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Inclusivity: Where Politics and Linguistics Converge

By | [email protected] | July 16, 2018 6:38pm

2635474w1033Language changes with culture, but perhaps not at the same speed. (Photo via Shutterstock)

As public consciousness shifts, so does the way we describe the world around us. With the growing popularity of feminist and LGBTQ+ movements globally, it is no surprise that the use of a third, grammatically-neutral gender in the Spanish language has gained traction among certain demographics, especially young people.

Last month, a high school student spoke on television about mobilizing for the legalization of abortion in Argentina. The content of her interview, while pertinent, didn’t get as much attention as did a few of the “strange” words she so naturally included. She explained that les estudiantes had decided to demonstrate at the school until the meeting of les diputades in the Lower House had finished.

Many English-speakers have evolved ways to make our language more inclusive, such as using “they” instead of “he” or “her,” referring to groups as “you all” instead of “you guys,” and avoiding gender-specific words such as “mankind” or “policemen.” The goal of those who espouse language inclusivity is to be gender-inclusive, acknowledge diversity and convey respect to all people without bias toward a particular sex or social gender.

Language inclusivity looks quite a bit different in Spanish, where most words themselves have an associated gender. Nouns are categorized as either masculine (often ending in –o) or feminine (often ending in –a), and mixed-gender groups are referred to using masculine nouns and pronouns, such as los estudiantes and los diputados. Aside from grammar, there are other social issues with gendered nouns, such as the word for “secretary,” whose feminine la secretaria implies a subordinate position while masculine el secretario is an executive one.

The ‘e’ as a third gender is proposed as being a gender-neutral, pronounceable alternative to the standard masculine or feminine demarkations. (Photo via Radiomitre)


The high school student’s interview that went viral had two effects: it allowed many people to find out from their TV screen that there may be some linguistic changes on the horizon, and it entangled this gender-neutral grammatical phenomenon with controversial issues such as abortion, political activism in schools, feminism, and gender diversity. This allowed some to confirm their prejudices and disregard the way of speech as new, localized, and politically-influenced.

Yet, this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. Attempts to steer the language toward gender neutrality began decades ago. We have seen a “doubling” as in diputados y diputadas, the use of “@” as in [email protected], while some prefer the use of a slash as in disputados/as. Then, to extend inclusivity beyond the gender binary, there was “x”, as in diputadxs. As none of these options are exactly easy to read, much less speak, the “e” as in diputades offers a better chance at survival, according to some, by offering both precision and ease to pronounce.

“The discussion on inclusive language isn’t something new: it was more than twenty years ago when UNESCO suggested that we say niños y niñas instead of using the general masculine [niños],” explained Nuria Gómez Belart, Linguistics professor at the University of El Salvador. “The reality is that in the last few years, we have not so many attempts at modifying the language that it is difficult for my not to see this as another.” Still, many Spanish-speakers see these linguistic innovations as too far a derivation from the norm and, if accepted, would usher in a linguistic change too drastic to manage.

As we have seen, inclusive language in Spanish is often at odds with grammar rules. Among some writers and academics, there is a worry that adopting rules to conform to new societal standards would too drastically change the linguistic economy of the language. The Real Academia Española, or the RAE, is the linguistic authority on all things Spanish. They release a set of rules every few years to adopt changes in the language in order to make the official rules more congruent with the everyday use of Spanish speakers, while still maintaining a kind of “purity” of the language that is so geographically varied and in constant evolution. Still, the RAE is notoriously stubborn when it comes to adopting inclusivity rules.

Darío Villanueva, director of the RAE. (Photo via El Español)

When you type “La Real Academia Española” into Google, one of the first suggestions is “es machista.” “Don’t confuse grammar with machismo,” Darío Villanueva, director of the RAE stated last week. In response to previous suggestions for inclusivity reform, the institution has rejected the notion of using marks such as ‘x’ or ‘@’ by arguing that it is too difficult to say aloud. They have also expressed a preference for brevity, saying that diputados is more correct than diputados y diputadas because the single word adheres to the principle of language economy, or using as few words as possible to express an idea. “The use of doubles, such as miembro y miembra, ends up destroying that economic essence.”

Now, in response to increased exposure and popularity of a neutral gender, the RAE responded via social media, “The use of the letter ‘e’ as a supposed gender is foreign to the morphologic system of Spanish, in addition to being unnecessary, since the grammatical masculine functions as an inclusive term in reference to mixed groups or in general or unspecific contexts.”

Late last week, Vice President of the Spanish government Carmen Calvo requested that the RAE submit a report that evaluates how inclusive language could be incorporated into the Spanish Constitution. This generated varied reactions from the academic body that makes up the RAE, including most notably writer Arturo Pérez Reverte, who assured via Twitter that he would resign from the RAE if inclusive language reform was accepted. “You have my word.”

However according to ABC, Villanueva also acknowledged that the RAE was obligated to submit the requested report and that everyone has a right to express their opinion on the issue, in reference to the degree of disagreement within the institution. “It’s a ticking time-back for the RAE.” He refused to weigh-in on Pérez Reverte’s comments.

So, why is there this persistent unease with the masculine grammatical gender? In part it surely has to due with the expansion of global diversity movements. On the other hand, perhaps those who use strive for gender neutrality in their speech are not necessarily part of a militant feminist project to change the Spanish language, but perhaps trying to better align themselves with societal norms that have already changed.

“I believe it’s convenient to consider what happens in language as a symptom of a demand that exceeds language,” says writer and RAE member Santiago Kovadloff to Infobae. “The central issue is the demand that is shown through these various experimental proposals. That demand is nothing else than that of being considered equal by those who feel excluded.”

The Real Academia de la Lengua Española, Madrid. (Photo via El Nacional)

It’s true that how we talk about the world affects how we perceive it, but changes in how we use language are also a reflection of the changes in the ideas we need to express. Throughout most of history, the most visible positions in public and professional life were occupied by men. In that context, it made sense to use the numerically-dominant gender to describe a group, that the human species be called hombres, since most groups were men-only. For Kovadloff, in a context where women now exist in the majority of public spheres, questioning the male-dominant linguistic norm seems perfectly valid and reasonable.

Yet many see this latest development, that of the ‘e’ as a mark of gender neutrality, as more of a political statement. Indeed, it is prominent among progressive movement driven by young people, such as the discourse surrounding the legalization of abortion. To this argument, Gómez Belart stated, “I believe it is difficult that this [‘e’] is sustained, as it doesn’t have to do with a feeling but with a political stance and declaration of principles: two things that are more difficult to sustain over time, above all in groups of adolescents.”

It is unclear whether or not this trend will take hold and stay for the long haul, but it has sparked a political and linguistic controversy that reaches the highest authorities of the Spanish language. Amid rejection and acceptance, time will have the last word.