This is a long-debated discussion in Spain.
In the last few decades, assorted universities, unions and autonomous communities in Spain have created style guides with new rules prescribing non-sexist language. It’s true that the masculine gender predominates in the Spanish language when speaking in the plural form: the parents of three girls and one boy would refer to their children as hijos (masculine plural) despite the overwhelming female majority. In English people say “brothers and sisters” while the Spanish word “hermanos” captures the same meaning in a more succinct manner. The word “españoles” encompasses both male and female citizens of Spain. Let’s see more examples!
Languages reflect the society from which they emerged and we all know that Spanish evolved from Latin, a patriarchal language. We have seen before that the masculine plural is used for any group with a male element, regardless of proportion (“mis hijos son cuatro: un varón y tres hembras). The masculine plural is also used for a male-female pair (“mis padres”, “los Reyes Católicos”, “los señores Sánchez”). These are part of a larger phenomenon: one uses the masculine unless there is reason to use the feminine; the masculine form is the default. The masculine is assumed to include reference to the feminine in such words as the pronominal “uno”; it is also used as the generic or undifferentiated plural: “los españoles son simpáticos”. “Los hombres” is used to mean ‘people’. “El que” is assumed to include feminine referents, “la que” is not; one cannot say, in Spanish “el o la que”. It is the masculine definite article, never the feminine, which is used to nominalize an infinitive (“el comer es un placer”).
Another type of masculine dominance is the “unmarked” nature of masculine forms. The masculine is the basic or standard form, the feminine a derivation from it: “francés”/“francesa” (French); “doctor”/“doctora.” Even though the evolutionary processes were different, pronouns follow the same pattern, with the male pronoun being shorter and easier to use:“él” is shorter than “ella”, “aquél” than “aquélla”. The masculine third person subject pronoun “él” resembles the definite article “el”, but “ella” is a syllable longer than “la”. Reinforcing the dominance of the masculine gender is the neuter’s resemblance to it. “Esto”, “eso”, “aquello”, “lo” and “ello” have the -o ending associated with the masculine. In the case of adjectives, the neuter and masculine coincide: “es necesario que…” .
Let’s see another examples: the slang expression ser la polla (this a very strong expression, so try not to use it!) means being the top, the elite, the crème de la crème (polla is the rude word for the penis) and ser cojonudo also means being the top (cojonudo comes from the word cojones, testicles or balls in English). On the other hand, Ser un coñazo means being a pain, a bore, an annoying person (coñazo comes from coño, which is the rude word for vagina).
What once passed for perfectly acceptable and grammatically correct Spanish is now labeled machista or sexist, with some academics proposing changes to language usage. Let’s see some of these proposals:
- Replacing the “a” or “o” of those nouns or adjectives that change with gender to an “x” or the “@” symbol. In areas like social networking, its use, while potentially bothersome, does not create major problems. Another option proposed is to use the letter “e” to convert all gender-variable words into invariable words. In this way, we could create sentences such as “Les abogades son muy listes”.
- Using “collective nouns”. In this way we could avoid, among other things, the use of words referring to professions: if we are talking about a group of profesores (teachers) to include the profesoras we should use the noun profesorado: a word that is not only heavy and impractical, but of course, it has the inconvenience of being masculine.
- Using bars to include the options: el político/a. Is used, especially in legal documents, but in narrative prose and informal texts would make it more difficult to read.
- Leaning towards greater splitting of words: chicos y chicas, ciudadanos y ciudadanas. Again, we are adding so many words in the sentence, and it is so redundant.
Do you think Spanish is a sexist language or not? Do you think we could fix it? How? We would love to talk to you about this topic and others in our conversation classes. If you are a beginner, don’t worry, you can also book Spanish general classes (A1-C2). Try a free trial class!
- Image (Equality) courtesy of Becris at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
- Image (Words cloud) courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net