It’s well after office hours in Madrid, and on a warm night like this, the city’s terraces must be full. Inside the academy, a Spanish journalist, Colombian lawyer, and Argentinian psychologist are still hard at work, hunched over their notebooks in the glow of a projector. They’re watching a video called The Locked Room mystery, about a famously unsolved murder.
Once the eerie voiceover fades out, I turn on the lights, switch off the projector, and into the role of English teacher.
‘So, who can explain what happened?’
My students blink in confusion.
‘I understand anything,’ says the lawyer, with a wave of the hands that means ‘nothing’.
It occurs to me that perhaps I’ve pushed them too far, asking them to solve a cold case, in their non-native language, at the end of a long week. But with encouragement, and vocabulary from their notes, the group eventually reconstruct the crime. Next, we speculate, about what might have happened, using modal verbs to express varying degrees of certainty.
The murder may be a mystery, but most Upper Intermediate English students are comfortable with these terms.
One eye on the clock, I ask the journalist to share a theory with the class.
‘Well, could have been suicidio, because of no weapon.’
‘No. Could not have.’
‘Good. What else?’
‘It would must have be murder,’ the psychologist reaffirms.
‘It must have been,’ I correct. ‘Okay, but who? And, how could they escape from the locked room, which was bolted from the inside?
The lawyer hesitates, then asks, ‘teacher, how you say when you don’t know what is el sexo of one person?’
We don’t really have time for this, but I do think it’s important.
‘Well, if you don’t know, or would prefer not to state someone’s gender, or they’re a non-binary person, you use the pronoun they. I just did it then.’
‘Can you put other example?’
‘Sure. Let’s consider the murderer. Do you think they were known to the victim? If so, who were they?’
‘I think yes,’ says the psychologist. ‘They must have been friend. Or family. It is used to be the case.’
‘Sorry, teacher,’ the lawyer interrupts. ‘Is just one person?’
‘Just one person,’ I confirm, ‘but grammatically plural: they are, them, theirs.’
‘It’s a bit strange, no?’
It may be, at first, to a non-native English speaker. But with a little practice, it’s easy. And while we get no closer to solving the case, for the rest of the lesson, the group refers to the hypothetical assassin using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.
In Spanish, this scene would have been impossible to write without disclosing the gender of my students. The asesino would be, by default, masculine, and la víctima, unless stated otherwise, feminine.
For me, a native English speaker, memorising the grammatical sex of not just people, but inanimate objects and abstract ideas, was one of the biggest challenges of learning Spanish – further complicated by exceptions, such as ‘el problema’ being masculine, despite ending in ‘a’. While ‘men are the problem’ is easy enough to remember, assigning a catchphrase to an entire lexicon is a huge undertaking, especially when noun genders are arbitrary and often counter-intuitive.
So why, after learning the sex of everything from kitchen utensils to schools of thought, would I now be pushing gender neutral terminology in both my mother tongue, and second language? Why the agender agenda?
In Samuel L Delany’s 1966 space opera Babel-17, a virus-like language of the same name is used as a weapon to enter people’s minds and override their thoughts. Babel-17 is grammatically efficient, highly descriptive, and addictive. The catch is, it has no pronouns for ‘I’ or ‘you’, and ultimately obliterates the subject’s sense of self.
Without a word for something (an idea, feeling, identity), it’s hard to experience it fully – let alone explain or defend it. Through his novel, Delany, a queer African-American writer, not only tackles issues such as identity and representation, but explores what known today as Linguistic Relativity; the theory that language influences thought.
In the real world, this phenomenon is not limited to feelings, but extends to many cognitive processes; sense of direction, perception of time, our tendency to lie, tell the truth, attribute fault, and not surprisingly, make assumptions about gender.
Grammatical and lexical features of a language do this by shifting or directing focus, honing perception, and reinforcing ideas – think of the much quoted (though mostly apocryphal) 50 Inuit words for snow. A better example would be Guugu Yimithirr, a First Nations language from far north Queensland, which has no egocentric prepositions (left, right, in front, behind) to describe place in relation to the individual. In this language, speakers use geocentric coordinates (north, south, east, west), to describe direction or location – even when indoors, in the dark, or with minor, everyday interactions, such as ‘be careful of that spider to your west.’ As a consequence, native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr develop a highly accurate sense of orientation.
The fact that ‘elegant’ is so readily linked with femininity, and ‘strong’ with masculinity, proves just how embedded these linguistic and cultural associations are.
Since the 1990s, studies have demonstrated that grammatical gender can subconsciously influence our perception of inanimate objects. Linguists such as Guy Deutscher and Lera Boroditsky establish that nouns with opposing genders in different languages, tend to elicit contrasting word associations from speakers of those languages. Knowing that a bridge is more likely to be described as ‘elegant’ and ‘slender’ by Germans, but ‘strong’ and ‘long’ by Spaniards, makes it easy to guess the grammatical gender of the noun in German or Spanish.
The very fact that ‘elegant’ is so readily linked with femininity, and ‘strong’ with masculinity, proves just how embedded these linguistic and cultural associations are.
Another feature of gendered languages is the grammatical dominance of one sex over another. In Spanish, a mixed group of friends must be addressed as ‘amigos’, even if there are ten women and only one man. Any hypothetical person is assumed to be male, except for when referring to stereotypical ‘female’ professions, in which case, the rules are conveniently thwarted.
Grammatical ‘male as norm’ is damaging because it reinforces the idea of Man as the ‘universal subject’ – the default human who speaks for all others. As can be seen in art, film, politics, academia, and a very long etcetera, any derivation from the cis-straight-white-male protagonist is considered niche, with an audience that must be correspondingly so.
In written Spanish, one method of subverting this linguistic sexism is to substitute the ‘o’ or ‘a’ word ending with @ (meaning male and/or female) or ‘x’ (the whole gender spectrum). While this strategy is great for texting [email protected] or amigxs, it’s yet to be adopted by mainstream media (Latinx, particularly among Latin Americans, being a notable exception), and, problematically, it’s impossible to say aloud.
One solution, becoming popular in progressive circles, is the use of the default feminine in spoken Spanish. To compensate for centuries of male dominance, mixed gender groups can be called ‘amigas’, even if there are more men than women. In more conservative, formal contexts, those wishing to be politically correct use both female and male (eg. ‘todas y todos’, ideally female first), however, the practice is viewed as laborious, and, according to the RAE (Royal Academy of Spanish language), ‘unnecessary’.
Regardless of who is speaking, these strategies are still inadequate when it comes to inclusivity, as they fail to acknowledge that gender is not a binary.
In languages where grammar forces this dichotomy, challenging the patriarchy calls for innovation, and the invention, adaption, and revival of alternatives to ‘he’ and ‘she’.
In the Spanish speaking world, Argentinian teens are leading this change, with the use of ‘elle’ and ‘elles’ (whose declensions terminate in ‘e’ instead of a/o). The practice has spread to Spain, but has faced harsh criticism from the RAE, whose director argues that people are ‘confusing grammar with machismo’, as though this parallel of grammatical and social dominance was purely coincidental. You’d think an institution charged with the preservation of a lexicon in which ‘penis’ is grammatically feminine, and ‘cunt’ masculine, would be more open-minded when it came to gender diverse terminology.
In grammatically gendered languages, challenging the patriarchy calls for innovation, and the invention, adaption, and revival of alternatives to ‘he’ and ‘she’.
Just as indicative of conservative attitudes was an incident on Argentinian television, in which an experienced reporter publicly ridiculed 17-year-old activist Natalia Mira for using gender inclusive language (and not proper Castilian Spanish), in an interview about women’s rights.
In the Spanish press, male politicians are referred to by surnames, but their (apparently less-serious) female counterparts, by first names. Colloquially, women in power are known by surnames, but mockingly preceded by ‘la’ (such as the case with the German Chancellor, ‘la Merkel’). Likewise, women’s sports teams (if they even make it to the press) are trivialised as ‘chicas’, while the men on the men’s teams are, of course, men.
English, too, finds ways to load grammatically neutral language with sexist undertones. Terms like ‘male nurse’ and ‘female judge’ unnecessarily highlight supposed exceptions to gender roles, ultimately reinforcing rather than mitigating prejudice.
My cousin, a nurse, is constantly reminding patients he is not the doctor (the doctor is the woman standing next to him). Sometimes, this clarification leads to the (irrelevant and inappropriate) questioning of his sexuality, or refusal of his care (often by women who, paradoxically, are comfortable being attended by male specialists).
Even the most well-meaning word choice can reinforce these cycles of sexism.
When, this month, tennis champion Sofia Kenin was presented with her Australian Open trophy, she was lauded as an inspiration ‘for young girls’, as though it were inconceivable that she inspire the next generation of boys as well.
Why not just say ‘young people’?
The dominance of English is problematic for so many reasons (though Spanish doesn’t exactly get off lightly here either), but as so often evidenced in these international events, there’s no denying the utility of a common tongue.
Most native anglophones take this for granted and have very little idea of what it feels like to be functional, yet significantly disadvantaged, in a language they must use regularly.
When it comes to speaking inclusively, we also have it easier; with the convenience of a pre-existing neutral pronoun, there’s no need to ‘break the rules’. While nobody can be expected to modify their language seamlessly from the outset, if my students can learn and use the singular ‘they’, so can native English speakers with a little practice.
When it comes to speaking inclusively, English speakers have it easy, with the convenience of a pre-existing neutral pronoun.
For non-native speakers, inclusive, non-sexist language can be trickier to manage, but that’s not the only caveat.
Due to a notable accent, when I use ‘female as norm’ or non-binary pronouns in Spanish, the most likely interpretation is that I’ve made a slip and muddled my word endings. It means putting principles ahead of my pride in the language, inviting criticism, and outing myself (or my partner, friends) as other – not straight, not conservative – a risk I’m not always bold enough to take.
This is why these pronouns must be normalised in as many contexts as possible. With exposure, comes awareness, assurance, validation, and, importantly, clear examples for people to model their sentences on.
As for the ‘purity’ of language?
So much of what is deemed ‘correct’ now would have, at some point, been a fad. Borrowed from other cultures. Invented for a product. Coined in lyrics, literature or hashtags, and probably considered outlandish, clichéd, or contrived at first. This is a normal part of evolution. The clichés of the past are the synonyms of today.
English and Spanish do not face risk of extinction, but as colonising languages, they’re responsible for the loss and decline of untold linguistic diversity. As they inevitably evolve (perhaps beyond all recognition), the least we could do, as present-day speakers, is steer that change for better.