Pronouns like xier and sier – translating singular they into German

Introduction

Not all German pronouns are gendered. The pronouns »ich«, »du«, »wir« or »uns« are indeed gender neutral. As in English, the third person singular is different. Before, if I wanted to speak about a singular third person I had to choose from »sie« and »er« pronouns. The neo-pronouns like »xier« and »sier« add a gender neutral alternative to the German language: xier: Version 3.3, sier: Version 2.1.
These pronouns may be used linke singular »they« pronouns in English to describe a person without declaring their gender, either because the person is not known or because they explicitly request »they« pronouns. Some people that are not binary prefer neo-pronouns when we talk about them, others explicitly prefer the use of »sie« or »er« pronouns. Their wishes should be respected either way: overview of a variety of German neo-pronouns.

In 2009, I realized that gender-neutral pronouns where missing from the German language. There was this language gap that I wanted filled. At first I thought, that it could not be so difficult to develop new pronouns and realized that German grammar requires much more with regard to pronouns than English grammar. From version to version the neo-pronouns evolved. Their development and the changes are traced further down in this article: pronoun version history. I thought it important that the new pronouns fit in with existing grammar. I am very thankful for the feedback I received from people that use »xier« and »sier« pronouns and have incorporated it into their development. The discussions from past years can be found in the comment column of the German pronouns page.

illustration comic: A figure with a red T-shirt tries to reach a red apple on a small tree, they are not successfull and walk around looking for something. At last they bend down to a forked branch.

Understanding and using grammar

What is 3rd person singular, I also call “gossip pronouns”. Those pronouns are used to talk about others. If the person that is talked about in not present, they can’t support or correct. And yes, grammar can be daunting, but it is great to use the proper pronouns for people. You do not have to be perfect to express respect. Examples can help to be able to use neo-pronouns quickly: examples comparing different pronouns.

People that find grammar tables hard to understand can at first neglect declension and work with the basic forms, meaning »xier« and »dier«, instead of »er« and »der« or »sie« and »die« pronouns. Basically, personal pronouns replace given names:

Xier will verreisen.

Possessive pronouns relate what belongs to whom:

Xier packt xiesen Koffer.

The great thing about the possessive pronoun »xies« is how its declension is exactly like the declension of »ihr«, »sein«, »mein« and of all other gender-neutral pronouns. The same endings are used. With any neo-pronoun it is advisable to check out the corresponding possessive pronoun: various possessive pronouns (German).

Relative pronouns are used to build sentence structures and as definite article with nouns:

Diem Nachbar_in, dien wir vorhin trafen, bringe ich Post.

And four cases have to be considered, or at least nominative, dative and accusative case, as genitive is not used much anymore. But as said above perfection is not the main goal here.

illustration comic: A figure with a red T-shirt walks back a forked branch in hand to the small apple tree. They use it to get the apple and then eat it.

Widespread use

Frankly, I want a widespread gender-neutral alternative to »sie« and »er«- beautiful or ugly, I don’t care but something that fills the language gap and works within German grammar. It is still too early to predict which neo-pronoun that could be.

The »xier« pronouns have been around for a decade now. The oldest example of usage is from 2012 in the German music magazine »Visions». An article reports about Rae Spoon:

An der Musik lässt xier es jedenfalls nicht aus, die bleibt schön.

Spoon uses »they« pronouns in English, had been asked beforehand and agreed to »xier« pronouns being used for them in the article. It is easier to get used to neo-pronouns when they are included in media one reads, listens to, watches or plays: quotes from books, movies, TV shows or video games.

Media that translate »singular they« into German has a high percentage of these quotes. Until 2021, »xier« was the most widely used neo-pronoun in TV shows and movies. The blog post Darunter und Darüber analysis different approaches of translation in subtitles and dubbing.

In the year 2021, both press and social media addressed gender inclusive language including neo-pronouns. The topic become relevant to mainstream society and was discussed widely. Among teachers of German as a foreign language at American universities and schools interest in neo-pronouns peaked as »singular they« has become widespread in the English-speaking world. Students specifically ask for German translations in class. Language change with regard to pronouns has already progressed more there.

illustration comic: a figure with a red T-shirt is carrying a forked branch to a group of people beckoning him and standing under a big tree with red apples.

History of xier and sier pronouns

Version 3.3 (2020)

xier|xieser|xiem|xien (personal pronoun)
dier|dies|diem|dien (relative pronoun)
xies… (possessive pronoun)
Version 3.3. Changes are made to blend the pronoun with German grammar of the other pronouns.

Version 3.2 (2013)

xier|xies|xiem|xien (personal pronoun)
dier|dies|diem|dien (relative pronoun)
xies… (possessive pronoun)
Version 3.2 was first released as an illustrated zine. It is available online as a text-based and an illustrated a Version 3.2. Only minor changes to the previous version.

Version 3.1 (2013)

xier|xies|xiem|xien (personal pronoun)
dier|dies|diem|dien (relative pronoun)
xies… (possessive pronoun)
In Version 3.1 small changes were added. Articles were published in the printed magazine Queerulant_in and online at Mädchenmannschaft to make discuss the alternative grammar within the queer, feminist and trans communities.

Version 3.0 (2012)

xier|xies|xiem|xien (personal pronoun)
dier|dies|diem|dien (relative pronoun)
xies… (possessive pronoun)
In 2012, the user Liliane Gross convinced me to change the first letter of most of the pronouns from s to x to avoid mix-ups with other words. In the Version 3.0 the possessive pronouns were adapted to existing grammar to make them easier to be learned and used.

Version 2.0 (2010)

sier|sies|siem|sien (personal pronoun)
dier|dies|diem|dien (relative pronoun)
sien… (possessive pronoun)
In 2010 I updated the pronouns to Version 2.0. All pronouns were updated to make them more readable and pronounceable. The endings where matched the question words (interogative pronouns) that can be used to figure out the grammatical case needed: wer|wessen|wen|wem.

Version 1.0 (2009)

sif|sis|sim|sin (personal pronoun)
dif|dis|dim|din (relative pronoun)
sir… (possessive pronoun)
The very first Version 1.0, came to life in 2009 in cooperation with Felix Hill, formerly known as Sarah Hill. As we wrote the first set of non-binary pronouns on a piece of paper, there was nothing comparable in German. We knew alternative pronouns from English and missed them in German.


grey paypal logo with direct paypal.me link If you like my work on German alternative pronouns, you can support my work by treating me with a friendly drink via paypal.me/illiannaheger.


Further Reading

Geschlechtsneutrale Grammatik

Blog entries von Illi Anna Heger, auf annaheger.de, German.

Press for xier und sier pronouns

Overview page von Illi Anna Heger, auf annaheger.de.

Presse für xier und sier Pronomen

Overview page von Illi Anna Heger, auf annaheger.de, German.

Geplante Neuerungen für xier und sier Pronomen

Overview page von Illi Anna Heger, auf annaheger.de, German.


Illi Anna Heger’s Grammatical Futurity

Article von Nichole Neuman, in “Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies”, Vol. 56 Issue 3-4, 12.11.2020, Seiten 302-321, ISSN 0037-1939.

Please Don’t Gender Me! – Strategies for Inclusive Language Instruction in a Gender-Diverse Campus Community

Buchkapitel von Angineh Djavadghazaryans, Seiten 269-287 in “Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies”, ISBN 978-3-030-34341-5, Palgrave Macmillan Cham, 13.02.2020.


Queer Comic Conversations

Web comic by Illi Anna Heger and Sam Orchard for Goethe-Institut Wellington New Zealand, episode 2: labels, 10.08.2020.

Xier packt xiesen Koffer

Grammatik-Comic-Zine-Heftchen von Illi Anna Heger, 16.09.2013, German.

Minicomic 11: Xier

ONe pager von Illi Anna Heger, 15.05.2012, German.

4 thoughts on “Pronouns like xier and sier – translating singular they into German

  1. Ineke says:

    Hello,

    Thank you for the information on these pronouns.
    I was wondering if you can also tell me the correct German salutation for gender neutral people? I have heard that in English Mx. (opposed to Mr. and Ms.) is used. Is there also a salutation in German (next to Herr and Frau)?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Illi Anna Heger says:

      Hi, thanks for your question.

      At this point I do not know about any translation for Mx. I know that Lann Hornscheidt used Profex Drex for their professional title Prof. Dr., see lannhornscheidt.com

      Apart from that people use avoidance techniques: instead of “Sehr geehrte Frau …” or “Sehr geehrter Herr…” we use “Hallo Illi Anna Heger” which sounds a bit colloquial or “Guten Tag Illi Anna Heger”, see queer-lexikon.net and nonbinary.ch/kommunikation

  2. Erick Perry says:

    Thank you for your explanations of gender neutral pronouns in German. Is there a certain ending for gender neutral nouns referring to people. Is the masculine form used by default? For example, Freund, Schueler, Pilot, etc., for a gender neutral person?

    • Illi Anna Heger says:

      Dear Erick, thank you for leaving you comment an question. For nouns, I personally use forms like Freund_in or Freund*in in singular forms. This has been used for quite some time in the plural forms, Freund_innen, to include women, men and everybody else. The symbol is spoken as a Glottisschlag, a little pause as in words like Spiegelei, which could be notated as Spiegel_ei. There are other approaches, please check Nibi-Space and Wikipedia for other options.

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