Kai Wegner, Mayor of Berlin and member of the Christian Democrat party has recently met a strong backlash after announcing he will not be using gender-inclusive language in office. The recently-appointed mayor insisted he would use “language that everyone understands”.
Wegner became mayor of the Germany capital city last month and suggested in an interview with Bild am Sonntag, that he and a figurative support network were ready to cease the progression of gender-neutral language altogether within the city’s administration.
In the interview he remarked “I have yet to sign a letter in gendered language [gender-neutral language]. What’s important to me is that the administrative language is comprehensible. Everyone can speak as they like in private, but I want to speak the German that I learned in school and that everyone understands.”
Wegner justified his argument by expressing the concern over migrant German language learners. Encouraged to learn German, Wegner said he did not want newcomers to Germany to find the language more difficult than it actually is.
“We expect that people who come to Germany learn German and in particular it shouldn’t be the authorities who make it unnecessarily difficult for them to do so,” he said.
Many critics called Wegner’s reasoning disingenuous and caused a backlash whereby he was forced to clarify his remarks and reportedly backtracked. In a later interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper, he insisted he was not planning a ban on gender-neutral language in the city hall.
I am interested in having a language that is understandable,” he said. “Everyone is free to speak as they like, but I for one will continue to write as I learned to do in school. For this reason I have not and will not sign a letter sent from my senate chancellery in gendered language.”
According to traditional German language rules, genders are sorted into male, female and neutral. Noun identifiers reflect this in uses of ‘der’ ‘die’ and ‘das’, however gender equality and LGBTQ+ activists have also created gender-neutral endings.
A male citizen is a Bürger, and a female a Bürgerin – however when male and female citizens are referred to collectively or plurally, the masculine overrides feminine rules and they are termed Bürger. In response, after years of outrage, asterisks have been added in front of the feminine word ending – making Bürger*innen out of Bürger. The movement has strong opponents who argue words are becoming too cumbersome and difficult to pronounce.
Johanna Usinger, a supporter and pioneer of the alternative form and creator of open-source online gender dictionary geschicktgendern.de (clever gendering) in 2015, explained: “Our thinking is influenced through language. If it’s only the masculine that’s named, this conjures up a mental image which often contradicts reality.”
She added that language is an expression of “democratic principle and behaviour” that “demonstrates an appreciation of everyone, regardless of their sex”.
A campaign against gender-neutral language in Germany has been strongly backed by the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), as well as Wegner’s party, the Christian Democrats (CDU).