How does dialect affect gender?
Now there are famous exceptions to this: the girl, the miss, the woman, the fagot, the coward, the vamp. Often efforts are made to refute this gender-gender relationship. However, if you take a closer look, they even confirm this connection in a downright striking way: They do not mark gender, but gender roles, i.e. the social expectations of how the sexes should behave. All of these "exceptions" are socially disapproved violations of gender roles. The persons concerned are banished from their "right" gender class because they behave "wrongly"; the social violation is punished by a grammatical one. On the one hand, this applies to homosexual men who, from the point of view of such a society, desire the sex that women "normally" desire. That is why their names are often in the feminine (the fagot, the queen, the tuck). The cowardly man is exhibited by the coward. Conversely, the masculine vamp acts "like a man" through his power over men.
In the neuter, however, despised, repulsive women (the woman, the bitch) are referred to, on the other hand not yet "fully developed", i.e. in the old gender order those who are still unmarried: the dirndl, the wretch, the miss, the girl. From the beginning, boys appear in the masculine gender, also in the dialects: the guy, the boy, the boy. Even more: Reduced male names like Peterle shy away from the neuter in many dialects by remaining in the masculine despite their diminutive ending (the Peterle). Conversely, girls and women are given diminished names much more often and often for life, which are always in the neuter ('s Annele).
In some dialects, this practice has led to the full names becoming neutral (the Anna). In a research project at the University of Mainz, it was determined, among other things, that it used to be women who were under male family rule (especially wives, daughters and maids) who were banned by the neuter, while strange, independent and socially superior women received the feminine . Even today, the neuter appears familiar, familiar and quite friendly in female first names in many dialects, the feminine correspondingly repellent and distant.
It is obvious that these are reflexes of old gender orders that are largely outdated today - nevertheless, these relationships have become grammatically entrenched. Deep in the language, more precisely: the old gender order lives on in such gender assignments. Gender does not only refer to sex, it does a lot more: It refers to social expectations of the genders (gender) and thus to gender in the broader sense.
These and other research results show that language does not determine the perception of people, but does guide it, and that basic social relationships are coded in language. That is why language can also reinforce a certain perception of the world and weaken another. If, for example, professions are taught in both a male and a female form (engineers), children assess typically male professions as more achievable and are more likely to trust themselves to take them, as another study has shown. Apparently, the children's self-confidence that they are able to take up relevant professions is increased by the gender-equitable designations. In the case of adults, however, it can be shown that the use of the generic masculine in job advertisements leads to a lower proportion of female applications.
The generic masculine makes women invisible better than any burqa
Against this background, it is not just a matter of courtesy to speak to and about people in public communication in such a way that men and women are explicitly named - that alone should be reason enough to do so. In addition, it is a downright democratic duty not to hinder the development of equal opportunities and justice simply by rejecting suitable linguistic means. "The generic masculine makes women invisible better than any burqa", Luise Pusch once said. It is the duty of linguistics in the debate about gender-equitable language to point out that this generic masculine is just as idealization as the "gender is not sex" thesis - neither of which has much to do with the reality of language.
At this point, from our point of view, a fundamental difference of opinion comes to light: that between system and use. For a long time, linguistics was characterized by an absolutization of the language system, which was viewed as a firmly established framework for communication in the form of grammar rules, declension tables and other structural specifications. Due to the huge digital collections of texts of all kinds, we now know how diverse, with how many variants and alternatives language is actually implemented in use. The framework of rules is only an abstraction of usage, and a picture of language that fits this finding much better is that of a body of water whose course, flow speed and water composition constantly adapts to the environmental conditions.
One such environmental condition of the waters of the German language today is the visualization of the various groups in our pluralistic society. Not every wish for visibility can be adequately met with linguistic means. However, the gender system in particular is tailored to clearly refer to men and women. Therefore, the use of gender-sensitive language is and will remain a simple, direct and effective way of contributing to gender equality.
Henning Lobin is a linguist at the University of Giessen. In August he becomes director of the Institute for German Language in Mannheim and professor for German linguistics at the university there. His "Digital and Networked. The New Image of Language" (Metzler-Verlag) will soon be published. Damaris Nübling is Professor of Historical German Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and a 2014 Konrad Duden Prize winner. In autumn, she and Helga Kotthoff will publish "Gender Linguistics. An Introduction to Language, Conversation and Gender" (Narr-Verlag).
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