Inclusive Language - A Challenge in Software Localization

Colored pencils lined up on top of white surface

Inclusive language has been a hot topic in the field of text production and publishing for a while now. Many authors already revised their writing styles in articles, mailings, marketing materials etc. to approach their audience in a new, modern way aimed at embracing all addressees alike.

As usual, the devil is in the details. While some means to fight biased expressions may work well in a certain text type or a single language, they are probably unavailable or insufficient in others. 

I would like to draw your attention to this topic from the point of view of a non-English mother-tongue speaker.

Missing Localization Standards for Gender-Neutrality

Being an in-house translator at a global software company, I localize application interfaces and related documentation for a variety of business solutions from English into German. German - like many other languages with a complex grammar system - faces a constant challenge with inclusive language: gender-neutralization.

Now that EU regulations on gender-neutral language have been in place since 2008, application users start to expect fully inclusive language also for the software they buy. Put yourselves in the shoes of the software provider now: You face a linguistic overhaul of all products in your portfolio, involving huge databases of UI strings and documentation, probably grown over decades. Multiply that effort by the number of target languages affected for your global company and you get a faint idea of the challenge ahead. Of course, you go on the lookout for time-efficient and cost-saving standards or best practices to get it right from the start. And – well – they don’t exist. That is the current situation.

Linguistic Aspects

What exactly are the linguistic challenges with gender-neutralization mentioned above?

Here are some aspects from a German point of view.

My mother-tongue, like most European languages, does not have one neutral word for job descriptions, roles or hierarchies. The English term “employee”, for example, translates either as “Mitarbeiter” (male) or “Mitarbeiterin” (female). For a long time, the exclusive use of the male variant has been the established standard in the software industry, expected to encompass male and female persons alike. This ceased to be a generally accepted concept.

To adhere to gender-neutrality, male and female representations would be required in future. To keep the resulting texts short, a concatenation to “MitarbeiterIn” (capitalized I within the noun) is acceptable according to spelling rules. But then those people self-identifying with the relatively new gender category “Diverse” in their IDs would be excluded. That is no option for any truly inclusive language! Various escape methods are found in the press: Mitarbeiter:In, Mitarbeiter_In, Mitarbeiter*In. But then such a variety does not qualify as standard.

What’s more, together with their nouns, all related adjectives and pronouns require adaption, due to complex grammar rules. And pronouns representing “diverse” or, alternatively, genuinely neutral pronouns are still awaiting their invention.

Even without the latter issue, there is no automated nor even a semi-automated way to search and replace unwanted text. For most languages, linguists would have to scan and adapt millions and millions of words manually.

Business Aspects

In the light of this challenge, it does not come as a surprise that no software company is spear-heading a shift to fully inclusive language, at least none that I am aware of. This simply correlates to the lack of standards and/or best practices. Who would risk spending considerable funds on ad hoc solutions, when in years to come possibly differing methods solidify?
Sales aspects may add to this reluctance. Linguistic improvements tend to be more difficult to sell to the end user than technical ones. This may raise doubts whether customers are willing to pay the extra cost for truly inclusive language.
Apart from this, software providers must take into consideration another decisive factor: the overall end user acceptance.
Gender-neutral amendments tend to cause inflated label lengths for German, French, Spanish and many other languages. If the user were given the choice between a) a full data overview at one glance without gender-neutrality, and b) scrolling to and fro and up and down with neutral wording, option b) would most probably not score high.
What’s more, space on screens or the lack of it will become increasingly important as cloud and apps move functionality to the smaller handhelds.

A Call to Action for the Localization Industry

As the title indicates, the focus of my short article is on challenges with inclusive language, especially for the software industry. There certainly are many more aspects from many more angles, which I leave to others to shine a light on. My aim is to raise awareness for this important topic from an application provider’s point of view.

It would be great to see GALA bring together stakeholders from the software industry to discuss and establish practicable standards. Admittedly, this will probably be more of a marathon than a sprint. But either of the two starts with the very first step.