Gender-neutral Spanish: the details

One can say the gender revolution has been a long time coming. And, as with any revolution, language has to follow it. New words appear, new expressions gain strength and prove that our vocabulary is ever-changing. In Spanish, a gender-neutral language is beyond creating new pronouns: it means creating new nouns, adjectives, changing the way we address an audience. So is it really possible to create a gender-inclusive, gender-neutral Spanish? Or issexism doomed to exist in Romance languages?

Gender-neutral Spanish: the challenge

Although they never really caught on, English neutral pronouns like ‘ze’ have been around for a few years. Yet something might explain why they never caught on: the English language has other alternatives, like using the plural ‘they’ to refer to people whose gender we do not know. Which is why, back in 2015,  ‘they’ was the word of the year.

But while gender-inclusive English only requires adjustments in terms of pronouns, in Spanish it poses a huge challenge. Romance languages, a group that includes Spanish, French or Portuguese, have a gender for every noun. Yes, as odd as it may sound, ‘the table’ (la mesa) is feminine for us, while ‘the fork’ (el tenedor) is masculine.

When we’re talking about people, then nouns have two forms: one masculine, one feminine. So you can’t just be a teacher, you’re either a profesor or a profesora. To explain where you’re from, you’re either Espãnol y Madrileño or Española y Madrileña. Language without gender may seem impossible to navigate.

As for the plural, a feasible alternative in English and in even in Slavic languages, it’s a no-go in Spanish. Yes, you guessed it: in Romance languages, the plural also carries a gender. ‘They’ has two forms: ellos (masc.) and ellas (fem.) When we’re talking about a mixed group of people, the convention is to use the masculine form of the plural - which is why many feminists are also fighting for more gender-inclusive language.

Since adjectives must agree in gender and number with the nouns, most adjectives also have two forms, one for the masculine and another for the feminine. This basically means that you can’t say that someone is tired, or charming, or nice, without choosing a gender for them - you need to choose between agotado/a, encantador/a or simpático/a, respectively. If you’re addressing a group, then you’re expected to use the plural forms.

The problem is almost non-existent when you’re talking one to one. If you’re talking to somebody, you can ask them which pronouns they prefer and how they refer to themselves. But when you’re addressing a group or an audience, giving a speech or writing a post into the big Internet void, then you don’t know who’s listening and reading - and that’s where the need for a gender-inclusive Spanish really sinks in.

What would be a more gender-inclusive Spanish?

Writing

Alas, despite the challenges that we have already explained above, not everything is lost. Languages change, they evolve, and people are the catalyzers of these changes. If you live in the US or read American media, you may have already seen the word Latinx, which has been claimed by the LGBTQ and feminist Latinx communities as an inclusive word for all (instead of ‘Latino’, which is a masc. noun in Spanish).

Latinx (plural Latinxs). A gender neutral term used in lieu of Latino or Latina. The -x replaces the standard o/a ending in Spanish and Portuguese forming nouns of the masculine and feminine genders, respectively. The term is a political neologism that has gained traction among advocacy groups combining racial and gender identity politics.

Indeed, using the -x ending for words and adjectives that come with a gender is a way of coping with the demand for a more inclusive language. You can see people writing things like - estamos cansadxs de no ser tratados como merecemos (we are tired of not being treated like we deserve), which would usually be written in the masculine plural (cansados). Occasionally, we can also find people online using a @ sign instead of the x, e.g. compareñ@s.

Speaking

However, neither the x nor the @ are feasible options for the spoken language. For some time, politicians and those in state departments dropped the masculine plural and began to use both the masculine and feminine form - e.g. los ciudadanos y las ciudadanas (the citizens [masc.] and the citizens [femin.]). But this solution falls short now that we’re embracing gender-fluidity, non-binary people and intersex individuals.

Because it’s easier to replace the ‘o’ with another vowel, ‘e’ is slowly gaining popularity. More and more non-binary and agender people use words like elles, todes or niñes (instead of ellos, todos and niños). It’s also worth noting that most of the few gender-neutral words in Spanish end in e, which makes these alternatives easier to pronounce. Little by little, they are quietly being picked up.

How can you make a gender-neutral speech in Spanish?

However, you might not feel comfortable using the ‘e’ version of the word. Most people aren’t, because they are not used to it. Also, you might not want to risk using this when addressing people who might be totally clueless about it (the same way some English speakers never even heard the pronoun ‘ze’). So here are some things that you can do to adapt your speech and make it gender-neutral without sounding odd.

Use generic words

A way to speak in a more inclusive manner is using some of the generic words we also in gender-inclusive English, such as:

alguien (somebody), nadie (nobody), cualquier/ cualquiera (anybody), quien/ quienes (who), persona (person)/ personas (persons/ people), ‘seres humanos’ (human beings), gente (people)

For example, instead of saying ‘los que creen’ (those who believe in), you can use ‘las personas que creen’ or ‘quienes creen’. When addressing an audience, instead of saying ‘gracias a todos por venir’, you can say ‘gracias a quienes han venido’ or ‘gracias a todas las personas que vinieron’.

Explain what you mean

When you want to say someone’s job or profession and it’s a gendered noun (e.g. professora, orador/ oradora, peluquero/ peluquera, etc), you can just explain what they do: each, speak or do hair, respectively. But remember that a few jobs don’t have masculine and feminine forms (e.g. periodista, dentista, recepcionista).

If trying to explain where a group of people comes from, you can use the same technique, e.g. estas personas vinieron de Siria, huyendo de la guerra civil en su país (these people came from Syria, fleeing from the civil war in their country). It also helps that sometimes the pronoun is implicit in the verb, e.g - vinieron de Madrid ([they] came from Madrid).

Bottom line: there’s always a way to get around gendered nouns and adjectives and, most often, it’s more obvious than you think.

Remember gender-neutral adjectives

Of course you’re not saying that you should try to use only nouns and adjectives with the same masculine and feminine forms. That would be too limiting, at least in Spanish. However, when you need to describe something or someone, it’s good to keep in mind a few adjectives which remain the same, regardless of gender:

alegre (joyful), inteligente (intelligent), grande (big), fuerte (strong), amable (kind), gentil (kind), amigable (friendly), cruel, feliz (happy), fiel (loyal), idiota (idiot), noble, prudente (prudent/ cautious), sensible (sensitive)

Our final note on gender-neutral Spanish

There isn’t a consensus on gender-neutral Spanish. This is an ongoing debate, and one that varies from country to country. Because this is a topical discussion right now in the United States, this is an issue that is vividly discussed by the Spanish-community there. Likewise, in Spain, where several feminist protests have taken place in the last few months, many are demanding a gender-inclusive language. In Latin America, several state representatives have long adopted the use the masculine and feminine plural at all times, which is gender-inclusive but not gender-neutral.

There are several examples of the lack of consensus between Spanish speakers. When the new Spanish cabinet (which has more female than male ministers) was announced, some began using the feminine plural to refer to it. Others (women included) keep using the conventional masculine form. When it comes to writing, some activists write with x, while others use the @: we’re still figuring it out! Regardless, it’s clear that there is a third way, one that is beyond the current masculine and feminine cannons.