Naming the third gender

An important decision – structural linguistic changes

In November 2017, the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht – BVG) called on the legislature to introduce a third gender descriptor for intersex individuals, or to dispense with gender information completely. Translators are used to a lot of things, including new laws and regulations that change the meaning of a word, or even completely new words (which often have no equivalent in other languages). But this change will result in structural linguistic changes – and probably a lot of arguments.


The missing personal pronoun

There are two main things we lack as German speakers to help us meet the demands of the Federal Constitutional Court: unisex toilets and a gender-neutral personal pronoun.
Third-gender persons reject the neutral pronoun “es” (it). And the suggestion that “sie” (she) and “er” (he) could be combined to form “sier” is not very popular. Right now, “inter” and “divers” are being discussed as possible solutions. But inventing a third-gendered pronoun won’t be enough. Linguistic decision makers will also have to think about grammatical usage.


Possible problems and solutions

Allow us to demonstrate. Let’s toss a coin and say that the personal pronoun “inter” wins.
The declension of the personal pronoun in the nominative case is simple: ich, du, er, sie, inter, es, wir, ihr, sie (I, you, he, she, inter, it, we, you).
But the accusative, dative and genitive present new challenges. Will we simply invent a new word to use as the equivalent of “ihm” (him) and “ihr” (her)? Perhaps it’s a little unimaginative, but you could just reverse “inter”. So if two intersex people are having a coffee together, then the sentence would be “Inter trinkt mit retni Kaffee” (Inter is having a coffee with retni). That may not delight the listener, but “gedownloadet” (downloaded) hardly trips off the tongue, and we’ve got used to that.
Intesex individuals will get married, maybe even to each other, and then the official at the registry office will have to declare the couple “Inter und Inter” (“inter and inter”). If and when the married couple has an argument, will “inter” get annoyed by “retni inter”, and vice versa? Sounds complicated.


Problems for translators

You might think we translators are exaggerating. But we aren’t! We use language as a tool every day, and we have to consider its various forms and all the eventualities. Wouldn’t it be great if – like Malaysian – German didn’t have any gender descriptors at all? The Malaysian third-person pronoun “dia” can refer to anybody, and the sentence “dia mencintainya” means he/she/inter (or someone else) loves him/her/retni/it (or someone else). Long live confusion!
In Sweden the problem of naming the third gender was solved in 2004: The personal pronouns “han” and “hon” have always meant “he” and “she”. The additional pronoun “hen” was introduced and has since become firmly established in Swedish usage in all its grammatical versions.
By the way, Germany is the first German-speaking country to mandate the use of a third gender by law. It remains to be seen whether Austria, Switzerland – and, seeing as we’re talking about minorities, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium and Namibia – will have a say in the words chosen.


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