“An actress can only play the role of a woman. I’m an actor- I can play anything”. (Whoopi Goldberg, 1986).
Whether it be common nouns like ‘fireman’ or ‘midwife’, or the dominating male pronoun in ambiguous references, most European languages are full of gendered lexis and grammar which often prioritise one gender, usually male, over any other. However, as a result of the increasing acceptance towards a wider spectrum of gender and sexual identity, a new movement is making waves in the field of socio-linguistics: gender-neutral language.
What is gender-neutral language?
Gender-neutral language, also known as gender-inclusive language, is the term used to refer to the use of non-sexist, inclusive, and gender-fair language. The goal for its use is to get rid of words and phrases that could potentially be interpreted as biased, discriminatory, or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm. The European Parliament has been working on developing strategies to neutralise European languages since the 1980s and states “Gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language is more than a matter of political correctness. Language powerfully reflects and influences attitudes, behaviour, and perceptions”.
Why is this even important?
You may be questioning whether language really has that much influence on our lives. Studies have shown that language constructs, and how they’re used, inform the way we interact with our surroundings. It has also been shown that even our personalities can change as a result of the language(s) that we use. People who are bilingual, trilingual, and polyglots, can have several different personalities depending on the languages they speak. Language, therefore, undeniably informs and interacts with our reality. Yet, unknowingly we continue to express ourselves with language that does not align with our progressing beliefs. As such, it’s important for us to take accountability for the language we use and to recognise where we can adapt the way we speak, in order to reflect our advancing views towards gender equality.
“But, what would this even look like?”
The case for English.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, English is littered with gendered language that points straight at our archaic, patriarchal past. “He runs like a girl”, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” and “don’t be such a girl’s blouse” are just some of the many English expressions which, without a second thought, we use on a daily basis without realising their potential to reinforce power divisions between genders. Luckily for us, English, unlike many other European languages, can be neutralised relatively easily. The main characteristic of English in its gendering of words, is its masculinisation or feminisation of common nouns, such as ‘air hostess’ and ‘policeman’. To avoid referring solely to one gender when unnecessary to do so, we can use gender-neutral terms – leaving us with ‘flight attendant’ and ‘police officer’ as alternatives. Some other alternatives to commonly used words are as follows:
|Gendered noun||Gender-neutral noun|
|Sir (“Dear Sir,”)||To Whom It May Concern|
Fortunately, with the exception of the previous examples, English does not see all nouns as being either male or female in nature and often will already have a neutral alternative available (‘teacher’ / ‘dentist’).
The main issue with neutralising gender in English actually comes down to the use of the singular third-person pronouns ‘he’ / ‘she’ – as English provides no neutral alternative and subsequently forces us to identify the gender of a referent as either male or female. Take the following as an example: Sam lied to his mum about passing his exams. How do we know Sam is a boy? Could Sam be a girl? Do we know Sam even identifies as a boy or girl? So, what do we do when speaking about someone who doesn’t identify as male or female or when we simply just don’t know?
The pronoun ‘they’ was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2019 as being an official alternative to this problem and now is widely considered as the most appropriate gender-neutral reference to anyone or anything standing outside of the binary male/female construct. In 2017, the pronoun ‘they’ was added as a gender-neutral form in the Associated Press Stylebook; a ‘go-to’ reference for most journalists and, in 2015, The Washington Post began to include ‘they’ as a singular third-person pronoun in its publications. ‘They’, by nature, is often used by members of the non-binary community who don’t identify as either ‘he’ or ‘she’*. Whilst being commented on by many critics as being jarring to English syntax, Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among other famous English writers, couldn’t agree less with this criticism and used ‘they’ and ‘their’ throughout their works as gender-neutral pronouns. Until the Victorian-era, ‘they’ was the standard in English until it was changed by grammarians who prioritised ‘he’ as the predominant pronoun.
The case for Spanish.
Spanish, like many other romance languages, is almost impossible to imagine without gender- defining characteristics. Every noun is intrinsically gendered and associated with the male ‘el’ or female ‘la’. We find ourselves driving to work in our male car, entering through the female door, working on our male computers, and drinking our female water. Spanish also prioritises the male pronoun when at least one man is included in a group. So, a group of friends consisting of 99 girls and 1 boy would be referred to as ‘los amigos’; using the male plural pronoun and corresponding male ending. As a challenge to the language’s gender-binary grammar, many are calling for a change in the way Spanish speakers express themselves.
How do we make Spanish more gender-neutral?
There are three main ways to disturb gender norms in Spanish:
The use of ‘–X’:
Since the 90s, people have been trying to do away with the gendered endings of –o (male) and –a (female) in Spanish by replacing them with ‘-x’. ‘Chica bonita’ becomes ‘chicx bonitx’ and ‘latino/latina’ becomes ‘latinx’. This is has been widely used by the LGBTQ+ community as a way of including genders that don’t fit neatly into the binary male/female grammar of Spanish. However, whilst favourable in writing, the pronunciation of these words poses difficulties for many Spanish speakers who don´t see the phoneme /eks/ used regularly in their conversations.
The use of ‘-e’:
As a solution to the pronunciation problem above, many people have opted to substitute ‘-o’/ ‘-a’ with ‘-e’ making new gender-neutral words such as ‘les amigues’ (los/as amigos/as), les chiques (los/las chicos/as) and ‘latine’ (Latino/a). This alternative has already proven to be relatively popular in Spain and is slowly gaining traction through the South-American queer circles.
The use of ‘@’:
The use of the ‘@’ is also another commonly used alternative that you may see throughout Spain as a way of including both males and females in the same reference. ‘Niños’ becomes ‘niñ@s’ and ‘amigos’ becomes ‘amig@s’, with the pronunciation of the character sounding as ‘ao’. Despite its popularity in modern-day Spain, many take issue with its use- believing that ‘@’ is not a linguistic character and, as such, shouldn’t be integrated into the language. In fact, when asked about the chances of these three alternatives being considered as official by the RAE (Real Academia Española- the official authority on Spanish grammar and lexis), officials responded with ‘absolutely not’ to the possibility.
Just as with the case of the English ‘they’, whilst ‘-x’ and ‘-e’ may be the ‘go-to’ alternative to neutralising gendered words in Spanish, there are also other pronouns that people are more comfortable using (such as ‘ne/nes’, ‘xe/xeir’, etc.). The rule of thumb (in any language) when you’re unsure how to use gender-neutral language and pronouns when referring to someone, is to simply ask them what their preferred reference and pronouns are. It’s as simple as that.
Whilst not everyone is sold on the idea of entirely adapting to gender-neutral language just yet, there are figures that show that neutral terms are, in fact, being slowly taken on by more and more people annually.
Why not consider integrating gender-neutral language into your own vocabulary? You never know, you might just end up finding yourself with a lot more ‘amigues’ or ‘amigxs’ in the future.
*The importance of using gender-neutral language to include non-binary voices deserves its own and unfortunately could not be fully delved into in this article. For more information about this:
About Christian Copeland
Graduate Degree in Modern Languages and Translation (French/Spanish) from Cardiff University, UK. Studied in UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. English teacher, translator and proofreader in the French and Spanish to English combinations.