Fynn Becker

The Missing Neutral Pronoun in German

In October of 2020, I wrote a blog post about the gender problem with the German language. In short, every German noun has either one or multiple genders (feminine, masculine, or neuter) attached to it. This is in itself not problematic, unfortunately nouns that describe what a person is are almost always in the generic masculine form.

Teacher, cyclist, or astronaut – these English words don’t have any gender, but the German translation is always masculine first:

Lehrer, Radfahrer oder Astronaut

The German feminine form must be explicitly derived from the masculine one:

Lehrerin, Radfahrerin oder Astronautin

Thankfully, a lot of progress has been made over the last couple of years. Namely the combination of the masculine and feminine form into a new neutral one:

Lehrer:in, Radfahrer:in oder Astronaut:in

Instead of a colon, the “gender star” ( * ) and “gender gap” ( _ ) also see widespread usage. But apart from their not-so-aesthetic looks inside a word, the colon comes with better support for assistive technology. Both star and underscore will be read out loud by screen readers, the colon inserts a short pause.

This is a perfect segue to the glottal stop, which is a short pause inside or at the end of a spoken word. In English the glottal stop is most often heard when words or syllables end in plosives like t or k:

light, apartment, notebook, backseat

Inserting short pauses slowly becomes more common in spoken German for the “neutralized” nouns to match the written form:

Lehrer (short pause) in

Colons and glottal stops inside nouns are a huge win on German’s path to becoming an inclusive language. But. There is one elephant in the room.

Singular they

The German language lacks a neutral pronoun. The binary pronouns she and he have direct translations, but there is no equivalent for singular they. Yes, the plural they has a translation, but it cannot easily be used in a singular way. The reason is a terribly overloaded word:

Type English German
Singular pronoun she sie
Plural pronoun they sie
Formal address you Sie
Female being a she eine Sie

There is a lot of debate and some new pronouns have been proposed. Nothing stuck and nothing is official. The best stop-gap solution is avoiding pronouns completely. Instead of “Dear Ms Adira Tal”, an email or letter can begin with “Hello Adira Tal” to respect the pronoun preference “they”. See how I snuck in some Star Trek lore 😏?

The highest court of the state of Hesse confirmed that a binary greeting “Ms” or “Mr” invades the personal rights. Forms must provide a third non-binary choice and the “official” gender of a person according to the registered civil status is irrelevant. Everyone may choose whatever address they prefer.

Court decisions like these are great for certain use cases. But sometimes a pronoun is absolutely necessary to construct a grammatically correct sentence. So, a neutral pronoun is still missing.