generic (linguistics)

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In linguistics, generic is a term used to describe several different, loosely related uses of expressions that have a generalizing meaning. On the one hand, there are generic statements that express generalized facts or regularities, but also allow exceptions (see also linguistic genericity ). On the other hand, the use of personal pronouns , tense and conjugation forms is called “generic” if the content is more general than it would correspond to the literally expressed grammatical features.

Generic pronouns

In a generalizing statement, pronouns (pronouns) can denote any individual. Some pronouns specialize in this meaning, but there are also cases where personal pronouns are used with a generalizing, non-gender specific reference, when they would normally denote specific people.

Generic "man"

The general pronoun man has a generic meaning when referring to people in general or "all people": You know that ("it is known"). One characteristic of this use is that it includes the speaker; sometimes this can even be mainly meant: You don't treat yourself to anything (“I'll treat myself to this”).

In contrast, the pronoun is also used for specific, unknown people, in the sense of “anyone, any people”: We were broken into last week .

Second person singular

The word du is often used in a generalized way, i.e. without a specific salutation function, especially when it comes to general rules of life or everyday knowledge that does not belong to any specific area of ​​knowledge: you get to know people on vacation . According to Harald Weinrich , the generic du has the effect of involving the interlocutor more in the situation than when using man .

Generic statements

Generic present tense

In many languages ​​there is a use of the present tense that is not intended to designate specific situations that take place in the now, but timeless and generalizing statements. Here it is the temporal situation that is generic. A typical case is the name of a regularly recurring action: they meet weekly . Because the generic present tense refers to a set of possible presences that are not restricted in principle, it affects a considerable part of all sentences formulated in the present tense. For example, it is used in (scientific) specialist texts to determine generally applicable laws and natural conditions. Within linguistics , the generic present is sometimes viewed as completely timeless, and sometimes localized as being in a continuous, unlimited situation.

Generic passive

In German, the use of the passive voice is widespread in generic, generally applicable statements:

  • Rock salt is mined in the Bad Friedrichshall salt mine.
  • This machine is also used to fly to Mexico.

In principle, both sentences allow interpretations in which a single process is described, or interpretations as generalizing statements. In the case of generic statements, the passive is often more unambiguous than a statement in the active with man… . In general, the action (in the passive can the copyright agent ) remain anonymous or with prepositions as of ... be introduced. In generic statements that would in which any agent as people occur, but the addition is omitted from a ... (where a dative form of it would be).

"Generic" as an unspecific gender

When discussing the designation of people, a distinction is made between gender-specific and generic use, depending on whether people are only of one natural gender or whether no statement is made about their gender. These two meanings of "generic" can differ when referring to the same expression when referring to any person of only one gender or to certain persons of unnamed gender.

Generic masculine

The term "generic masculine" summarizes a large number of linguistic usages whose common feature is that a grammatically masculine word form ( masculine ) is used to denote speakers who may have a different grammatical gender ( gender ) or a different biological gender ( Sexus ) are connected. In German, this includes a few pronouns , many personal names and biosystematic class names (living beings). A well-known example of person names:

  • Ask your s doctor or pharmacist - here the grammatically masculine word forms are generalized mean all doctors and related persons third sex, as in the pharmacy area.

In contrast to the generic use of masculine word forms, there are some personal names that are grammatically masculine, but mean all people regardless of their gender:

  • " Every guest , the will should feel good"  - used geschlechtsindifferent here because the feminine word form " Gästin " today is unusual (but already in 1854 mentioned in German Dictionary ); In terms of gender, a distinction must be made between male, female or diverse-gender guests .
  • " Who can do that, the it is supposed to do"  - referenced all persons, regardless of their gender.
  • " Someone , of it may, it is supposed to do"  - even this indefinite pronoun abstracted from sexuality.

Generic feminine

Generic Feminine are words that are grammatically feminine, but denote referents that may be associated with a different grammatical gender ( gender ) or biological gender ( linguistically: Sexus ). This group includes only a few animal names in German such as the cat, the mouse, the goose . These can generally mean both female and male specimens. There are no generic feminines in the German language for personal names. As early as the end of the 15th century, the German law professor Johannes Goddaeus had written that the use of feminine forms in a generic way "violates every political, economic and natural principle"; Men are generally "the more perfect of the two sexes, to whom the greater dignity belongs."

There are a few high-level grammatically feminine terms for people such as the person, the professional, the hostage , which are " inherently generic" (from the meaning of the word) and apply non- gender specifically to all genders ; These personal names do not have a distinctive feminine ending (comparable to the human being, the member ). In terms of content ( semantically ), they do not relate at all to gender aspects (sex-indifferent meaning). In principle , a teacher can be of any gender, differentiated into male, female or diverse-gender teachers . The designation of a hostage has no relation to the gender of the person; it must also be specified, for example a female hostage . No movied derivatives with the feminine ending -in are formed from such superordinate terms (or have not established themselves in linguistic usage, compare the guest as a rare derivative of the guest ).

With a generic meaning , only those terms can be used that also have a grammatical word form for the opposite sex (paired person names). The masculine term doctor can only be generalized to all medical persons (ask your doctor or pharmacist) because the feminine word form doctor is in use. Here - in contrast to inherently generic personal names such as person  - the masculine word form is loaded with a second, generic meaning, which is meant in a gender-abstracting way (see generic masculine ). If feminine terms are used for people of all genders, the generic feminine is spoken. In Germany only the job title midwife is generically feminine and has also applied to men since 2020; in Austria this has been in effect since 1993 (see name formation of "midwife" ).

The feminist linguist Luise F. Pusch  - pioneer of gender-sensitive language  - has been advocating the sole use of the generic feminine in personal designations since 1984; the "total feminization" should be used for the next millennia as reparation for the "male language". In 2018 Pusch affirmed: “The feminine also visibly contains the masculine: teacher is clearly contained in teacher. The feminine is the basic form, the masculine the shrinking form ”(see also Pusch's criticism of the gender star ). In 2013, Pusch explained that after the generic masculine "which we have had for millennia", it was time for a change of perspective according to the "rotation principle":

“On the other hand, the feminine is firstly better for women, secondly it is fair according to the principle of rotation - now it's women’s turn - and thirdly, shorter. I call the generic feminine for 30 years as an empathy workout for men so that they even develop an idea of what it actually to be only mitgemeint and never really knowing exactly whether man 'with means to ' ever meant is. [...] I've always suggested a step model. First we have to bring women into the language, preferably with the generic feminine, but the goal should be to get rid of the ending ' -in ' later . [...] After the abolition of the '-in', we want to secondly introduce the neuter for personal designations. We would then have 'that, that and that professor'. "

In the following fictitious examples, female word forms should be meant in a generalizing manner in a gender-abstracting way:

  • Every man, woman and child is invited; each , which wants to can her friend inside bring.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist in .
  • Is there a doctor on board?


In 1994, the town council of Buchholz in the Nordheide (Lower Saxony) decided with 24 votes against 10 to only use female job titles in its statutes. The local authority did not object, the press spoke of the "emancipated metropolis". The city's women's representative commented: "Up until now we women had to experience that we were meant when they spoke of councilors, now men have to put up with being called council women".

In November 2012, bloggers from around the Pirate Party organized a “Week of Generic Feminine” (hashtag #InWoche on Twitter ), during which they only used feminine personal names in generic meaning.

In 2013, the University of Leipzig used only feminine terms for all official functions in its “Basic Order”. The formulations were passed unanimously by the enlarged Senate and approved by the Rector; the Saxon Ministry of Science did not object. The basic order of the University of Leipzig explains on the first page in a footnote: “In this order, grammatically feminine personal designations apply equally to both male and female persons. Men can use the official and functional designations of these regulations in grammatically masculine form. ”Examples are“ visiting professors ”or“ representatives of the group of university teachers ”. Georg Teichert, the university’s central equal opportunities officer since 2010, has been using the gender gap on the university’s website since the end of 2019 in addition to gender-neutral formulations : colleagues (see university language guides ).

Also in 2013, the “Rules of Procedure of the Senate” of the University of Potsdam named all official job titles in generic-female form, but “a gender-appropriate salutation will continue to be maintained”. In 2020, the Coordination Office for Equal Opportunities will use the gender asterisk or the underscore in places for internal and external communication at the university, in addition to gender-neutral formulations .

At the end of 2013, the Tyrolean Child and Youth Welfare Act was drafted entirely in female form.

In mid-2014, the historical linguist Kristin Kopf published Das kleine Etymologicum: A journey of discovery through the German language , in which masculine and feminine plural forms were used generically (60 times each), for example the fishing and the Saxons .

At the beginning of 2016, the Klagenfurt local association of the Greens decided to name offices only in the female form, for example "Party chairwoman Reinhard Schinner".

Criticism of the GfdS

The Society for German Language (GfdS) published the GfdS guidelines on the possibilities of gendering in mid-2020 , which also address the problems associated with the use of the generic feminine in an intended gender-abstracting meaning:

" Assessment by the GfdS
This solution is not gender-equitable, because the opposite sex is not explicitly addressed here, but is only 'included'. The criticism made of the generic masculine also applies here. Equal treatment, which is what gender equitable language is all about, is as little guaranteed with the generic feminine as with the generic masculine. "

Generic neuter

Generic neutras are words that are grammatically neuter (neutral), but designate referents that can also be associated with a different gender or a different natural gender ( linguistic: Sexus ). In German there are only a few neuter personal names that can be used regardless of the gender of the person (s).


After the two indefinite pronouns somebody and nobody can be followed by an adjective in the generic neuter (regionally different frequencies):

  • Somebody new has come.
  • Nobody else came.

Both can also be used or continued with the generic masculine :

  • Someone new has come.
  • No one is turned out differently, the might help.

In relation to female persons, grammatically feminine can be added:

  • She is someone who can help.
  • She is not someone who would refuse. Nobody can do that better than her .

Inherent genericity

In contrast to the pronouns mentioned, superordinate neutral designations for people such as the member, the child, the genius, the individual cannot be generalized generically because their content ( semantically ) does not refer to gender aspects (sex-indifferent meaning); such generic terms are inherently generic. In principle , a member can be of any gender, differentiated into male, female or diverse-gender members . The designation of a child has no relation to the child's gender; it must also be specified, for example female child (or, for short: girl ). Moved derivatives with the feminine ending -in cannot be formed from such superordinate personal designations (compare word formation “Members” from 2011 ).


Also can not be used generically diminutives of people names ( diminutives with -chen or -lein ) because they always content with the specific sex of peer- related persons:

  • the little man, the little boy, the little boy - only fits for males
  • the female, the girl, the Gretchen - fits only for female persons (or in a figurative sense derogatory for male: you girl! )
  • the girl had won what she was happy about - in more recent times there is more meaningful reference to the feminine meaning; Theodor Fontane put it similarly in relation to the Miss: "Please, greet the gracious Miss, who is so good [...]" ( Before the Storm 1813)
  • the woman (s image), the man image - has a clear reference to the biological gender or to the gender of the person referred to
  • the male , the female - refers in a biological sense to male or female individuals of bisexual living beings
  • the master, the mistress - confidential designation of the dog owner ( pet owner )

Singular “they” in English

In the English language , nouns usually have no grammatical gender ( gender ): the engineer stands for "Ingenieur". However, personal pronouns (personal pronouns) have one and differentiate between male, female and neuter (he, she, it) ; accordingly, they have to agree grammatically with the preceding, to which they refer ( e.g. a noun ): his, hers, its (" his, hers , his"), in the plural : we ... our, you ... your, they ... their ( "We ... ours, you ... yours, they ... theirs").

About a century after the emergence of the plural pronouns, from the 14th century onwards, the occasional use of the plural pronoun they in the singular meaning for a single person, as a neutral alternative to the gender-related pronouns he and she . The word you (“you”) was originally a plural form : you are: (“you are”, but also: “you are”).

In the normal case and insofar as the gender of a person is to remain unmarked, the generic masculine can be used for the pronoun :

  • every engineer knows his formulas (every engineer knows his / her formulas)

Because such formulations often work against the speaker's intention to leave the biological gender undetermined, the use of the generic they has recently become established:

  • every engineer knows their formulas

In these cases, the male or female form is almost only used when specifically referring to male or female persons.

The singular use of they also became widespread from the mid-2010s onwards for the (self-) description of people who define themselves neither clearly nor always “ male ” or “ female ” with regard to their gender identity and who want to be addressed in a gender-neutral manner (see Singular “they” for non-binary persons ). The influential US - Style Guide Chicago Manual of Style allows singular They in its 17th edition in 2018 in oral and informal written language; for formal written use it is only allowed in relation to individual persons who do not identify with the gender pronouns he ("he") or she ("she"). The US dictionary Merriam-Webster's Dictionary takes up the non-binary meaning of they 2019, as does the Oxford English Dictionary .

Individual evidence

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    Ibid: The Star and Her Companion - Pronouns and Grammatical Gender.
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