by Eleonora Guerra
Spanish is considered by some of its speakers — including linguists and philologists such as Teresa Meana Suárez and Claudia Guichard Bello — a sexist language. This is mainly because in Spanish the masculine gender is used to refer to both males and females as a generic form. In terms of human beings, this means that men are always explicitly mentioned whereas women are not. The use of the masculine generic is considered sexist and exclusive also because it fails to capture the rich spectrum of gender, which is not necessarily defined by biological sex. Gender is, indeed, a social, psychological, and cultural construct. Thus, it is not only women who are linguistically excluded but also people who do not identify as either men or women. This exclusion reflects a deeply rooted social reality that relates to historical male dominance. To counter this reality, some people have given rise to a phenomenon called inclusive language. This linguistic phenomenon, which is not unique to Spanish as it exists in other languages such as English, aims to fight against a sexist and patriarchal society by reinventing the language, and, more specifically, by inventing a new grammatical gender.
In order to understand why Spanish can be considered a sexist language, it is fundamental to understand what patriarchy means. According to Philip Antony (1999), the original meaning of patriarchy was “rule by the father”. In the seventeenth century in Europe, male heads of households were increasingly perceived as society’s moral guardians. Later on, Marx and Engels adopted the “rule by the father” concept but gave it a new economic and historical meaning. Ownership of property and direction of the production process was granted to men, and women and children were subordinate to authority. From the 1970s, feminists such as Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1970), used patriarchy to refer to men’s power over women in general. Patriarchy was applied to the relations between men and women and the subordination of women throughout all social institutions.
In addition to this subordination, women have been excluded from many areas. The most famous writers, historians, political figures, scientists, painters, and musicians are usually men. This is certainly not because women were not capable of producing and developing knowledge, opinions, or arts, but because they lived and still live in patriarchal societies. For centuries, women have been denied access to many jobs, especially those of higher positions. As stated by the Royal Spanish Academy (2021), women have been deprived of the right to vote until very recently and were not allowed to certain governmental, political, and administrative positions. The presence in our societies (especially in Latin American societies) of sexist attitudes is reflected in daily abuse, rape, punishment, discrimination, revenge, and killing of women. This explains why language can be sexist: if society is sexist and patriarchal, language reflects it through different linguistic forms. Spanish reflects it through the use of the masculine generic.
Spanish is a Romance language, like Italian, French, Catalan, and others. Their common ancestor and precursor is Vulgar Latin, which was the non-classical language spoken among ordinary people and less-educated citizens in the Roman Empire. This linguistic transformation occurred gradually over the centuries. The fact that Romance languages have a common ancestor explains why these languages have many aspects in common – mainly vocabulary and grammar forms, such as the roots of certain words (i.e.: in Spanish, the word for “love” is amor, in Italian amore, in French amour, and in Catalan amor) and the way verbs are formed (i.e.: in Spanish, “they go” is ellos van, in Italian loro vanno, in French, ils vont, and in Catalan ells van).
However, there are certain structural differences among Vulgar Latin and Romance languages. For instance, unlike Vulgar Latin, nouns are either feminine or masculine in Spanish. In fact, Vulgar Latin had a third linguistic gender that was neuter. The neuter gender was used to refer to certain inanimate entities or objects and would usually end in -um, like in the following words: bellum (war), ferrum (iron), or periculum (danger). This is not the case in Spanish. In fact, Spanish categorises inanimate entities and objects into either feminine or masculine, reflecting an arbitrary binary system among things and ideas.
In Spanish, the masculine is the default gender, making the language essentially androcentric (Coady, 2018), meaning it is dominated by or emphasises masculine interests or a masculine point of view. In other words, if a language is androcentric, it is centered around the male (“andro-“) portion of the population (Gershaw, 1997). For instance, if there are 99 women and one man in a room, Spanish speakers generally use the masculine to refer to all the 100 people. Spanish is thus characterised by a grammatical gender that highlights the masculine. To Meana Suarez (2002), this suggests that women have been hidden behind what she calls “false generics”, understood as those words that are supposed to be generic but are not in reality since the masculine generic has a masculine form. Thus, women have been concealed behind a semantic gap (Meana Suárez, 2002). Not only is the masculine the default grammatical gender in Spanish, but it is also the default form used in dictionaries. Also, feminine nouns derive from masculine nouns (Dutta, 2020) and when both men and women are named, men are traditionally named before women (Guichard Bello, 2015). There are certain masculine nouns that are used to refer to both men and women, such as padres (literally, fathers, but used to refer to both fathers and mothers), and el hombre (literally, the man, but used to refer to human beings) (Meana Suárez, 2002).
This, of course, is the result of a linguistic process that developed over hundreds of years and did not happen from one day to another. However, languages mirror past and present societies: historically, women have been excluded and underrepresented. This has been the case in the arts, sciences, professions, and politics (Guichard Bello, 2015), among other fields. Indeed, it was not until around the middle of the 20th century that women gained the right to vote. Therefore, since societies influence languages, it is almost a natural and logical linguistic process that certain languages, like Spanish, have gradually incorporated this social and historical discrimination and sexism.
In order to fight against this structural social and linguistic exclusion, some groups in Spanish-speaking countries have proposed ways to make the language more inclusive. Most work on sexism in language and inclusive language has been done from a feminist perspective. However, the Queer movement has also contributed to this phenomenon. Most proposals have to do with avoiding the exclusive use of the masculine in discourse. Some of these proposals have been accepted by parts of society. Others do not convince certain Spanish speakers who argue that language should not be forced or it is not necessary to use inclusive language. Moreover, certain proposals do not satisfy the claims of one part of society, that is, those people who do not identify with women or men. For this reason, inclusive language in Spanish has become a controversial topic.
For example, one of the proposals is to use both masculine and feminine forms when referring to a mix of people. So, instead of saying “buenas tardes a todos (masculine generic)”, it is more inclusive to say “buenas tardes a todos (masculine) y todas (feminine)”. This proposal, done from a feminist perspective, promotes the visibility principle by making the female gender visible, but it does not neutralise discourse. In this way, it reinforces binary gender categories (Coady, 2018). Moreover, this practice is considered repetitive by some because it produces long discourses that still have masculine generics. Furthermore, it excludes those who do not identify with either gender. However, “speakers of grammatically gendered languages have very little choice regarding binarily gendered forms” (Coady, 2018).
The Queer movement proposed linguistic forms that are not just limited to the binary system (Coady, 2018). In fact, Queer linguistics goes beyond feminist linguistic reform by questioning the very existence of gender categories. In this sense, Queer linguistics clashes with the feminist linguistic reform. Ever since the Queer movement brought up this criticism, the general public has been more aware of sexist language and has adopted new grammatical variants. For instance, some people – mainly young students and intellectuals – have adopted the use of the neutral e, instead of the feminine a, masculine o, and the generic masculine o. So, instead of saying the generic “buenas tardes a todos” or the binary “buenas tardes a todos y todas“, these people prefer to use this gender neutral option: “buenas tardes a todes“. Similarly, some have adopted the use of x or @ in the written form, instead of a and o. So, instead of writing the generic “buenas tardes a todos” or the binary “buenas tardes a todos y todas“, they write “buenas tardes a tod@s” or “buenas tardes a todxs“. This practice, however, causes problems in the oral language since those signs do not have a corresponding sound. The most radical and extreme (yet valid) option is the invention and adoption of the use of the generic feminine, so instead of saying “buenas tardes a todos (generic masculine)”, some people say “buenas tardes a todas (generic feminine)”.
There are certain forms that are more inclusive and less problematic. For instance, an option is to avoid naming the gender of people by naming a group of people, an activity, or a place, using gender-neutral terms (Guichard Bello, 2015). Thus, instead of saying sentences like “el hombre llegó a la luna en 1969” (the man landed on the moon in 1969), it is preferable to say “el ser humano llegó a la luna en 1969” (humans landed on the moon in 1969), which contains inclusive words. Instead of saying “los alumnos (generic masculine) fueron invitados a la reunión” (the students were invited to the meeting), the following sentence is preferred “el alumnado (gender-neutral) fue invitado a la reunión” (the student body was invited to the meeting). Similarly, instead of saying “los ciudadanos (generic masculine) deben respetar las normas” (citizens must respect the norms), it is better to say “la ciudadanía (gender neutral) debe respetar las normas” (the citizenship must respect the norms). Another inclusive alternative is to “change the verb from its he/she form to its you or we form without mentioning the subject” (Meana Suárez, 2002). For example, “Se recomienda a los usuarios (masculine plural generic form) que utilicen correctamente la tarjeta” (It is recommended that the users use their cards correctly) becomes “Recomendamos que utilice su tarjeta correctamente” (We recommend that you use your card correctly). Alternatively, the verb can be put in the passive: “Se recomienda un uso correcto de la tarjeta” (Correct use of the card is recommended). Therefore, it is possible to avoid sexist language and use inclusive language, as long as there is a will.
This linguistic phenomenon has resulted in widespread criticism within Spanish-speaking societies, especially among orthodox academics and some sectors of the public (Slemp, Black, and Cortian, 2020). For instance, the Spanish Royal Academy and other conservative linguistic institutions argue against the use of inclusive language because they consider it unnecessary and, in some cases, redundant since the masculine generic, in theory, already includes both men and women. When they argue inclusive language is redundant, they evoke the principle of linguistic economy according to which one should convey more information with less effort. Among some sectors of the public, the most common argument is that that language should not be forced, and new forms and variants should be spontaneous. Some argue Spanish is not sexist at all, therefore, there is no need to invent new forms that might sound “silly”, like the word todes, instead of todos or todas.
Inclusive language is an interesting sociological phenomenon that shows an awareness of deeply rooted social problems, as well as language awareness. It is a creative way of transforming languages to avoid sexism and gender exclusion. Like political psychologist, Efrén O Pérez, tells BBC Culture (Dutta, 2020), “even if it’s not fully endorsed, it’s part of the conversation now. (…) You can talk about how you don’t like the word or not, but once you use it, it’s actually influencing how you think about politics.” He carries on saying, “you can’t change culture, but as some of these gender-neutral terms reveal, you can adjust the terms that you use. Maybe we can’t change entire vocabularies, but once you introduce certain gender-neutral options to the extent that people employ them or subscribe to them, it does matter.”
Inclusive language is a revolutionary as well as a controversial phenomenon, which proposes linguistic varieties in order to avoid the predominance of the masculine, at least, within language. Feminist and Queer movements as well as sectors of the public have proposed different variants to the masculine generic and other sexist forms within language. In other words, those who have been complaining about sexism in language are mainly those who have been misrepresented not just within language but also throughout history. Some of the variants proposed have been accepted by some sectors of societies that accept it is important to eradicate sexist language as a way to eradicate sexism within society. Other sectors have critisiced it arguing it is unnecessary and redundant. In any case, it is a topic that is making Spanish speakers aware of a social issue that cannot be ignored.