Hildegard Gorny
'Feministische Sprachkritik'
in G. Stötzel & M. Wengeler (eds.),  
Kontroverse Begriffe. Geschichte des öffentlichen Sprachgebrauchs in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland

de Gruyter, Berlin & New York 1995, pp. 517-62.

Tracy Wearn (FY 2002-3)


Gorny’s article is clear and well structured and relatively easy to understand. It comprises of an introduction and then sections on the origins of feminist linguistics, its social context, the linguistic targets of feminist criticism, proposed solutions to these problems, different strands of opposition to feminist linguistics, the ways in which language use in the BRD has been influenced by feminism, and a conclusion.


Gorny defines feministist linguistics as language criticism aimed at encouraging geschlechter-gerechten Sprachgebrauch. While the feminist movement in general has questioned male dominance in society, feminist linguistics concerns itself with male dominance in what Gorny calls ‘Sprachgewohnheiten’, such as the use of so-called ‘geschlechtsneutralen Personenbezeichnungen’. The aim of feminist linguistics is to make women more ‘sichtbar und hörbar’, particularly in public and published language.


Feminist linguisticshas it’s roots in the USA in the early 1970s and was initiated by the woman’s movement. It was then championed by lady linguists in the academic world; in Germany these were Senta Trömel-Plötz and Luise F. Pusch, who founded German feminist linguistics while they were lecturers at the University of Konstanz.

The first academic articles on this subject in Germany were published in 1979 and 1980, and this new academic discipline was given impetus by a new understanding of the interplay between language and society - i.e. the concept that they have a reciprocal effect (Wechselwirkung) on each other.

Social factors

Gorny’s article focusses on sexistische Sprachgebrauch, i.e. looking at semantic, structural and patriarchal markers in language use, as opposed to the different ways in which men and women use language. Feminist linguistics doesn’t see language as a gender-neutral mode of communication, but as reflecting social reality.

As evidence for this, Gorny quotes the Germanistin Gertrude Postl who points out that since in our history men have held the economic, political and social reins, they are also accustomed to controlling language. Gorny also cites German law-making as an example; before the latter part of the twentieth century German law did not linguistically allow for the existence of female ministers, mayors, MPs or clerics.

Points of criticism

Feminist linguists do not simply want to describe language use but to criticise and modify it. Consequently, in 1981 four prominent female linguists formulated a concrete definition of sexist language use; firstly, it is "Sprache, die Frauen nur in stereotypen Rollen zeigt". Secondly, it is "Sprache, die Frauen immer in Abhaengigkeit vom Mann darstellt". Thirdly, it is "Sprache, die Frauen ignoriert and ausschliesst, weil der Mann als Standard und Norm fuer den Menschen schlechthin gilt". Finally, it is "abwertende Sprache, durch die Frauen degradiert werden".

Generic masculine

This term refers to use of a masculine term when referring to the personal, functional and professional status of unknown or unspecific persons, e.g. Student, Mitarbeiter. The gender categorisation of most nouns is arbitrary; der Sessel, die Blume, and das Glueck, for example, have nothing inherently gender indicative about them, and only a few Personenbezeichnungen like Tochter, Sohn, Mutter and Vater are associated with either of the sexes.

However, despite this arbitrariness, most Personenbezeichnungen are male in their root form and require the suffix ‘in’ to become female, e.g. Waehler, Lehrer, Arzt, and Personenbezeichnungen with this suffix are ‘motivated’ and exclusively female.

The masculine (unmotivated) form on the other hand is not exclusive and has two aditional functions; referring to mixed groups, and those where the sex of the group members is unknown. Hence, the masculine form becomes neutral and generic, e.g. a group of 99 Studentinnen and 1 Student is still referred to as Studenten.

Trömel-Plötz argues that this grammatical form makes women invisible, while Pusch argues about the psychological effects of the generic masculine; "Maenner haben mehr Chancen des Gemeintseins und damit die Identifiziertwerdens als Frauen." Christiane Schmerl goes yet further and speaks of this language use as ‘Annihilierung’. This use of the masculine form establishes the masculine as the norm and feminine forms as a departure from the norm, making them untypical or insignificant, thereby confirming male dominance.

Metaphors and Idioms

Gorny discusses the ways in which patriarchy is expressed more informally in phrases such as "Sie ist ein richtiger Junge" and "Du benimmst dich wie ein Mädchen".

Use of titles and names

Gorny shows that ‘in Parlamentsdrucksachen und in der Presse werden Frauen sprachlich anders behandelt als Maenner’. E.g. in lists of MPs the first names or titles of the women are given, (e.g. ‘Frau Thatcher’) while men like Heseltine seems to require no first name or title at all.

Portrayal of women in the press

The highest levels of journalism and the media are dominated by men - reporting on female politicians devotes more lines to their dress and appearance than that of their male colleagues.


Strictly speaking, the most ‘gerecht’ way to make women as linguistically visible as men is to use both forms of Personenbezeichnung next to each other. However, this is considered to be ponderous and uneconomical, and so various forms of ‘splitting’ have been suggested:

1) die Klammer: Leser(in)
2) der Schraegstrich: Leser/in
3) die Paarformel: Leserin und Leser
4) das Binnen-I: LeserIn

Examples of 1 and 2 are mostly found in job ads and similar genres, while 3 and 4 are more favoured in complete texts. The use of Binnen-I is growing in popularity but seems to have hit a patriarchal nerve and causes the most controversy. (‘Der Spiegel’ listed it under the heading ‘Sprach-Suenden’) Binnen-I is not sanctioned by the Duden so is therefore not accepted as official German.


Gerhard Stickel is cited by Gorny as a principal opponent of so-called Sprach-Feminismus; most notably, he refers to the feminist construction of the gender concept as a kind of ‘grammatische Phallus’. His main suggestion is to avoid the use of motivated feminine forms in order to force increased neutrality on the masculine forms.

Gorny is not convinced by his reasoning; she points out that this course of action would simply reinforce the male dominated status quo since that grammatische Masculinum will always have something ‘mannlich’ about it. In fact, she sees Stickel’s tactic as one of six opposition strategies identified by fellow feminist linguist campaigner Marlis Hellinger; Lying, ignoring, appeasing, warning against, belittling, and making fun. (Reinhard Olt, lead journalist of the FAZ wrote Gorny and her colleagues off as ‘Sprach-Amazonen’, and their proposals as ‘diktatorische Sprach-Politik’.)

Many critics point to the lack of empirical evidence and deny that the majority of women actually care about their linguistic visibility. Feminist linguists tend to take into consideration mostly the opinions of other feminists, and to their shame, have never thoroughly surveyed the general female german population.

Other opponents attempt to reduce the significance of feminist linguistic studies by posing the question; "Gibt es keine wichtigeren Probleme?" Yet others claim that language is the product of society, and that social change must be implemented before language change can come about. They take the view that language does not function as a determining social factor. Gorny responds with a question of her own; "Wenn Sprache eine so unerhebliche Rolle spielt, warum wird dann soviel Muehe aufgewandt, diese belanglosen Sprachaenderungen zu verhindern?"

The media are particularly fond of the making-fun approach to opposition, proposing that the letters ‘man’ be replaced with ‘frau’ in every context - even in words like manchmal, Emanzipation and Mannheim. This approach is used to back up views that proposed changes to the language - i.e. splitting - are "stilistisch unschön und nicht vorlesbar".

Feminists respond to such criticism with the logical suggestion that instead of adding women into present texts , that the texts could be reformulated and reject the ‘Alles-oder-nichts-Prinzip’ of their male opponents.

Linguistic developments

1) Fräulein - use of ‘Frau’ to refer to both married and unmarried women. ‘Fraulein’ was recognised as being a diminutive and discriminatory form, while giving out too much information; previously a male employer could have decided to employ only unmarried - i.e. available - ‘Fräuleins’ in his workforce, for example.

2) Namensrecht - in 1976 it became legal to take the birthname of the woman as a couple’s married name. Since April 1996 - both partners in a marriage can keep their own names.

3) Professional titles - first started to change in the mid-80s in the aftermath of a notable courtcase in 1986 to allow Amtfrauen to be called Amtfrauen instead of Amtmaeninnen. Conversely, the proposal that male nurses, midwives, and nursery teachers would have new job titles formulated for them was uncontested; Krankenpfleger, Geburtshelfer und Erzieher, for example.

4) Academic titles - change centres around the use of the terms Professorin, Doktorin, Magistra and Diplompaedagogin. Must be a bit strange for a female academic to receive certification indicating that she is a man...however, some women academics have protested at the changes, preferring the more masculine title for the sake of their job prospects.

5) Political titles - the influx of women into politics in recent years has naturally led to changes and the coining of the title Frau Minister or Ministerin, or avoidance of these titles by referring as much as possible simply to the Ministerium. Also applies to terms like Ratsfrau/Frau Ratsherr/Ratsherrin

6) Job advertisments - in paragraph 611b of the Buergerliches Gesetzbuch it is written that employers must stick to an equal opportunities policy for men and women when advertising job vacancies. A study carried out by a Hamburg institute in 1990 showed that 75% of job ads flouted this law and discriminated against women. 94% of local and national authority ads were geschlechtsneutral, wheras 95% of jobs in top management positions were aimed at men. According to the feminists, this gives women a worse chance in the job market than men.

7) Legal and official language - various universities have begun to allow the use of Binnen-I forms in official documentaion and asssessed work. However, notable official examples of exclusive language still remain; Der Inhaber dieses Passes ist Deutscher, den schwangeren Arbeiter (para. 616, Absatz 3 des Buergerlichen Gesetzbuches)! Grammatical reformulation usually works.

8) Former East German states - feminist language didn’t gain much of a following in politics in the DDR, even among its female politicians; quote from Angela Merkel, Frauenministerin from the former East Germany, to Sabine Bergmann-Pohl, state secretary of the first united German parliament: "Ich bin Realist, geehrter Kollege Bergmann-Pohl."

9) Pictograms - the womens movement has questioned why the people-symbols on traffic lights, U-bahn entrances, pedestrian zones and traffic signs are generally men - except those which show mothers holding their children by the hand or with prams...


Gorny notes that often the opposition to liguistic change under the influence of feminism is motivated not so much against the changes in themselves, but against the accompanying implications of gender equality and the erosion of the privileged status of males within society. Language change alone will not bring social change BUT it has served to uncover male dominance in all its mundane forms, and to sensitise society to sexism. It may be to early to speak of Sprachwandel, but feminist arguments over language can now no longer be ignored. Perhaps one day it is foreseeable that ‘frau’ will replace ‘man’ as the impersonal pronoun?