Masculine or feminine: how modern ideologies are shaping the Spanish-speaking world

Kate – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Year 12 student Kate writes here about the use of gendered constructions in the Spanish language. As Kate herself notes, “[this essay] discusses the presence of male/female nouns and endings in the Spanish language – something which has been virtually entirely abolished in the English Language – and how it’s being shaped by the actions of some young people. [Also included are] some relevant examples to help explain to those with no prior knowledge of the language how this works.” This is Kate’s fourth contribution to The GSAL Journal and I continue to be highly impressed by the clear, concise way in which she communicates her ideas; you can read more from Kate here. CPD

[Featured image: Espanol. (Needpix.com: Public Domain)]


Masculine or feminine: how modern ideologies are shaping the Spanish-speaking world

At what point in the history of Modern Foreign Languages did sex become relevant?

The 21st Century: perhaps the single period of human existence in which we have managed to see the most significant egalitarian milestones. Of course, to list all achievements thus far would be impossible, and to name any specific causes feels slightly elitist. With that being said, there is one particularly prevalent principle with which seemingly everyone has had their own personal experience; regardless of race, age, and ironically enough, gender.

Our fleeting obsession with gender proofing our words has led to a massive reform in the way we speak, write, and, most of all, the way we think. The ability to present ourselves, as equally through words as physical expression, acts as our means of solidarity in everything from the clothes we wear to our personal idiolect.

This is especially true for those identifying as LGBT+, in which identity remains key. But it’s from the grassroots of this community that we’re able to see the beginning of one of the most controversial contemporary discussions: linguistically speaking, does gender neutrality automatically equal gender equality?

The reason we may struggle to comment on this, regardless of certain viewpoints on whether there actually is one unerring answer, is simply because it may not be as applicable to the English language as we’d like to pride ourselves on. In a world of genderless ‘gingerbread people’ (as you may remember from a few years ago), it seems as though we’ve forgotten that gendered lexis can exist beyond marked terms. This is what makes English in particular so incomparable with the majority of other modern foreign languages. Unlike what we can see in French and German, gender is not inherent in our nouns. With The Cambridge Dictionary citing nouns as the most common word class in the language, we can clearly see why their prevalence and the form in which they come in is relevant in both our written and spoken forms of discourse.

It’s with this grammatical realisation that we can begin to see more closely why English is not the only language claiming to be restricted by neuters. Whilst there are multitudes of other examples, it’s definitely debatable that one of the most affected, and arguably one of the most radically changing (yes, that’s a verb joke), would be Spanish and its various dialects. To some, its incredibly distinguishable gendered nouns – an ‘O’ ending signalling masculinity, and an ‘A’ ending signalling femininity – may feel constraining. That’s because, with the world we live in today, they are.

Only furthering the dilemma is another key patriarchal problem in Spanish, in which another concern arises when it involves these nouns becoming plural – meaning there’s more than one of whatever noun is involved. When this occurs in Spanish, the masculine ending is most often used, despite any potential group gender diversity. There actually only needs to be one male in the group for this to be the preferred expression. For the sake of an example, let’s look at the word ‘Alumnos’.

Due to the adopted masculine plural, ‘Los Alumnos’ meaning ‘Students’ (with ‘El Alumno’ meaning ‘Student’ as its base singular), not only implies to us grammatically (without any clarification) that all those in education are male, regardless of whether the true implication includes females and/or gender non-conforming students. There is a feminine form of this noun, ‘Las Alumnas’, but it can only be used when the group is definitively female, making it the much less common choice. Of course, to opt to use the feminine-only version is sexism in its own right, but there is a solution to this.

Furthermore, contractions in Spanish show us that there also exist masculine-only apocope forms, but not feminine-only versions. Apocopation is when one or more sounds is/are lost from the end of a word: this is especially common in the presence of unstressed vowels, which happens to be exactly how the majority of Spanish words end. In English, these may also be referred to as end-cuts, or word-final clippings. Here, examples include the contraction of ‘A + El’ to form ‘Al’ meaning ‘to him’ and ‘De + El’ to form ‘Del’ meaning ‘of him’. In terms of female apocopes, there is no contraction, because they simply don’t exist. You merely say ‘A + La’ or ‘De + La’. Does the fact that male forms have been so widely adopted that they (plural) deserve their own grammatical sector make the issue people take with Spanish clear yet?

Unfortunately, it’s from here that the spiral continues, and the next twist can be found clearly in common nouns. In Spanish, particularly with professions, there are two ways of denoting grammatical gender. For the vast majority of professions, the article changes depending on the gender doing the job. This seems fair, right?

Well, the alternative option, in which the noun is organised by ending, is much more complex. Whilst it may seem as though there should be some similarities, one of the many joys of the Spanish language is its hierarchy within its own lexicon. As such, those against such perceived sexism have drawn their focus on to examples in which the feminine version of a term is slightly less meaningful. A particularly offensive example would be ‘Hombre Público’. Whilst the masculine (‘Hombre’ and the ‘O’ ending referring to a man) translates literally to ‘Public man’, It pragmatically implies politician. That makes sense. As for the women, the term ‘Mujer Pública’, which similarly translates to ‘Public Woman’ (with ‘Mujer’ and the ‘A’ ending referencing a woman) instead means ‘Prostitute’. Furthermore, due to their lexical similarities (approximately 90%, to be precise), this example also applies to Portuguese!

We do not want to speak ‘well’. Language is a social construct.

As we happen to seemingly live in a society that challenges this kind of inept social acceptance, you can imagine the newly developing pushback being received by these types of slating sexist grammatical concepts: not only because of the blatant linguistic sexism, but also because of Spain’s largely developing gender non-conforming community. One particularly well known example would be the coining and development of the term ‘Latinx’ in the early 21st century. Despite being first used online in 2004, the term didn’t gain much traction until 2014. When the term was created, there was little consideration for the way it was meant to be pronounced: as such, there are several variants. ‘Latinks’, ‘Latin-eks’, and ‘Lateen-eks’ are all commonly in use. Other less common synonyms include ‘Latine’ or ‘Latin@’. In the case of ‘Latinx’, the grapheme ‘X’ (grapheme being the linguistic term for letter) acts as a gender-neutral suffix. It has no similarities to other graphemes, such as E, A, or O, which as discussed are marked graphemes within the Spanish language, and therefore highlights clearly to any users or receivers of the term that they’re referring to an entire group. Within the less common options, the first uses the ‘e’, which in Spanish is considered epicene, and the latter is applied due to its analogical resemblance to both the feminine and masculine Spanish endings. The neologism serves as a means of providing the Latino/a community with a sense of linguistic imperialism, encompassing everyone, regardless of identity.

In terms of the reception of this – which has become increasingly prominent, likely due to its recent spike in usage – there have been vast discussions within the linguistics community. Some lexicographers have rejected the idea, whilst others have openly promoted it, with both groups citing grammatical grounds. Ironically, some groups have even claimed that the term ‘supports patriarchal bias’, is ‘anti-feminist’, ‘based on political correctness’ or criticised simply because of the lack of set pronunciation.

Another, perhaps more radical, movement to consider, encompasses the solution referenced in an end to my earlier paragraph regarding pluralisation. This campaign happens to challenge the Royal Spanish Academy themselves, who have already dismissed such grammatical changes to be ‘unnecessary’ and ‘artificial’. And yet, the protests continue, most notably in Argentina. Here is where we can see the popularization of a third pronoun: Elle, and the insertion of the epicene ‘E’ in place of the ‘O’ and ‘A’. Combining the traditional forms of ‘Él’ and ‘Ella’ (he and she), the terms aim to change what is seen as a deeply gendered culture. Whilst Spain does have ‘Ello’ or ‘Ella’ (pronounced /ɛjəʊ/) for ‘They’, it is often used in the context of ‘it’ rather than as a gender neutral. As such, the offense to this pronoun is the same in Spanish as in English. It’s also only used when at least one male is present, similar to the example of ‘Los Alumnos’. In Argentina, 18-year-old Natalia Mira’s casual use of the pronoun in an interview on television led to a surge in popularity: this was only furthered when Alberto Fernández, merely weeks before his election as Argentinian President, used it publicly in a speech addressed to a group of high school students. Before long, the form was appearing in the thousands on any and every social media platform: WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter – and the list goes on.

But the movement thus far hasn’t been easy. Having already received both criticism and defence from the very group dictating how the language is used and shaped, the protesters have reached an early barrier. With that being said, they’ve made their response clear. ‘We do not want to speak ‘well’. Language is a social construct.’

So, what’s next for Spanish?

Well, that has yet to be decided. Nevertheless, if there’s anything at all we can take from the unwavering mind-set of those trying to change a language with over 437 million natives, it’s that language was not designed to be static. Regardless of the result of these proposed changes, it will certainly always remain a landmark case. It’s no wonder than English has been guided towards a gender-neutral future in such a short space of time, and perhaps we don’t often realise how lucky we are in terms of ease. The ways we speak, write, and think are all shaped by the cultures and languages we’re brought up with; perhaps it’s not such a bad idea for those to be a little more gender inclusive.

Kate 033155

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