Spanish Language: Unlikely Battleground for Gender Inclusion

By Juliana Martínez*

Spanish-speaking communities have become one of the most significant battlegrounds in the push for gender-inclusive language. Often associated with traditional gender norms and anti-LGBT sentiment, Spanish-speakers in general and in Latin America in particular are discussing gender in language, causing as much ire and excitement as use of they as a non-binary singular pronoun has in the United States and beyond. In the English-speaking world, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s recognition of they as “word of the year” in 2019 signaled this shift. Many young Spanish speakers are also increasingly unwilling to accept gender hierarchies in any social, political, or cultural realm as natural, innocuous, or unchangeable; and they find the gender binary limiting and exclusionary for themselves or for society more broadly.

  • In the last 15 years few regions have made larger strides in LGBT recognition than Latin America. During this period, some of the most advanced legislation and policies in the world – such as gender identity laws, same-sex marriage, adoption rights for same-sex partners, and non-discrimination statutes – have been passed in Latin America, the great majority in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries.

There are two main issues at the heart of inclusive language efforts: to challenge androcentric conventions, and to expand the gender binary by incorporating gender-expansive options for speakers. In many languages, Spanish included, masculine forms constitute the linguistic and social norm. In society and grammar alike, masculinity, heterosexuality, and gender-conformance have been taken as the unmarked norm through which human experience is measured and communicated. However, just as the mere presence of a gender system in a language does not make it sexist or cis-normative, the push for inclusive language does not put the integrity of the language at risk and does not seek to dismantle its grammatical gender system.

  • As my colleague Salvador Vidal-Ortiz and I note in a recent article, substituting an e for a gender-specific o or a in a noun does not challenge the assigned gender of nouns that do not refer to specific populations. No one is suggesting that carro (the masculine noun in Spanish for “car”) should be “carre” instead. That is a caricature and, more importantly, would suggest denying speakers the right and means to name themselves by claiming that their lives are a grammatical – and also a biological, social, and legal – error or impossibility.
  • These efforts have been around for a while both in Latin America and the U.S as exemplified by the shifts in the term Latino. First came Latina/o, then the “@” in Latin@, then Latinx, and now Latine. All these forms have been (and continue to be) used as gender-neutral and expansive options to the masculine o or the feminine a. The e in particular has been getting traction and considerable (not always positive) attention. Argentina has been a trailblazer. Nowadays, it is practically impossible to attend a political rally or march in the country without hearing words like bienvenides (welcome) alongside or instead of the traditional bienvenidos or bienvenidas, or to see words like todes (instead of todas or todos) written on signs. Last year two events marked the widening spread of these shifts in the country. President Alberto Fernández made history when he used the word chiques (the gender-expansive alternative to the binary chicos or chicas) during a student rally – drawing a standing ovation; and last December Argentina made international headlines when a judge ruled in favor of including “non-binary” as the sex marker of a person’s national identification document

Despite this progress, opposition to gender-inclusive language has been fierce and is unlikely to fade quickly. La Real Academia de la Lengua (RAE), the governing body that presides over Spanish grammar, syntax, and morphology, has resisted it sternly – not surprising for an institution that has accepted only 11 women in 300 years of existence. History has shown, however, that calls for language purity and grammar correctness tend to be covers for social anxieties about upholding gender and sexual hierarchies. What upsets many speakers – particularly those used to being at the center of discourse and accustomed to holding cultural, social, economic, and political power – is not the language; it is the changing worldview that it names and advances. Inclusive language is neither a threat to the language nor a sign of its decline. Rather, it signals plasticity and health, as it illustrates its ability to adapt to shifting cultural and social norms.

February 25, 2020

* Juliana Martínez is Assistant Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University. Parts of this post were previously published, with Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, in Latinx thoughts: Latinidad with an X in Latino Studies in October 2018.

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2 Comments

  1. Jose

     /  February 25, 2020

    What History has shown is that language change driven by ideology leads to totalitarianism (1984). Inequality is the problem, not the language.

    Reply
  2. John Dinges

     /  February 25, 2020

    This is progress. Por lo menos se puede pronunciar “todes les niñes”. I was afraid there would be an effort to impose the linguistically awkward “niñxs’, ‘todxs’ etc. I couldn’t help but cringe when I got this from a friend: “Todxs estan invitadxs a mi casa.”
    I will continue to use “amigos y amigas”, and oppose ideologically imposed language.

    Reply

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