BERLIN — A simmering linguistic controversy has flared up in Germany, with a group of more than 70 influential figures publishing an appeal against the use of gender-neutral terms.
The group issued the letter on Wednesday. On an accompanying petition, they said they were responding in part to a recent decision by the city of Hanover to officially adopt language practices including the so-called gender star — an asterisk that invites readers to choose between gendered spellings.
“The so-called gender-neutral language is first based on a general error; second, produces a wealth of ridiculous linguistic structures; and third, cannot be sustained consistently,” the signatories, who include writers, lawyers, journalists, teachers, linguists and a former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, assert.
“This whole contortion of the language leads to something that is illegible — and hard to understand,” said Oliver Baer, the managing director of Verein Deutsche Sprache, an organization that describes itself as dedicated to promoting the use of German, claims about 34,000 members and helped to write and distribute the letter.
The 74 original signatories include Hans-Georg Maassen, a former head of the domestic intelligence service who was accused of being too close to the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany; Werner Patzelt, one of the leading experts on Germany’s populist right; and Didi Hallervorden, a well-known comedian.
They may find themselves fighting a losing battle, however. The letter initially went relatively unnoticed, despite the prominence of some of its signatories. One reason may be that much of the country’s news media has long made use of workarounds like the gender star, as have many other parts of German society.
“Of course everyone can bring up whatever issue they want, but this question of gender neutrality is an old hat — I remember when we discussed it in the 1980s,” said Annette Trabold, who works for the Institute for the German Language, a state-funded body that studies contemporary usage of German.
Even Hanover’s decision, announced in January, merely codified something it had been doing since 2003, according to the city spokeswoman, Annika Schach.
“We are not rewriting the dictionary or saying what is correct and what isn’t — this is about style,” she said in an interview.
Still, she added: “It was quite controversial and led to a lot of debate. We are still working through the emails — the good and the bad — that we received.”
Unlike France, where Académie Française officially adjudicates on the language, Germany doesn’t have a national linguistic arbiter, though a council for orthography — which has its offices in the Institute for the German Language — sets spelling rules in schools and official bodies.
There are several nongovernmental associations that deal with the German language — and often politics are involved. Last year, the Society for the German Language, another association, voted to crown the German for “alternative facts” as the ugliest word in the language.
“Its funny what people get upset at these days; of course there are conservative forces in our society and I’m sure they are not happy about how language evolves — but there’s nothing you can do about it,” Ms. Trabold said.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day last year, the equal-opportunities officer for Germany’s Family Ministry stirred outrage by suggesting gender-neutral lyrics to the national anthem.