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University of Basel

This side and that. (02/2023)

“Language is an instrument of power.”

Interview: Urs Hafner

What is OK to say? It’s a hot topic. Linguist Martin Luginbühl criticizes the lack of linguistic awareness in current debates on the “gender asterisk” in German and reducing discrimination in language use.

Martin Luginbühl
Professor Martin Luginbühl (Photo: Kostas Maros)

UNI NOVA: Mr. Luginbühl, the German language has become a battleground. People are arguing over how they should be writing and “gendering.” As a linguist, are you happy to see this?

Martin Luginbühl: Yes and no. On the one hand, I think it’s good – and important – that so many people are discussing the possibility of reducing discrimination in language. Language is not a neutral medium; it shapes reality. On the other hand, it’s a shame that these debates are so bitter. Political parties are exploiting the issue. It also bothers me that so many people are linguistically ill-informed.

What do politicians need to understand?

Recently, a female student of mine wrote a master’s thesis on how pupils at lower-secondary-level schools in German-speaking Switzerland understand texts written with and without the gender asterisk. An asterisk, or sometimes a colon, is used in German to incorporate all gender identities, e.g. “Lehrer*innen” to denote teachers of all gender identities. Her research clearly showed that the asterisk does not impair comprehension. Similar studies have come to the same conclusion. And yet the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) claims the exact opposite in the initiative it submitted in Zürich, opposing the use of the gender asterisk in official texts.

Another objection is that gender asterisks make a text look ugly.

You can hold this opinion, of course, and so you don’t have to use it. Language belongs to us all. Contrary to what right-wing populist parties say, nobody is being compelled to use the gender asterisk. If an institution decides to use it, then that is an internal rule, like when traffic police officers are required to wear a uniform.

If a society locks horns over language use, does it mean that society is in turmoil?

These debates are representative of the change occurring in concepts of gender. We are moving away from the binary model toward gender diversity. The first stage took place in the 1980s, when people started adding a capital I to make women more visible, for example, the plural of “Lehrer” became “LehrerInnen”.

Back then, it was about the visibility of two genders. Today, the gender asterisk aims to reflect the gender spectrum and promote the dissolution of gender as a category.

I don’t believe that. It’s about “de-binarizing” gender as a category. Ultimately, gender binarity is a social construct, albeit a powerful one. It even got to the point where infants who could not be identified as male or female received unnecessary medical treatment so that they could be categorized as either male or female.

There is a countermovement: Right-wing journalists are deliberately and increasingly using the generic masculine form.

They can if they want to, but it doesn’t make their texts any more comprehensible. Today, the use of this form quickly raises the question of who the text is referring to – is it only talking about men? The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure once said that meaning depends on a word’s relation to other words. Meaning is determined by context. In a world in which gender identities are being made more and more visible in language, the meaning of the “generic masculine” becomes less clear. Psycholinguistic studies also show that this evokes predominantly masculine images in readers’ minds. When we speak German, we use gender, we have no choice in the matter.

Do you use the gender asterisk?

Rarely. For aesthetic reasons, and because it’s faster to type, I use a colon [e.g. Lehrer:innen]; I find it integrates better into the text. But what I personally use is not important: There are many ways to use inclusive language. And this is where the German language is currently evolving.

The antiracist postcolonial scene has recently started to capitalize “schwarz/black” as an adjective, for example “Schwarze Frauen” in German and “Black women” in English. Orthographically speaking, this is incorrect in both languages. Does that bother you?

In this case, “Schwarz/Black” isn’t describing skin color, but rather a socially constructed category. So it doesn’t bother me, but I understand why it causes difficulty for readers who don’t understand the meaning behind it. That has to be taken seriously. Ultimately, the “violation” of spelling rules is a matter of weighing up choices: What’s more important to me, following the rules or the desire to highlight problematic language use? Plus, rules aren’t set in stone. Denmark got rid of capitalization in the late 1950s.

Certain words are taboo for some people: For example, the chocolate and marshmallow sweet known as “Mohrenkopf” in German is considered insulting to Black people. Has language regained the magical power it possessed in the Middle Ages, when the Church prohibited swear words?

Language has some kind of magical quality because we act through speech and, in doing so, construct reality. With words like “Mohr/Moor”, which refer to a specific group of people and are discriminatory, you can’t argue that “I didn’t mean it like that.” The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that there can be no “private language.” The meaning of language is determined by society. In Middle High German, “Weib” and “Fräulein” were commonly used to refer to women. These days, “Weib” is derogatory in most contexts [similar to “wench” in English] and “Fräulein” has fallen out of use entirely. So I can’t address a woman as “Weib” and then say I didn’t mean it in a derogatory way.

Why does “schwarz” usually have negative connotations in German, such as in the phrase “jemandem den Schwarzen Peter zuschieben” [equivalent to “pass the buck to someone”, literally translated as “push the black Peter to someone”]?
It’s not true that “schwarz” has mostly negative connotations. The phrase you cited comes from a card game in which the person left holding the “Black Peter” loses. Since colonial times, Black Peter has often been depicted with dark skin. This is racist, and that’s why the phrase is problematic.

Should words be banned?
No, bans and enforcement don’t achieve anything, but discussions are important. For me, the law is where I draw the line: Language must not use racist insults. That’s why it isn’t appropriate to use the N-word as a personal descriptor.

What do you think of “Migrationsstrom” [“tide of migration”]?

It’s a problematic word because migrants are portrayed as a powerful, threatening surge of water that can’t be held back. So it makes a difference whether I say “Geflüchtete” [refugees] or “Migrationsströme” [tides of migration] – or whether I use “Annexion” [“annexation”] or “Beitritt” [“accession”] when talking about Crimea. Language and reality are intertwined: Language expresses our notions of the world, and at the same time we mold perception of the world through our language. That’s why it’s important that we talk about language.

Discussions are particularly intensive at universities. Are academics best placed to know which words are right or wrong?

Universities aren’t the only place where people argue over language. Political groups and the LGBTQ+ movement are also extremely sensitive to language. Plus, universities don’t decide what constitutes right or wrong language use: They are heterogeneous communities in which different groups hold various views. For example, the University of Basel doesn’t prescribe any specific language use. Freedom of thought rules, as it should at any higher education institution.

What do you say to the outcry that “nobody’s allowed to say what they think anymore”?

That statement is often a covert attempt to discredit efforts to promote low-discrimination language. If a person says that they feel violated by the N-word, and the other person responds with that statement, they denigrate their feelings. Obviously, we are allowed to say what we think, but it’s about how we say it.

Is language free of discrimination possible?

Language isn’t just a means of communication; it is also an instrument of power. This means it will never be free from discrimination, but we can minimize linguistic discrimination if we want to.


More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (November 2023).

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