Pronoun politics can be something of a minefield. But if you think the gender debate is confusing, spare a thought for our German cousins. The quirks of the language make it hard to avoid causing offence, even for those determined to tread carefully.
German, as with French and Spanish, has different noun endings for masculine and feminine words. For example, eine Ärztin specifically refers to a female doctor and ein Arzt to a male doctor. The masculine form is used most frequently and as a sort of gender catch-all. And it’s here that the issue arises.
The language has, to be fair, adapted to cater for modern sensitivities. In modern German, the title Fräulein (Miss) is no longer widely used, following criticism from feminists in the second half of the 20th century. Fräulein was determined to be belittling to women, as it is a diminutive form of the noun Frau (woman). With respect to Louisa May Alcott, no one wants to describe themselves as a ‘little woman’ on a form. As a result, modern German offers only Herr and Frau. It’s not hard to see why this might be seen by some as problematic.
Unfortunately for its speakers, Germany’s linguistic struggles with gender do not stop there. Recent attempts to make these gender-specific forms more inclusive have resulted in a variety of new, and ever-more imaginative, uses of capital letters and punctuation within the nouns themselves; so Bürger, meaning male citizens, has many new forms including die BürgerInnen, die Bürger_innen, die Bürger/innen or die Bürger*innen.
In true German fashion, a new compound noun was spawned to refer to the asterisk doing so much heavy lifting in the last version – the Gendersternchen or ‘little gender star’.