Bye-bye “man”, say hello to “eins”

I recently observed a new trend in progressive German, new to me at least, which means it’s “dissecting gender in the German language time” again. Today we take a look at the German word man, not to be confused with the English man. Although they seem similar and share the same origin, they have different meanings:

man (German)
one, you, they (indefinite pronoun)
man (English)
an adult male human

Examples

Take this random English sentence I just came up with:

One does not simply walk into Mordor.

It translates to Duden[1]-approved German like this:

Man spaziert nicht einfach nach Mordor.

This is a very common pronoun used for general statements in German.

Etymology

The history of the modern German man can be traced back all the way to the common ancestor of most European languages, Proto-Indo-European:

  • Proto-Indo-European: *mon-, *men-
    • Proto-Germanic: *mann-
      • Proto-West Germanic: *mann
        • Old High German: man
          • Middle High German: man
            • German: Mann, man

And there we have it: man and Mann (translates to the English man) are basically the same word, they are even pronounced the same way. Head over to Wiktionary which is an absolute treasure if you want to learn more about Etymology aka the history of words.

The problem

Despite being an indefinite pronoun, man is strongly associated with Mann which carries a “male” undertone. It’s really hard to shed this connotation when the word is essentially the same minus one letter.

Which leads us back to the above-mentioned trend and the question: How can we turn German into a more inclusive language?

The word man could be replaced with more specific pronouns like ich (English I) or wir (English we). This loses some of the original meaning though since the use of an indefinite pronoun is generally intentional.

Another approach would be – you guessed it – passive voice. But turning everything into passive voice on our quest for a gender-neutral language inevitably leads to a very unnatural sounding, kinda technical way of speaking and writing.

A solution

Language is what we the people speak and write, not what a random Council for German Orthography or Association for the German Language deem “correct” German. As long as others understand what we say (the language actually works as a means of communication), we can do whatever we want.

Why search for weird alternatives if we could turn to English once again and just use the literal translation of one (as in the translation for the numeral).

Meet the new indefinite German pronoun eins.

It is a direct replacement for man, so it doesn’t even require that much rethinking:

Eins spaziert nicht einfach nach Mordor.


  1. The Duden is the most well-known German dictionary. The actual “standards body” for German is the Council for German Orthography. While the Duden is becoming increasingly progressive, the Council is staffed by a bunch of boomers, so, we can safely ignore it. ↩︎