Gender-sensitive language – is it just about male and female? No!

Gender sensitivity in language is being talked about all the time. And it is a highly charged topic, as the great interest in our Gender issues in a linguistic world article showed. Today, we would like to focus on a further perspective within the topic. That of two people who do not see themselves represented by the categories man or woman.

Gender-sensitive language

Most people identify with the gender recorded on their birth certificate for their entire lives. But for some that is not the case. Non-binary people do not identify, or only identify in part, with one of the two binary genders “male” and “female”. Like Joan (19), for example. Franziska, on the other hand, spent the first thirty years of her life being “Andreas”. Today, she is what she always felt she was: a lesbian trans woman. We asked them both what they think about gender-sensitive language and how language can do justice to their identity.


19 years old, grammar school student, sport crazy. Favourite sport: handball. Gender: non-binary (they). Find out more about non-binary gender here.

She is a trans woman and describes herself as a woman, father and amateur writer. Franziska invites interested readers to take a look at her blog (in German) to find out more about her.

As a non-binary or transgender person, how do you see the discussion on gender-sensitive language?

Joan: I think it’s great that there is a discussion going on. It’s time something happened. It should be possible for us to make people take our concerns seriously. It would be great if those not affected would also stand up for the recognition of our rights.

Franziska: I think it is right and also at times necessary. I welcome the discussion but don’t actually get involved terribly actively myself. Unfortunately, both supporters and opponents are not nearly objective enough and are unnecessarily emotional about it.

Do you feel addressed by the gender variants in the German language such as asterisk, colon, underscore, etc.?

Joan: Yes, most of all by the gender asterisk; you don’t see the other variants as much.

Franziska: Yes. I like the colon best: it is visible but it doesn’t detract too much from the rest. I understand that in languages with differences between male and female nouns, a masculine form used for simplicity’s sake implicitly includes the feminine form. In the case of a word like employee for example (in German an Arbeitnehmer, in French a salarié) in a contract or the like. But from a subjective point of view, in terms of my feelings, I find the gender-sensitive version more appealing. Perhaps because authors then give me the impression that they mean me, too.

Are we, as people in a clearly defined gender scheme, discussing something that in fact is not actually an issue for you?

Franziska: I think that the subject of gender-sensitive language is something that affects everyone. 

There are those who simply don’t use gender-sensitive language because they are not used to it and they do not really think about the differences. Others are not bothered by it but they do write in a gender-sensitive manner. Then there are those who think it would be good to use gender-sensitive language, but are not too bothered if in fact it is not. That’s where I see myself. I rarely see anyone making a fuss about the necessity for gender-sensitive language, but you do hear plenty of people who make fun of gender-sensitive issues or obviously feel irritated by them.

Whenever I see gender-sensitive language being used, I feel that there is someone actually recognising diversity. For me, I am far more bothered about being acknowledged than thinking about what is fair.

Joan: When I hear those who are not affected talking about it, I find that in fact there is often very little knowledge of what non-binary actually is. But I do welcome the fact that both those concerned and those who are not directly affected are engaging in discussions.

Which terms and words do you like? And which irritate you?

Franziska: Gender-sensitive language is good if you use it with people you are talking to directly. I disagree with dogmatism, for example demanding that, in languages with male and female forms, the generic female be used to denote particular professions (“From now on, we will refer to all professors in the feminine form, even if they are men.”).

I like the use of the gender signs in official and public texts. But they definitely shouldn’t be used in fiction and stories! When I’m reading an exciting story, I don’t suddenly want to have the feeling that I’m reading a technical description. I write myself and have found a gender-sensitive form for my fictional texts and stories that does not disturb the flow of reading. 

Joan: I like using “person” in texts, it’s a very good and simple way of replacing “he/she”. Nothing really irritates me, except that there is no official neopronoun in German yet, like they/them in English.

What would you like to see happen with language?

Joan: First and foremost, I would like to see more use of spellings with *, :, _ – for example on websites, in newspapers or even when people are talking on the radio. Only then can everyone be happy and feel they are being addressed. I think it would also encourage and support people who have not come out yet but who have identified themselves as being non-binary. 

Franziska: People who do not fit into a gender-normative category have the same need for gender-sensitive language as women do – I don’t see any difference there. I would like to see more use of gender-sensitive language to show that attention is being paid to equality for everyone, even if only implicitly.

But I would appreciate people dealing with it in a casual manner and not opening up a whole new can of worms if it is not used. There are more serious and more pressing issues in the rainbow community than language.

Do you have any questions or are you interested in working with us?

I would be happy to answer your questions or introduce you to Apostroph Group and our services in a personal meeting.
Nadia Gaille
Head of Customer Success

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