Thursday, 20 October 2011

C(Sh)ould woman be the new man?

The importance of making language more inclusive of women has been widely recognised, resulting in the publication of official documents such as the 1987 UNESCO “Guide to Non-Sexist Language”. Where previously man was simply the main representative of humanity, theories about the relation between language and reality reassessed the impact of the linguistic discrimination against women. In the German language, this growing awareness has brought on considerable changes, such as the addition of the suffix ‘-in’ to most nouns concerning the human. However, while inclusive options are certainly available, general usage to this day shows that man still (linguistically) dominates humanity.

Convenience is often named as a decisive factor when addressing both women and men. In German, rather than separately listing male and female readers, ‘Leser und Leserinnen’, speakers, ‘Sprecher und Sprecherinnen’, or workers, ‘Arbeiter und Arbeiterinnen’, for example, many prefer using the male term to refer to a mixed group, even if it is mainly made up of women. Equally in the English language, the term 'man' persistently crops up to speak for all of humanity. The human, it seems, is still considered to be male unless proven otherwise. To effectively counteract this continued exclusion, the feminist linguist Luise Pusch has come up with a revolutionary idea for the German language: to linguistically make ‘woman’ the new ‘man’ (Pusch 1990).

This approach is not entirely far-fetched and can be underpinned in two crucial ways: firstly, as the latest UN population statistics confirm, there are 104 German women to every 100 German men (United Nations 2011), making woman, on mere statistical grounds, the dominant representative of humanity. And secondly, woman (often) already linguistically includes man. As the term ‘Leserinnen’ clearly indicates: woman, in complete reversal to the traditional argument of many (English) grammarians, actually embraces man. It seems to follow: it is both appropriate and convenient to name ‘just’ woman instead of woman and man, that is, 'Leserinnen', rather than 'Leser', as the term which is (more) universally human.

But Pusch’s argument is not reserved to the German language – English is equally open to her ideas. There are 103 British women to every 100 British men (United Nations 2011), giving women the statistical upper hand, while on the linguistic level certain terms already speak of/for both woman and man: ‘woman’, ‘she’ and ‘female’ are three such obvious examples. The notion that 'man' supposedly embraces 'woman' stands suddenly on rather shaky ground when faced with the outright inclusivity of terms such as woman-made, womankind, womanpower, the woman in the street, or simply, woman, which w(sh)ould now actually include ‘woman’ and ‘man’.

If “[n]icht ausgeschlossen zu sein, sichtbar zu sein ist der erste Schritt, um nicht degradiert zu werden” - '[n]ot to be excluded, to be visible is the first step not to be degraded' (Trömel-Plötz 1994, 65, my translation), then Pusch’s suggestion seems to be the ideal answer to our persisting linguistic problems. If we follow her German logic – whether woman or man – inclusive terms such as ‘woman’ would allow us to both linguistically see and conceptually picture woman and man, and therefore both sexes as equally human. And as we see and picture both woman and man, no-one would have to feel left out or a lesser part of humanity. Now that would make a nice change from the persistent linguistic exclusivity of mankind.

In a truly equal society, what could be the harm in calling ‘man’ (a) ‘woman’ after all?


Pusch, Luise F. 1990. Alle Menschen werden Schwestern. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Trömel-Plötz, Senta. 1994. Frauensprache: Sprache der Veränderung. Frankfurt am Main: Fisher Taschenbuch Verlag.

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