There was an interesting article on NPR recently about the genders of Spanish nouns and their adjectives.  When referring to a group of people that is otherwise entirely female but has one man, the word for that group would be masculine. In another instance of male preference, the phrase “good woman and boy” translate as “mujer y niño buenos,” using the masculine plural adjective even though it refers to both a male and female. Another interesting aspect is the existence of terms that are positive when referring to males, but not so much when referring to females. For example, aventurero (literally, “adventurer”) conjures to mind an image of a risk-taker or brave man. But the corresponding feminine term? Aventurera likely refers to someone whose “adventures” are more of the sexual sort. And what about the good old héroe and heroína connotations? Men are heroes, the female form is…an addictive narcotic. Of course the same is true in English, which is also a language with a definite masculine preference. (Spokesman, mailman, craftsmanship, chairman of the board- list goes on and on).

Karma Chavez, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, says that the push toward gender neutrality in Spanish has been going on for decades.

“As far as I know, this challenge to language occurred more or less to other feminist challenges to language in the United States,” Chavez says. The official name for the Hispanic studies program at the U of W is the Department of Latin@ and Chican@ Studies. The @ symbol has become an alternative to the o/a endings on the end of nouns and adjectives. Perhaps this solution is not the easiest to pronounce, (chican…at?) but it does offer an alternative to a previously gender biased norm.

On a personal note, I’m a member of a student organization at USC called Amig@s del Buen Samaritano. We recently changed our name from Amigos to be more inclusive and representative of our largely female membership.

Perhaps using @ as a gender neutral alternative is not the most efficient solution, and language gets convoluted when, in order to be grammatically correct and gender-aware, we have to add additional words such as his/her.

There are a handful of noun endings – the “e” as in “estudiante” – which do not indicate a gender by themselves. Their gender, instead, is indicated by the preceding article: el estudiante (the male student) and la estudiante (the female student).

So, in reality, any time a noun is listed with its article, it always is either masculine or feminine. In Spanish, nouns are quite often listed with an article (more often than in English).

In theory, one could use the “e”, which is gender neutral, in replacement of a gender-exclusive ending. In practice, the word would be “latine” (lah-TEE-nay) instead of latino/latina or “latin@” and the plural form would be “latines“. The issue is that the masculine and feminine articles would have to be modified to include a neutral singular and plural form, e.g. “le latine” and “les latines.” Of course, the larger issue is that we’re now rewriting an enormous amount of the underlying language and using word forms (les – 3rd person ind. obj.) that already exist as other words in the language. Perhaps the easiest answer lies in simply changing the gender form of the preceding article.

So what do you think? Language changes as a reflection of current culture, but how far are we willing to go in the name of gender equality? Are there any  other ways to facilitate a shift in language?

NPR: ‘Latin@’ Offers A Gender-Neutral Choice; But How to Pronounce It?


2 thoughts on “@LanguageEquality

  1. Thanks for the well-written and thought-provoking entry. Language is a reflection of our culture and society, which is constantly changing. However, language can’t be changed in one fell swoop but must evolve as our society evolves. Occasional spurts do happen, as evidenced by the rapid acceptance of the word “Ms” to denote an adult female without indication of marital status. Bringing attention to issues of language should help our society as well as our language evolve into a more accepting and caring reflection of our values. As our world becomes smaller through increased trade and communication, it will be interesting to see if languages start to merge as is already happening with Spanglish.

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