Exploring Gender-Neutral Language in Spanish
Noun and adjective genders in your second language can be a real pain, can’t they?
Having to select the correct endings, always watching out for agreements, kicking yourself when you get the wrong endings.
This is the reality for most learners. After twenty years of speaking Spanish, I still have to correct myself mid-conversation!
The reason it’s such a nightmare for native English speakers is that noun genders don’t exist in our language. Although some others are also gender-neutral, like Chinese and Finnish, many of the world’s major languages – and some of the most popular to learn – do have rules around gender.
Wouldn’t it just be easier if they just didn’t exist?
Well, that’s exactly what many people in the Spanish-speaking world are trying to encourage.
There’s a movement gaining traction that encourages people to reduce or completely stop the use of gendered language in everyday life.
What’s the Problem with Gender in Spanish?
The main issue with gender in Spanish is that men and women are not treated equally in the language.
Nouns differ depending on the gender of the person they describe, and adjectives and pronouns always reflect the gender of the person they describe.
In English, the words ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ don’t give any clue as to a person’s gender, whereas, in Spanish, the words used (doctor/a and abogado/a, respectively) vary depending on whether they are a man or a woman.
You might think this is no big deal, but there are occasions when this distinction can be a problem. A secretario (masculine form) refers to a minister of government, whereas the female equivalent of this word – secretaria – would normally refer to a secretary or typist: a subordinate employee.
The feminine word holds much less prestige. To refer to a female government minister, you’d have to consciously modify your language, using la secretario or a similar option.
This isn’t a problem confined only to professions. When discussing people in general, the default plural form is masculine. Whereas ellos and ellas can be used to describe groups of solely men or women, if there is a mixture of both, the masculine form ellos will take precedence.
That’s the case even if the group contains a hundred women and one man!
Reasons to Support Gender-Neutral Spanish
In short, the use of gender in Spanish is not inclusive. It reduces the recognition of women and causes issues for transgender people, or those who don’t ascribe to traditional gender roles.
With 50% of American millennials recognizing that there are more than two genders, it’s difficult to justify continuing with the traditional, binary male and female forms in Spanish.
The problem isn’t confined to Spanish. Other Romance languages suffer the same limitations, with French, Portuguese, and Italian among those affected. German, Hebrew, and Russian – non-Romance languages – have similar gender issues too.
How To Use Gender-Neutral Spanish
If you want to reduce your gender bias in Spanish, there are many ways you can do this.
The most radical way is to stop using the traditional endings entirely (-o, -os, -a and -as), and instead replace them with -e for singular and -es for plural. So, for example, you could say:
- les ciudadanes instead of los ciudadanos
- todes les miembres instead of todos los miembros
- mis amigues instead of mis amigos
This new method is the most convenient for spoken Spanish because it’s easiest to pronounce. The use of ‘e’ was first seen in the last five years, but is a growing trend in Argentina right now, with even the country’s president, Alberto Fernández, using it during a recent TV broadcast to the nation on the subject of the Covid-19 lockdown.
5 Ways to Make Your Language Inclusive in Written Spanish
1. The symbol ‘@’ can replace the ‘o’ in the traditional masculine plural form.
Although it’s mostly informal, it’s been in use since the mid-1990s. It’s not unusual to see signs on the street advertising for compañer@s de piso or for voluntari@s.
2. The letter x was first introduced in 2014 as an alternative for the -o/-a ending in the word Latino.
Particularly in the US, you regularly see references to Latinx as an inclusive descriptor for Latin Americans of all genders.
If these options don’t appeal to you, there are less direct ways are to use inclusive forms in Spanish without fundamentally bending (or breaking) the traditional language rules.
3. In spoken language, you can use alternative phrasing to avoid gendered language.
An example might be to say la gente que hace… or las personas que hacen… in place of los que hacen…
4. You can opt for neutral adjectives that don’t change to agree with the noun.
Examples of these include amable, fuerte, leal, feliz, interesante and idealista. Obviously, this isn’t practical in every situation, because there isn’t a gender-neutral option for every descriptor, but it’s an ideal place to start.
5. In written language, you can mention both traditional options -o(s) and -a(s).
So this could either be in full form, los voluntarios y las voluntarias, or in a shortened form los/las voluntarios/as. While both of these are inclusive to men and women, they can either be lengthy or difficult to pronounce when speaking.
Arguments Against Removing Gender in Spanish
The movement against gendered language in Spanish is met with pushback from authorities.
The Real Academia Española (RAE), who set the guidelines for correct Spanish usage, are firmly against the modifications to the language, having publicly denounced the alternative ‘x’ ending as seen in Latinx. Additionally, they have refused to release a report by the deputy prime minister of Spain that recommends replacing masculine nouns with more gender-neutral ones.
As a traditionalist institution, the RAE prefers to retrospectively react to real-world changes in the language and adopt new rules once they are de facto already in place through widespread use.
At an individual level, there are objections to the introduction of new pronouns and language to mitigate gender bias in Spanish. Many people think it’s too politically correct, with a poll of American Hispanics last year finding that only 2% were comfortable with the term Latinx.
Although Pimsleur doesn’t give any endorsement as to the use of gendered language, we hope that being aware of these nuances in modern Spanish gives you the freedom to communicate in whichever way you choose with regard to gender.
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