Monday, 16 July 2012

Grammatical gender and its contents

With the default gender being masculine for most German terms referring to human beings, I am usually far from a fan of grammatical gender. However, reading some of Clara Zetkin’s work highlighted the power of grammatically defining who exactly we are addressing. As the apt title of her polemic clearly states: “Auf jede von euch kommt es an!”, the subject she is trying to rouse is not the supposedly universal everyman, but the specific everywoman.

The literal English translation: ‘Every one of you matters’ next to erases this intentionality. Suddenly, the German ‘jede’ – every one (fem.) – is conceptually extended to include ‘jeder’ – every one (masc.) – and as ‘everyone’ is still predominantly understood as ‘everyman’, our ‘everywoman’ disappears into the background of not just humanity but the very struggle for her place as equally human.

To stay true to Clara Zetkin’s intention to finally push women into the foreground we need to carefully consider the translation of the term ‘jede’. ‘Every one of you women matters!’ is one such option to address every woman, but while it keeps the personal tone it sounds slightly awkward, which is why I prefer the less personal but more succinct: ‘Every woman matters!’. However, whether personal in tone or not, in contrast to the gender-neutral version above, both instantly tell the reader who holds the (collective) power to change women’s fate within humanity.

“Every single one/woman of you has to be filled with the conviction that: it is my freedom which is at stake, my equality, my culture” (Zetkin 1955, 52, my translation), and as Clara Zetkin only knew too well, if ‘jede’ of us struggled with that conviction in mind, we would no longer live in a world which revolves just around everyman but every single one of us: every woman, every man, a truly inclusive everyone. Considering the continuing power of her words to this day, addressing women specifically seems like a good start to overthrow the (linguistic) dominance of man.

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Zetkin, Clara. 1955. Ich will dort kämpfen, wo das Leben ist. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

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