Since antiquity, humans know that they are a species of political animals: „zoon politikon“. They want to be appreciated and understood by their peers. That’s why they have a strong need for harmony and resonance – on a less pleasant note, one could call this aspiration a desire for uniformity. First and foremost, the zoon politikon seeks a common language. In this pursuit, we do not tolerate our fellow humans arbitrarily tampering with this common instrument. It is enough for one of us to make mistakes like „he go-ed” instead of “he went to London” – and we are overcome by an inner revulsion, even though such a mistake does not cause any material harm. Yes, we willingly allow our fellows to invent entirely new, never-before-heard sentences. On a basis of equality, we can and want to be quite different from each other, but no one should question the fundamental basis of communication and its rules. This is just as unforgivable as someone showing up at an audience with the queen (or king) in a bathing suit or wearing a tie on their back at a job interview. In both cases, the perpetrator will be mercilessly kicked out or perhaps even end up in an insane asylum, although his behavior does cause no harm at all. Some among us may understand a terrorist who feels that his rights are being violated and therefore shoots around wildly, while they may not understand a person who wears a tie on the wrong side during a job interview.
Indeed, our need for a common basis of understanding is so pronounced, it dominates us so thoroughly that to this need we even sacrifice reason, better knowledge, and truth. That’s why in German-speaking countries there are those „language screwers“ referred to in the title.
In order to dispel any false suspicions from the outset, I would like to emphasize that reason, better knowledge and social truth demand that women, after millennia of oppression, finally be treated as equals to men. And reason, historical knowledge and social truth certainly offer the necessary guidance as to how this demand is to be enforced. In the every-day world of work, science, politics – in short, wherever tasks are fulfilled, and power is exercised, women should stand side by side with men on an equal footing and with equal rights. The hope that this will make politics and society much more humane, because both poles of human nature – the female and the male – will finally work together, does not seem unfounded. After all, since the time of hunter-gatherers, man has been programmed for killing and war, while the role of women has always been more about preserving and promoting life. If more humanity comes from such equality and equal treatment, then we may expect the best from a future where women no longer take a back seat behind men in terms of influence in politics and society.
But where is the connection with the language and its corrupters? Let me confess that I did not delve into the historical orgins of gendering. I did, however, hear the – possibly false – rumor that it was female professors at the University of Leipzig who laid the ideological foundation for the current corruption of the German language and actively promoted this process. From there, the evil spread throughout Germany and German-speaking countries.
The fact is that better knowledge, reason, and truth fell by the wayside from the very beginning. Let’s start with knowledge. It is a historical fact that India and China oppressed and exploited women even more strongly and systematically than Europe did. For about two thousand years, the high caste patriarchs in India succeeded in ensuring that after their death, their wives had to ascend the funeral pyre to be burned alive. This was a social imperative, just like not appearing in swim trunks at an audience with the Queen or wearing a tie on your back. In China, socially higher-standing women had to demonstrate their dependence on a wealthy man by mutilating their feet, so that everyone could see that they were unsuitable for plebeian, strenuous physical work. After all, their husbands could afford to employ servants. And in China, too, it was socially required good manners for a woman not to survive the death of her husband. If she did, she would face a miserable, ostracized existence – just as in India.
This is one side of our established historical knowledge; the other side concerns the respective languages of China and India. In large parts of the Indian subcontinent, Indo-European languages are spoken, which, like German, prescribe a strict marking of words by gender – they must be either masculine, feminine, or neuter. In contrast, Mandarin and other Sino-Tibetan languages are completely free from this distinction – just like modern English. „The house,“ „a river,“ „the street“ do not have a gender – the gender marking was abolished centuries ago. But in China it never even existed for thousands of years.
Historical knowledge thus presents us with two patriarchal cultures with a ruthless oppression of women but speaking very differently structured languages – one without gender marking, the other strictly imposing it. At this point, reason must come into play – our reason. It is called upon to draw its conclusions by asking whether language is responsible for the respective reality or not.
The answer is a clear, unequivocal „no.“ If language did have the slightest impact on prevailing living conditions, it would have prevented the emergence of a patriarchy in China. The same reasoning applies to Europe. As mentioned earlier, English abandoned gender marking centuries ago, but no one would claim that the English patriarchy was less strict after this change than in other European countries where there was no comparable linguistic development. Clearly, lived and living reality on the one hand and language on the other develop independently of each other.
This brings me to the third sacrifice after that of historical knowledge and reason. I am talking about the disregard, one could also say, the complete indifference to truth. The just-mentioned historical evidence simply does not interest the language screwers from Leipzig and their followers. Their theory sovereignly flouts historical truth because it is founded on a falsehood, namely, the claim that language has a noticeable and demonstrable impact on lived and living reality. It has no such impact. If you need a further proof, just consider the fact that all languages of the world „get along“ – as it were without any resistance – with our modern scientific-technical life reality, although this causes a profound break with earlier life realities and the world views connected with them.
With this, reason arrives at a final insight: the reality of life dominates language, but the opposite is never the case (whatever Benjamin Whorf may claim).*1* The language-corrupters from Leipzig did not understand this and did not want to accept it; instead, they surrendered to delusion and ideological stubbornness that underlie the evil of language-screwing.
But how did this delusion arise? I can only speculate on this point, since I am not able to look into the heads of those female professors in Leipzig, but let me imagine the following. One of them may have asked: Why do we say “DER Kreis” (the – masculine – circle), even though I imagine something round when thinking of a circle? The preceding “DER” bothers me terribly. In my mind, it creates something masculine, something pointed – to put it more drastically, a penis. What does this penis have to do with a circle, which in my mind evokes something round, a breast, a vulva, in other words, something feminine?
I can well imagine that such musings can arise in sick or hypersensitive minds. The average German, who populates our big cities by the millions, does not fall for such aberrant thoughts, and the clever poets of the German language were above such inclinations. Both continue to say „DER Kreis“ without thinking of either a penis or a vulva. And to this very day, no one has been bothered that poets and thinkers uttered a sentence like „DER Mensch ist edel und gut“ (THE – masculine article – human being is noble and good). It was taken for granted that the generic article “DER” embraced both women and men, its masculine connotation being completely suppressed.
This was, however, quite unacceptable for the sophisticated and hypersensitive researchers from Leipzig – after all they had been thoroughly trained in Freud. Being much more sophisticated and sensitive than us naive average people, they see vulvas and penises everywhere. So, irresistibly, they feel compelled to ideologically sanitize the sentence and linguistically straighten it out: „DER Mensch und DIE Menschin sind edel und gut.“ Or even better: “Mensch:Innen sind edel und gut“ (Man-Woman are noble and good). If only they could prevail against the forces of linguistic inertia, they would long ago have imposed this „reform“ on us.
Because those language screwers from Leipzig – supposing that this horrendous nonsense did indeed originate from there – are much more cunning than us simple-minded people. That’s why they don’t settle for that lower type of science, which sticks to mere facts (see India, China, England). With unflinching determination, they stand by their own opinion and personal conviction – for them this represents the higher type of science, which may sovereignly ignore historical facts. Based on such personal insights and convictions, it is evident that they can no longer utter a seemingly harmless sentence like „DER Arzt ist unverzichtbarer Teil einer modernen Gesellschaft“ (THE – masuline article – doctor is an indispensable part of a modern society“. For any Freud-trained professor this „DER“ can no longer be tolerated – it is as if a patriarchal penis were rumbling in her brain. As a woman she feels herself no longer represented, nay, even excluded and disrespected. Therefore, the sentence must be ideologically sanitized and linguistically deformed: „DER Arzt und die DIE Ärztin sind… “ or even better: „(Ärzte und) Ärzt:Innen sind.. “
The language screwers of Leipzig already won a half victory. As soon as we begin to replace the generic article “DER„, which in sentences like the above used to designate both genders, with these cumbersome but ideologically unequivocal circumlocutions, its further use in this sense becomes increasingly difficult. In the end, the generic article then truly designates only the masculine. This is a linguistic regression, an ideologically driven dismantling. How beautiful is the old usage: „Ärzte sind unverzichtbar“ (Doctors are indispensable) in comparison to the imposed variant, „Ärzt:Innen sind unverzichtbar”! But German semi-intellectuals don’t give a damn about linguistic beauty, as they are particularly susceptible to the subtleties of ideology. It is true that most of them would not have thought of their own accord that a penis was rumbling in their brain, when someone utters the words „DER Kreis” or „DER Arzt“. It needed the ideological indoctrination from Leipzig – if indeed that’s the place were it comes from – to entice and to convince them. After all, it is so much more refined, one can feel so much more intelligent and elevated above the average person, if, with a sneer, one dismisses as naïve and unenlighted the common man’s use and understanding of language.
Better knowledge, reason, and truth have always been trampled upon – with particular relish by those semi-intellectuals who believe they are aligning themselves with the refined, the hypersensitive – in this case, with the arrogant screwers of language. But that’s not all: half-knowledge and half-truth celebrate one more triumph. The most insidious way to mislead the public is to declare language screwing a left-wing concern and thus demonize any resistance as a sign of reactionary backwardness. Only because this concern – this pseudo-concern – has been made a left-wing one, the resistance against it comes mainly from the right.
This was possible because the language-corrupters from Leipzig confused being with appearances. Those who truly advocate a left-wing concern for greater social justice will vigorously work to change lived and living reality. However, this requires ongoing and unending efforts. To combat the ongoing disadvantage of women in politics and the workplace requires constant reforms: changing institutions, safeguarding democracy, improving the living conditions of disadvantaged groups. This process is like drilling through often very thick boards for decades or even centuries. In comparison, it is so much easier to agree on the rape of language and to exclude from the circle of orthodox believers all those who refuse this cheap – and ultimately completely ineffective – procedure! The new Tsar of all Russians is currently setting an example of how unimportant the substance matter and how important appearances. He never misses an opportunity to kiss icons and cross himself in the light of television cameras. This allows him to turn the teachings of the New Testament into their exact opposite, by turning it into an instruction to exterminate one’s neighbors!
You are right, the comparison is far-fetched. Crimes against language are harmless compared to those committed against people in the name of ideology. And yet, I cannot deny the suspicion that the language screwers from Leipzig – if they indeed they came from that city – adopted the same maxim. „Let us stick to appearances, and then we won’t have to worry about the substance.”
That is exactly what has happened. The German language has fallen into the clutches of the semi-literate and the fanatics. And it is not philistines, politicians, school dropouts or the mentally impaired who are responsible for this, but the evil was born in the very center of higher education – in German universities.
*1* I must, nevertheless, add one important concession. Language cannot change the reality of life, but through its own magic it can carry us off into other – sometimes wonderful, sometimes frightening – realities. This is proven by every successful poem and by the fact that a poem, especially when it is perfect, cannot be transferred into other languages without loss. But this perfect correspondence of content and form applies only to the language in which it was conceived by the poet.
I got the following email from the linguist and anthropologist Prof. Christopher Hallpike:
Dear Dr Jenner, thanks for a very interesting paper. I am bound to say, however, that as a native English-speaker I have always regarded grammatical gender as one of man’s most useless and tiresome inventions conveying absolutely no information whatever. Could not the Germans, simply as a matter of convenience, agree to use der for everything and consign die and das etc. to history?
Dear Mr. Hallpike,
You are too much of a historian to take your suggestion seriously. At one time, several thousand years ago, the distinction between the sexes must have played a crucial role. I imagine it was a something like a philosophical thunderbolt. Humans discovered that not only they, but the entire animal world was polarized into the two sexes, but that there was still a transition of sexlessness until sexual maturity. Then, after our ancestors had begun to distinguish the cock and the hen (German: der Hahn/ die Henne) and all the rest of the animal world according to these criteria, they had to do the same with the rest of things (grammatical rules are hard to limit) – and that’s where the madness started.
This is mere speculation, I admit, but it took the English several centuries to put an end to gender marking. And it was not the elite, who did so; it was the dumbest among the people who could not correctly pronounce the French words imported by the Normans and who certainly could not cope with their gender. In Germany, it may be the migrants who set this process in motion. But for now, much like in England, this too amounts to a horrible language corruption for a century or more.
All the best
Dear Dr Jenner,
I think the loss of gender in English in fact started earlier than the Normans, with the interaction between Danes and Anglo-Saxons, but it’s certainly true that simplification is closely associated with foreigners. Europeans might retort that English spelling needs simplification, but we too would say that this would be horrible language bastardization!