They are among the shortest words in the German language. And yet there is always a lot of excitement around them. We're talking about personal pronouns: "Er", "sie" and "es" are still known to many as "pronouns" from German lessons - but things get highly political when we talk about "they/them".
Pronouns like these can be used to express different concepts of identity of non-binary people. The correct designation is an important concern for many young people in particular, while the “gender pronouns” regularly drive critics to blush with anger. In Bielefeld, scientists have now devoted an entire conference to the seemingly inconspicuous personal pronouns.
Movement originated in the USA
"It's actually an inconspicuous group of words. But very, very important," says Mona Körte, professor of literature and organizer of the conference entitled "Personal Pronouns: Changing Grammar?". Anyone who takes a closer look at texts on personnel - from Humboldt to Grimm and into the 20th century - will find "that these theoretical texts do not help to tame the phenomenon at all, but on the contrary create confusion. And that interested us very much."
In recent years, it has become more common, especially among younger people, to include their personal pronouns in email signatures or on social media profiles. The movement originated in the USA. For many non-binary people - who do not or only partially classify themselves as male or female - "they/them" has become established. But many "cisgenders" - that's what people are called, for whom the gender determined at birth matches the identity they later developed - say "she/her" or "sie/ihr". They want to show that they respect the gender identity of others. This is to take the pressure off non-binary people of having to keep explaining themselves.
Political debate on the occasion for research
"The demands of complying with the compulsion to fit into the binary order - this is increasingly experienced as an impertinence by many people," said Tomke König, Professor of Gender Sociology, who was present at the conference, explaining the beginnings of the movement. The more diverse the sexual way of life becomes, the louder the criticism of the old binary hierarchical order becomes. "Boycott the Binary Plot!" - this is how the band Drangsal expresses it in a song text.
Personal pronouns are currently "highly politically charged," says Körte. "We're only using the political debate as an opportunity to actually come to an academic understanding about these interdisciplinary approaches." In addition to linguistics, philosophy, biology, sociology and animal ethics were also represented at the conference on Wednesday and Thursday. It was about the "construction of identity in the ancient Roman world" or the use of pronouns in animal encyclopedias.
Körte is certain that contextualizing and historicizing the topic is good for the political debate. Science hardly plays a role there, she says. "Our conference is an approach, an attempt in this direction." It is interesting "that science does not contain and pacify pronouns". Rather, she makes it clear that pronouns, in their variability, their shades and nuances, have been an issue for a very long time.
An alternative: naming the name
In English, the pronouns "they/them" have largely become established, while in German there are hardly any adequate forms of address apart from the masculine and feminine forms that are also generally understandable. "I've noticed that naming is more common," says König. "And I think that's a very good solution, because then we don't have to invent new words." An example sentence: "Steffi brushes her teeth before Steffi goes to bed."
König rejects fears of "speech deformity". "It would be more important that nobody is discriminated against," she says. It's not just about representation, but also about "the responsibility I have for treating my counterpart with respect and appreciation, for treating each other with respect."
The topic polarizes
In addition to language criticism, fundamental debates about the so-called "gender madness" are being held again and again - for example in circles that consider gender to be natural. The topic is polarizing, as the example of Kim de l'Horizon shows. As the "Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger" reported, after winning the German Book Prize on Monday, de l'Horizon received not only congratulations but also anti-queer attacks. Kim de l'Horizon defines herself as non-binary. The Instagram profile says: "no pronouns or dey/dem".
But why is the use of pronouns like "they/them" so provocative? Gender sociologist König explains that the outrage is not surprising. These debates are not only about maintaining or overcoming the difference between the sexes, but about ways of life that have been essential (constitutive) for our society up to now, above all the division of labor between the sexes.