Version 2.0

Lecture: Comprehension of gender-neutral forms and the pseudo-generic masculine in German: a visual world eye-tracking study

- "It goes without saying" that everyone is included?

Gender-inclusive language has evolved into a much-debated topic during the past years, discussed interdisciplinarily from theoretical to psycholinguistics, sociology, and economy – and by anyone who uses language.

Studies on German that primarily relied on questionnaires (reviewed in Braun et al. 2005), cloze tests (Klein 1988), and categorisation tasks with picture matching (Irmen & Köhncke 1996) disqualify the generically used masculine forms as pseudo-generic – failing their grammatically prescribed function to include referents of any Gender. Gender-balanced expressions (pair and split forms like Lehrer und Lehrerinnen) make explicit reference to female presence and participation, and thus elevate a more equitable interpretation.
Online methods to investigate the processing of Gender-sensitive language are surprisingly rare among research on the phenomenon, except for reaction time measures (Irmen & Köhncke 1996, Irmen & Kaczmarek 2000) and eye-tracking in reading (Irmen & Schumann 2011).
In addition, Gender-neutral language (GNL) has not been focused on in the majority of experiments, and when it was among the stimuli, results were inconclusive (De Backer & De Cuypere 2012) or found such alternatives to be ineffective (resembling masculine generics, Braun et al. 2005), despite the fact that guidelines on non-discriminatory language use commonly recommend these.
Gender-neutral (GN) expressions for personal reference in German include
• nominalised participles; nominalisations in general: Interessierte, Lehrende
• collective singulars: Publikum, Kollegium
• compounds (e.g., with a notion of “-person”): Ansprechpersonen, Lehrkräfte
• paraphrases that background a (gendered) subject: e.g., passives, relatives

In a visual world eye-tracking study, the comprehension of plural generics using masculine nouns and GN forms was tested for roles and occupations.
In complex stimulus scenarios, reference had to be established to referent images presented on a screen. At the end of each item, a question was asked in order to (re)identify the image that matched the referents of the respective setting best. Images depicted 1) a single person (protagonist), 2) an all-female group, 3) an all-male group, 4) a mixed Gender group of female and male members. The group referents were introduced with either a) masculine nouns (die Lehrer), b) female-specific feminine nouns (die Lehrerinnen), or c) one of the upper three nominal GN variants (die Lehrkräfte).
Results confirm the frequent male bias in masculine forms that are used as generics, that is, their male-specific interpretation. Furthermore, stereotypicality of nouns had an impact on responses. The GN alternatives, which are generally known to aim for indefinite reference (“marked” for Gender-fair language) were found to be most qualified to elicit mixed Gender group interpretations. When reference was established with GN terms, an inclusive response was consistently elicited. This was both indicated by eye movements and response proportions, but to a different extent depending on the particular GN noun type. Concepts that abstract from Gender in their linguistic forms (“neutralising” it) appear to be more inclusive, and thus better candidates for generic reference than masculines.

The talk will give an overview of the experimental method used as well as task and design. When discussing results, I am going to refer to a rather advanced tool for statistical analysis, but keep it comprehensible.