[DE] Making the German translation more gender neutral (while also accessible)

Currently, the German translation uses the masculine form to refer to users. This is common in German speaking countries and often defended as being neutral, but psycholinguistic studies say otherwise. So what we need are changes to include women and nonbinary people as well.

I’ve been thinking about this and would happily try my paws at it, but there are some issues that need further discussion, and I’ll probably need some help with the “how do I do that” part.

tl;dr: We to make the translation gender neutral/inclusive, but we also need to make it as accessible for text to speech users and various neurodivergent people as we can.

The issues that I’ve come across are: “Benutzer” (which is masculine) for “user”, and, on profile pages, “du kannst ihm folgen oder mit ihm interagieren” (you can follow him or interact with him).

The most popular solutions to make these inclusive of both women and nonbinary people are Benutzer_in or Benutzer*in and ihm_ihr, ihr_ihm, ihr*ihm or ihm*ihr. These aren’t bad at all, but they do have accessibility issues, so we need to look at solutions for these at well.

Screen reader accessibility
To my knowledge, * and _ will be read by many (most? all?) screen readers as Stern and Unterstrich, that would mean “Benutzer Unterstrich innen” which makes the text longer and is probably quite annoying.

Possible solutions:

  • There are some fixes that only use letters. They involve replacing anything that could be seen as a gendered ending, for example with -lon or -x: Benutzlon, Benutzx
    In this case, the pronoun on the profile page could be “ihrihm”, “ihmihr” or a neopronoun like “xiem” or “nim”.
  • Some characters might work better than others (making a pause instead of being read as “Unterstrich”/“Stern”), we’d need the input of regular text to speech users for this.
    As an example example, according to this, ' : - • (and a few others that I think are unsuitable for the purpose) are all read as a pause rather than by name by Google Talkback. This has not been tested by a regular user, and different software might do things differently.
    If we find out that, for example, : tends to be ok, we could use Benutzer:innen and ihr:ihm. These forms are already used by some people, and the meaning will be clear from context for most German speakers.

Accessibility for neurodivergent people
Both _ or * (or any other symbol) and unfamiliar word endings can make text harder to read for people with various neurodivergencies for various reasons. There is no rule on what is fine and what isn’t, because, well, people’s brains don’t all work the same way.

Possible solution for part of the problem:
Inspired by this issue that suggest adding a Basic English translation: It would be possible to have two different German translations that focus different accessibility needs.
In German, there are two concepts for basic/simple language, Leichte Sprache and Einfache Sprache (both translate to “easy language”, sorry).
Leichte Sprache has rules and needs to be proof-read by people with learning difficulties. Einfache Sprache is basically what you do when you don’t follow the rules of Leichte Sprache, but still want to make something easier than usual, or when you do follow the rules, but didn’t let people with learning difficulties look over it to see if it actually works for them. In Leichte Sprache, the solution seems to be to use masculine and feminine forms, as in “Benutzer und Benutzerinnen” (which includes women, but not nonbinary people, and is fairly long).
So. A language called “Deutsch (Einfach)” that uses (among possibly other changes) “Benutzer und Benutzerinnen” and “ihr oder ihm” could exist next to a version that uses another solution that is both nonbinary-inclusive and as screenreader-friendly as possible.

However, choosing simple language doesn’t work for people who actually want to use the hard version of German, except that the current solutions for un-gendering language don’t work for them. That’s not great. It’s as far as I’ve come with my thoughts though, and I’m interested in other ideas.

So, what are everybody’s thoughts, but especially the thoughts of people affected by the accessibility issues?

edit: One suggestion that was made on Mastodon was using generic femininum, that would be the feminine “Benutzerinnen” rather than the masculine form that is currently used.
Personally, I would prefer this over the masculine.
There is also the option of Binnen-I (BenutzerInnen), which has a binary connotation sadly, but is also an option that I personally would rank about as desirable as the generic femininum.

Everything is better than “generic masculin” for the reasons given. I favour the solution with “generic feminine”. It is shorter than have both, which still does not catch non-binary individuals. Shortness is important for UX.

If we want a complicated solution we could have a “generic m” and “generic f” version and change the default every major release.

AND we should make an experimental Version with * _ or whatever…

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Yes, I agree that shortness is important. And I like the idea of creating more than one version, without them being mixed with a possible Simple German version. So. Our options are:

  • Benutzerin
    pros: short, no problematic symbols, common word
    cons: not nb-inclusive, potentially feels bad to be included in for trans people who are not women
  • BenutzerIn
    pros: short, no problematic symbols, common word
    cons/neutral: not usually used in an nb-inclusive way, but nothing contradicts that reading either (see my toots in German)
  • Benutzlon, Benutzx, Benutziks
    pros: short, no problematic symbols, not associated with gendered forms
    cons: uncommon, bigots might get really angry about these
  • Benutzer*in, Benutzer_in, Benutzer:in
    pros: still not too long, usually used in an nb-inclusive way, fairly close to commonly known forms
    cons: potentially problematic symbols
  • Benutzer oder Benutzerin
    pros: commonly known, no problematic symbols
    cons: long, not nb-inclusive

And to replace the “ihm” on profile pages:

  • ihmihr, ihrihm
    pros: commonly known words, no problematic symbols, used by some nonbinary people as their pronoun
    cons: might be confusing to decipher because pronouns are expected to be short
  • ihm_ihr, ihr_ihm, ihm*ihr, ihr*ihm, ihm:ihr, ihr:ihm
    pros: adds a thingie between the known pronouns so they may be more easily recognizable, used by many nb folks as their pronoun
    cons: potentially problematic symbols
  • xiem, nim, lon, hen, … (neopronouns)
    pros: about the length you’d expect a pronoun to be, no problematic symbols, nb-inclusive
    cons: unknown by many people
  • ihr
    pros: short, well known
    cons: no, we can’t refer to everyone (including trans people who use different pronouns) as she

Personally, I think that BenutzerIn, Benutzlon and Benutziks are best suited for the standard version. There should also be one with Benutzer_in, Benutzer*in or Benutzer:in, and maybe one with Benutzerin and/or Benutzer (that would be the current one) to make things the most readable they can be.

I’m undecided pronoun-wise, with a slight tendency to favour ihrihm or ihmihr.

edit: oops, I read over your “changing with every release” option! That seems a bit annoying to remember (or can it be automated?), but also a lot of fun. It is short and uses well known words and no problematic symbols, but it is not nb-inclusive.

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You should be glad German did not preserve wider gender-related noun declesion as aome Slavic languages did :slight_smile:

In some English language material I found the reference to “the user” as “her”. As a non-native longtime German speaker I think that a simple female “Benutzerin” and “ihr” are quite okay to me, but not when referring to a particular user on the timeline.

When referring to particular user, like “X replied to Y”, there is a different problem which does not apply directly to German I think. In Polish if you want to use past tense you wound need to say for “X replied to Y”

X odpowiedziała Y

if X is female

X odpowiedział Y

if X is male, or

X odpowiedziało Y

for X being neutrum

For #Amaroq I have solved this problem by using present tense (“X replies to Y”) that is also acceptable in this case grammatically and is gender neutral.

MediaWIki supports grammatical gender in the translations and the users can declare their own if they wish. That influences the way that particular user is referred to.

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I think avoiding gendered form as @saper proposed, is a very good idea. (I think it is possible to do this in more cases in the German language file.)

Technically there will be a solution. It could be automated by using version A in even and version B in uneven releases. For example.

In the beginning the idea of cycling was just an upshot. But now I think it is a good idea. Changing the gendered words now and then is very irritating (in the beginning). In the long run people get accustomed to it and realize – like in real life – that it must not matter.
I like this approach because it builds on a feature of the specific technology, i.e. short life cycles and updates, to point to the issue. Furthermore, it is an expression of non-binary.

If we cycle the (German or Slavic) language files, we could try one with Benutzlon, Benutzx, or Benutziks forms, which right now make my hair stand on end – will change, I guess :slight_smile:. At least, it would help to start the discussion on a less theoretical level. It would be worth some research (or at least public discussion) whether this measures are understood intended and are perceived as successful. Especially by NB but also by women.