Kai Wegner (CDU), mayor of Berlin, holds a speech during a meeting of the Berlin senate. Photo: Joerg Carstensen/dpa

Berlin’s new conservative Mayor Kai Wegner has spoken out against using gender-neutral terms in the German city state’s administration, an approach pursued by previous centre-left coalition governments.

Wegner (CDU, Christian Demokrats) said the language used by Berlin’s administration should be intelligible, citing concerns, for example, that migrants learning German might have trouble understanding the new terms, in comments to Sunday’s edition of Germany’s Bild tabloid.

“After all, we expect people who come to Germany to learn German, and the authorities, in particular, should not make it unnecessarily difficult for them,” Wegner said. “Everyone can speak privately as they wish. But I would like to speak the German that I learned at school and that everyone understands,” he added.

The German language often denotes the gender of a subject, which is then complicated when words are pluralized.

Thus, the translation of the word ’employee’ – ‘Mitarbeiter’ – for example, denotes one or multiple male workers, while ‘Mitarbeiterin’ is for a woman, with ‘Mitarbeiterinnen’ for multiple female employees.

However, traditionally – and controversially – the masculine plural has often been used as a default to describe both male and female workers.

Over the past years, some people have proposed alternatives, for example ‘Mitarbeiter_innen,’ to make the language more inclusive without having to use several terms.

Others, however, object to this new trend, arguing that it distorts the language, while supporters say it is also more inclusive to those neither identifying as male or female.

The language used by German authorities in official documents and forms, for example, as long been subject to much ridicule, as it is notoriously difficult to understand, even for native speakers.

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Whether the introduction of gender-neutral terms has done much to exacerbate the situation has been subject to debate.

Wegner’s party, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), are not particularly known for a pro-migration stance.

On the official website of the city of Berlin, under a section on gender-neutral language, there is currently a notice stating that adjustments are being made to the website “in order to do justice to the current Senate reshuffles.”

According to a report by local broadcaster RBB, the website has so far promoted “saying goodbye to old habits of speaking and thinking,” as per an administrative guideline from 2012.

Wegner was elected mayor of Berlin after a rerun of the 2021 elections last February for the city’s regional parliament. The Berlin Constitutional Court overturned the initial outcome due to severe flaws. The CDU emerged as the strongest force.

Wegner’s ascendancy to the top marks the first time in 20 years that a CDU politician has become mayor in Berlin.

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