The decision to turn professor titles from male to female at the University of Leipzig is now causing major controversy. Apparently, Physics professor Dr. Josef Käs came up with the proposal as a joke, but soon saw his own idea taken seriously by the University board: now all teaching members at the University of Leipzig will be referred to as “Professorin“, which means “female Professor” in German. Does gender equality need to be fought with a dictionary in one’s hand? Perhaps. Language is what we use daily to communicate with each other, both in formal and informal occasion, but changes also need to be backed up by society and not just in one single and limited context. Moreover, is this really equality? Regardless of the original mistake of referring to women with male titles, is it fair to impose a reverse inequality to obtain equality? I see contradictions.
Luckily, the English language escapes the controversy by having been provided with the most neutral features in communication when it comes to defining gender in names or adjectives. In many other languages this is not possible: starting with German, but also including many more languages like Italian, Spanish or French. As one looks for equality, it is with particular names that the need becomes pressing and certainly more evident. With higher-ranking professions like “mayor“, it is quite common to find a masculine title next to a female name. For instance, the Italian “sindaco” does not have a female version (except “sindachessa“, but that is never used) and the same happens with “prefetto” (in English, “prefect“). Whereas these cases just need to be considered and addressed easily with a specific, equally proper word, other everyday cases seem harder to deal with.
To an native English speaker, it might seem rather strange (although common in these contexts) to define a group of three brothers and one sister as “miei fratelli” in Italian, “mis hermanos” in Spanish or “mes frères” in French. The nouns in these examples are usually used to define male brothers, with no hints on whether sisters (even just one) are part of that group. English and German seem to stand neutral with “Geschwistern” and “siblings” respectively, as they both have a neutral term that includes men and women. This is just one of many examples where the masculine term is used to define a woman, but would not a reversal of the status quo be just as sexist?
This discussion, however, sparks up a debate by much larger margins than one thinks. We must not only consider the cultural context in which we live, but also the origin and development of the language. We cannot, therefore, forget the history and culture of a country, as behind linguistic choices there is often an historical fact and so every change must be made taking the past of that language into account. Essentially, any proposed change, one that is respectful of both sexes is appropriate and necessary, but considering all the factors that compose such language is absolutely mandatory. The history and culture that lie behind a language we speak every day are not minor things, but the pillars on which we base our society today.