguish from the standard plural of the female noun.


If this seems confusing to you, you're not alone. It's still a topic that is widely debated in German society. Many language purists and linguists think that the words look aesthetically unappealing in print and are simply grammatically incorrect. It's also rejected by conservatives who see it as a symptom of politically-correct "woke" and "cancel culture." On the other hand, many people support it because it overcomes a kind of latent gender discrimination in the German language.


Hallo, liebe Yabla-Schüler*innen. Heute erzähle ich euch etwas über das Thema LSBTQ.

Hello, dear Yabla pupils. Today, I'm going to tell you something about the topic of LGBTQ.

Captions 1-2, LGBTQ: Gendern

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Vielleicht habt ihr bemerkt, dass ich bei meiner Begrüßung eine kleine Pause zwischen Schüler*innen gemacht habe.

Maybe you noticed that, when I greeted you, I made a short pause in the word Schüler*innen [pupils].

Captions 14-16, LGBTQ Gendern

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Wie ist denn das Verhältnis zwischen Bürger:innen und Inflationsrate, und haben uns auf die Straße begeben und da einfach mal nachgefragt.

How the relationship between citizens and the inflation rate is, and we took to the streets and simply inquired there.

Captions 7-9, TV Total: Straßenumfrage zum Thema Inflation

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As you see above, both the Gendersternchen and Gender-Doppelpunkt styles of gender-neutrality are to be found on Yabla. As of date, there are no standards set for the formulation.


Since 2020, the German states Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, and Hessen prohibited the use in schools of grammatical symbols in the middle of words denoting gender-neutral nouns. If pupils or students living in one of these states use a gender-neutral word marked with a symbol in a school paper, it will be marked as a spelling error and thus possibly lower their grades. In the German states Baden-Württemberg and Bremen, the acceptance of gender-inclusive writing is left to the discretion of the individual schools. The Swiss government forbade the use of symbols marking gender-neutral nouns in Swiss governmental German-language documents in 2021, but it equally forbade the use of exclusively male noun forms.


So ist es, liebe Yabla-Schüler und Yabla-Schülerinnen – oder lieber Yabla Schüler*innen?


Further Learning
The debate about gender-neutral nouns continues to this day in German society. Read the German Wikipedia articles linked above, and watch the relevant videos on Yabla German to get a better sense of the topic.