Removing Sexism from the Spanish Language
Spoken in 31 countries and with over 400 million first-language native speakers all over the world, mainly in Spain and the Americas, Spanish is the second-most important language globally. It’s also important to our team—we’ve talked about its relevance on this blog before. When it comes to working with content in Spanish, it is wise to take into account its grammatical gender and gender-inclusive language as an option to appeal wider audiences.
In Spanish, nouns are classified into categories and agree with adjectives, articles, some pronouns, etc. All nouns have a gender and can be either masculine or feminine. Examples of masculine nouns are the Spanish words for “world” and “body,” namely “mundo” and “cuerpo,” while the nouns for “person” and “humanity,” “persona” and “humanidad,” are feminine. A few nouns change from one variety of the language to the next, like “sartén,” “azúcar,” and “mar” (“pan,” “sugar,” and “sea,” respectively), forming agreement both with masculine and feminine determiners depending on the region.
“Secretaria” is the feminine for “secretario” (secretary) and “esposa” the feminine for “esposo” (wife, husband), and examples like these are easy to find throughout the Spanish vocabulary. There are fewer cases, though, of nouns that vary in a larger extent from one gender to the other, like “alcaldesa” and “alcalde,” feminine and masculine for “major,” respectively. As for pronouns, it is interesting to observe that the masculine pronoun is shorter and easier to use: “él” (he/him) is similar, but significantly shorter than “ella” (she/her), “aquel” and “aquella” (that), among others.
When referring to groups of individuals, the masculine typically “includes” the feminine, as the grammatical rule indicates that the masculine must be used for groups of males exclusively, and males and females, as long as there is at least one male in such group. For example, “todos” (everybody) refers to every person in the room, regardless of their gender, while “todas” refers exclusively to a group of females.
Criticism and proposals for a change
Many, including some feminist groups, criticize these and other rules as grammatical sexism, and assert that they give the masculine a clear privilege over the feminine in Spanish language. According to this stance, Spanish does not grant female words–and by extension, identities–enough visibility and importance in speech, and, therefore, in culture. Some propose deep changes to the grammar in order to make Spanish a more inclusive language, like the incorporation of neutral forms for words, as in “todes,” a fully non-marked form for “todos/todas.” Some try to make their speech more inclusive by always mentioning and addressing the female, if not directly using the feminine as a non-marked form: “ciudadanos y ciudadanas” (citizens), “niños y niñas” (children).
And the resistance…
While removing sexism from Spanish does not seem to be such a difficult project, there is great resistance to change in that direction. Institutions like the Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española, generally abbreviated as RAE) consider such changes to be “contrived and unnecessary,” as they insist on the unmarked nature of masculine. The RAE even regards many of the attempts to make Spanish more inclusive, like “ciudadanos y ciudadanas,” to be incorrect.
The truth is a debate exists on the subject and alternatives need to be found in order to make your content both friendly and in compliance with the grammar rules in vigor. “La audiencia” (the audience) may work better than “las y los asistentes” or simply “los asistentes.” Additionally, Spanish permits the omission of the subject in many sentences, which allows you to neutralize the text using an impersonal verb: “Es necesario prestar más atención” (literally “it is necessary to pay more attention”) may prove more appropriate that “Es necesario que el usuario preste más atención,” which uses the masculine form.
Deciding on the voice
Most of the time, there are ways to work around issues like this. Native language professionals are a valuable asset for you in the search of the right tone for your content, whether it is technical or marketing material. First, you need to identify your audience in order to determine the best course of action and the voice you need to create. Is it a more traditional, “by the book” use of Spanish what you need? Alternatively, does your text require something more delicate, more oriented to appeal to younger generations?
Languages are living entities. They grow and evolve to suit the cultures that use them, and Spanish is no exception to this rule. The very institutions that regulate our language continuously reform and add entries to their dictionaries—even including neologisms and words from other languages, and what is correct today may very well not be so tomorrow. So in order to keep up with such a dynamic language, we advise to work always with native, up-to-date professionals who inhabit the environment in which the language and the variety of your choice is developing, growing, living.
It is true that AI has developed beyond what we could dare to imagine a few years ago, but for language issues that reflect cultural values, the human touch is best. The sensitivity, knowledge and skills of linguists, and their capability to convey feeling and emotions, are still unbeatable when it comes to communicating with—that’s right—humans!
Carlos G. Caldera holds a BA in French Language and additional education in management and administration. Carlos moved from teaching English to iDISC 4 years ago, first in translation tasks and later on to take care of running the Mexican branch as Local Operations Coordinator in Xalapa, Veracruz.