Inclusive" language begins to regress in Germany

After years of trying to inoculate such language through schools, the media and public administrations, some of them have recently begun to backtrack.

José M. García Pelegrín-April 9, 2024-Reading time: 4 minutes

On April 1, a ban on the use of so-called inclusive language came into force in Bavaria, both in education (schools and universities) and in public administration.

In mid-March, the regional government approved an extension of the regulation which, even before that, obliged official bodies - including state schools, which account for the vast majority - to use the official German spelling rules, which do not provide for such inclusive language.

Now, this new standard goes a step further by expressly prohibiting different ways of expressing such "inclusivity" or "neutrality".

In order to understand the scope of this regulation, it is important to clarify that, in Germany, the competence for the use of language in public bodies is vested with the Länder (Federated States) and not to the Bund (central government, which in Spain would be called the State).

German Spelling Council

Secondly, there is no "Academy of the German Language" in the German-speaking world. There is a "German Spelling Council" which defines itself as "an intergovernmental body responsible for maintaining uniformity of spelling in the German-speaking world and further developing it as necessary on the basis of spelling rules".

It includes 41 members from seven countries or regions (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Alto Adige and the German-speaking Community of Belgium). Luxembourg is a member with voice but no vote. In mid-December 2023, the Council again ruled against the inclusion of "special characters" in the German spelling rules. 

On the other hand, the "inclusive" language began to be expressed with the splitting of the sexes ("Zuschauerinnen und Zuschauer": "spectators"); but due to reasons of linguistic economy - in the official brochure of a public agency it was even said that, in the concentration camps, "the National Socialists tortured Jewish women and men" - other ways of expressing it were sought, such as the "special characters" referred to by the Council.

These characters include forms such as Zuschauer_innen, ZuschauerInnen, Zuschauer*innen or, the most widespread of late and adopted by many media, the two points in between: Zuschauer:innen. 

How are these words pronounced, e.g. "Zuschauer:innen"? When this phenomenon first arose, one could observe - mainly on radio and television - two ways of pronouncing it: either by making a small pause or an "occlusive" sound (a kind of "hiccup attack", according to its detractors).

Here, too, however, the principle of economy of speech applies: lately there is less and less of that pause or occlusive sound. The result is that "Zuschauerinnen", the feminine plural, is pronounced. Instead of inclusion, the opposite is achieved: the unintentional (?) exclusion of the masculine. Or is this a deliberate attempt to replace the "generic masculine" with the "generic feminine"?

It is not surprising that, due to the ambiguous and cumbersome nature of this language, a large number of "ordinary" citizens reject it; all the surveys carried out on the subject show a high percentage of people who oppose this type of "characters".

The population against inclusive language

According to the "RTL/ntv trend barometer" (July 2023), almost three quarters (73%) are against such language. Only 22% of the respondents think it is a good thing that people speak or write in this way.

By gender, men are more opposed (77% against, 18% in favor) than women (70% to 26%). The only group with a majority in favor is that of the supporters of the "Greens" party (58%). 

Given these figures, it is hard to understand the attempt to impose this language by practically all the media -with state radio and television leading the way- and also by public administrations, despite the opposition of the majority of the population.

However, some public administrations are already starting to backtrack, as evidenced by the decision taken by Bavaria.

But this was not the only one: for example, the federal state of Hesse has also announced that in official correspondence it will only use "standardized and comprehensible language" based on the guidelines of the German Spelling Council.

Already earlier, in 2021, the regional ministry (equivalent to "counseling") of Education and Culture of Saxony decided that "inclusive" language would not be used in schools and school supervisory authorities.

The ministry reaffirmed this in July 2023, extending the directive with a decree: it also refers to the German Spelling Council, which, according to the Saxon ministry, "points out that the written language must be barrier-free and take into account those who have difficulty reading or writing even simple texts, as well as those who learn German as a second or foreign language."

Inclusive language in the federal states

Recently, the platform "Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND)" has published a summary on the state of affairs in the federal states. According to this report, Schleswig-Holstein also prohibits the use of special characters, i.e. if a student uses it in his exam, it is considered a "fault".

The same applies in Saxony-Anhalt, where its use is also criminalized. This is despite the fact that the Saxony-Anhalt ministry of education land strives to use gender-neutral terms, the ministry told RND: the administration has been using the split in the feminine and masculine form since 1992.

The other eleven federal states have a more open stance on this inclusive language. For example, the regional ministry of culture in Lower Saxony stresses: "It is important that, in the school sector, all people - regardless of their gender identity - feel that they are addressed correctly".

The aim is to choose "understandable language that does not discriminate against anyone". A similar view is held in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Rhineland-Palatinate, according to RND.

Only two Länder, Bremen and Saarland, are clearly in favor of using such special characters and this is done by the public administration of these Länder.

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