Asterisks for inclusion

The "gender star" has seen a sudden rise in German typography, where it previously acted as an indicator for footnotes only and was therefore rarely seen outside of academic papers.

The “gender star” has seen a sudden rise in German typography, where it previously acted as an indicator for footnotes only and was therefore rarely seen outside of academic papers. It is now used to make explicit that a plural noun designating a group of people includes females, males and any other gender identities. It’s derived from computing where it is a placeholder for any number of characters, also called a “wildcard”. And the seemingly harmless asterisk has been catapulted to the centre of a raging language battle.

According to Kathrin Kunkel-Razum of the DUDEN Verlag, this battle of the Asterisk and the disregard for equality of all genders by the German language has been enticing vehement reactions by people from all walks of life for at least three years. It was pushed off centre-stage only recently, by Covid-19. More precisely, and more worryingly, by reports that the “number of incidents of violence against women has risen significantly in the city” (Berlin) within just 2 weeks of the lockdown. That is despicable! And it should cause a huge outcry in society.

But does it have anything to do with the way language handles the sexes? Will fair treatment of women and transgender or undecided gender in language modify the way society thinks about and behaves towards its non-male members?

It was the feminist linguist Luise Pusch who castigated German as a “Männersprache” (masculine language or language of/for men) as long back as 1984. Some 30 years later, gender-neutral terminology is being introduced in many areas. The basic tenet is always that language conditions our perception and our behaviour. And that if we want to change something in our world, we should start with changing the way we speak and write.

Clearly, there is a large part of the German-speaking population that feels strongly that equality must be reflected in language. And this is difficult in languages that are not innately “neutral” to biological gender, such as German, or the Romance and Slavonic languages – and to some degree of course even English. Think of headmaster vs. headmistress, or actor vs. actress. If you say: “The teachers went on strike” you mean both male and females, but if you say “the headmasters went on strike” clearly you don’t. When you say “I’m going to the hairdresser” or “to my dentist” in English you are not giving away the sexual identity of the person (it might come out in your next sentence, when you refer to them using the “appropriate” pronoun – though in many cases you can get away by using the neutral ‘they’). But in German, you have to commit yourself. It is either “der Zahnarzt”, “der Friseur” or “die Zahnärztin”, „die Friseuse“. No two ways about it.

When you use the plural “Radfahrer” these days many people will object and say that you are referring to male cyclists only (see picture). And while until some 30 years ago nobody would have accused you of gender bias but would tacitly have included the female form (Radfahrerinnen), this is no longer so. This kind of naivety (or tolerance) has been lost forever. And to be sure you are fully inclusive, you should now be using the asterisk (or its alternative, the underscore).

At the centre of it is the “generic masculine form”, where “doctors” (Ärzte), like “cyclists” (Radfahrer) meant to stand for both, males and females and also Diverse/Undecided. But many disagree and insist on writing: Die Ärzt_innen/Ärzt*innen behandeln die Verunfallten. The star (*) and the underscore (_) take on the meaning of „all/everyone inclusive”. The asterisk is winning at the time of writing, but the final word has not been spoken. We expect the Rat für Deutsche Rechtschreibung to pronounce on the matter in its next report in 2022. Meanwhile, in job advertisements, we see “Wirtschaftswissenschafter (f/m/d)” – female/male/divers – to cover all cases and be gender neutral and correct.

All of a sudden, the gender devil lurks everywhere, and the authorities are desperately trying to enforce linguistic equality in the treatment of the sexes. They do not want to be seen as discriminating against anyone. The same is true for companies. But is this not purely window-dressing? What does it actually do for the non-male sexes? Interestingly, Sweden recently (2012 to be exact, time flies) introduced a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen” to its dictionary, which if I trust my sources on the web has entered everyday usage (“Swedish Hen is here to stay”, said a headline), replacing the feminine and the masculine pronouns (hon + han) for situations where you want to be inclusive, or not reveal the gender. Scientists claim that this has already changed the way people think about gender. To this, I can only say Wow, the Nordics really are ahead of us when it comes to gender politics.

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