Monday, 12 December 2011

Chancellor Merkel and his wife

On hearing ‘Chancellor Merkel’ and ‘Mrs Merkel’, a stranger to European politics might be forgiven in forming a very different picture of the German head of state. A chancellor is “a senior state or legal official” (OD 2011) who, due to our history, is most likely to be a man rather than a woman. And as women have only recently been encouraged, or indeed allowed, to participate in politics, the word ‘chancellor’ is unlikely to evoke ‘woman’ to this day.

Furthermore, a German Chancellor is not just any ‘chancellor’ but the German leader – a role that until 2009 was exclusively filled by men. Becoming the first ‘Bundeskanzlerin’ (female chancellor) is therefore a remarkable achievement. But while the German language allows for such a linguistic possibility, the English language gives no linguistic room to recognise the political success of a woman. Moreover, the term ‘chancellor’ lets her disappear almost entirely under its historical weight.

The (mis)translation of ‘Frau Merkel’ as ‘Mrs Merkel’ adds to this negation. The Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘Mrs’ is: “the title used before a surname or full name to address or refer to a married woman without a higher or honorific or professional title” (OD 2011). While the German title ‘Frau’ is the general title for all women whatever their marital status, the use of ‘Mrs’ diminishes Frau Merkel’s position considerably. Linguistically, Angela Merkel suddenly finds herself flagged as a wife rather than a (powerful) woman.

‘Ms’ is a much closer rendering of ‘Frau’ and would therefore have been a more suitable alternative: “a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status (a neutral alternative to Mrs or Miss)” (OD 2011). And if this was considered inappropriate for one reason or another, ‘Frau Merkel’ has other titles up her sleeve. As ‘Mrs’ is by definition reserved for ‘a married woman without a higher or honorific or professional title’, her doctorate in physics would make ‘Dr Merkel’ another possible option. Instead of either, however, the German head of state is linguistically presented as ‘Mrs’ = wife, a woman without any real autonomy.

To recap the potential consequences of using ‘Chancellor Merkel’ and ‘Mrs Merkel’ to refer to the German Bundeskanzlerin: firstly, as ‘chancellor’ is, due to our history, conceptually tied to ‘man’, it denies the achievement of ‘Frau Merkel’ as a woman. If we do not allow for the linguistic recognition of women as women, the political sphere will continue to predominantly speak of/to men, which might hinder future generations of women in taking their equal place within humanity.

Secondly, the use of ‘Mrs’ additionally negates the achievement of the German head of state. On hearing it, we cannot help but picture a/the ‘Mr Merkel’ who claims linguistic and conceptual ownership and consequently reduces her autonomy. To allow women to conceptually be more than a ‘First Lady’, we need to give them the linguistic means to appear as human beings in their own right via equivalent titles to men.

Changes to the German language, such as the introduction of the suffix ‘-in’ to allow for the professional recognition of women as well as the abolishment of the title ‘Fräulein’ (Miss) to ensure women are given equal linguistic footing with men, have been implemented for good reasons, namely to encourage equal opportunities for women next to men. But if German, a language hardly renowned for being open to alteration, is adapting to enable a more equal future, why does the English language continue to read like the preserve of ‘mankind’? Why does it continue to linguistically disallow women to be (female) chancellors and reduce them to nothing more than the wife of ‘man’? Why does it continue to encourage its speakers to conceptually picture ‘Chancellor Merkel and his wife’ but not an autonomous Bundeskanzlerin? 

It seems language might just be a little more political than some might (like us to) think.

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