Spanish and English: Inclusive Languages? Outline for a Contrastive Analysis

Erika Erdely Ruiz y Héctor García Chávez
Addressing the discussions on gender equity, a series of linguistic practices have emerged in English and Spanish that have generated, on the one hand, movements in favor of the visibility of women and non-binary persons (those who do not identify themselves with the feminine or the masculine) and, on the other hand, reactions that reject such practices. Who has not been surprised by the use of words such as amigues or latinx which, in addition to being strange, raise a series of questions about how far we can go in our desire to have an inclusive language?

We will look at how English and Spanish offer sometimes similar and sometimes different strategies to achieve the effect of communicating inclusiveness or at least mitigating gender bias. To this end, we will address some linguistic elements from the syntactic, lexical, and discursive levels that have to do with the reference to the feminine and masculine genders, as well as some neutral options that allow the inclusion of people who do not identify with either of these two genders. 

How do we Mark Gender in English and Spanish? 
From a morphosyntactic point of view, English and Spanish are very different in terms of grammatical gender marking. While Spanish marks it in articles, nouns, and adjectives, English only does it through pronouns, those little words that appear in place of names (hence the pro-noun prefix), so instead of Mary, I say she, or instead of Edward, I use he.

Let’s look at four types of pronouns: personal, possessive, direct object, and indirect object pronouns, to compare how many and which ones exist in English and Spanish to refer to a third person and which options we have in both languages to refer to someone in a neutral way, that is, without marking gender.

Table 1. Comparative chart of pronouns in English and Spanish
Pronouns Spanish English
Personal él, ella, ellos, ellas he, she, they
Direct object lo, la, los, las him, her, them
Indirect object le, les to him, to her, to them
Possessives su her, his, their

In the case of personal pronouns, both English and Spanish mark the difference between men and women: él, ella, ellos, ellas, are the referred personal pronouns, to which today’s proposal is to add two more: elle, elles, as a kind of unisex pronoun, a proposal that has not yet been echoed in grammars, but that some actors in the university environment are beginning to use. In English, gender is marked only in the singular: he/she, but in the plural, English has only one pronoun, they, which is generic. What is interesting here is that, in English, the plural they is neutral and this is the reason why it has been used to refer, in the singular, to a person who does not identify with any of the he/she options. In this way, people can make a choice that is not restricted to the binary masculine/feminine option: Cindy is a graduate student. They have a Bachelor’s degree in Science.

With this new trend, the practice of making explicit the pronouns with which each person wishes to be referred to has become widespread in US universities and we can see that, in official presentations, e-mail signatures, or Zoom meetings, academics, administrators, and students use the pronouns of their choice as shown in the following example: Sharon Williams, she/her/hers.

Table 2. Choice of personal pronouns in English and Spanish
she/her/hers femenine ella
he/him/his masculine él
they/them/theirs neutral elle

In the case of bilinguals, the practice of making pronouns explicit in both languages has also become widespread, as follows: Erika Ruiz, she/her/ella.

For direct object pronouns in Spanish, we also have four of them: lo, la, los, las, while in English we use three: him, her, them. Again, it is the English plural option, them, that can be used as a neutral pronoun. In the case of indirect object pronouns, Spanish, interestingly, has only two: le, les, which have no gender mark, so they can be used neutrally. English retains the same three. These two pronouns, le, les, have been increasingly used as an inclusive option to refer to people who do not identify with the feminine or masculine genders: espero verles pronto, to avoid saying espero verlos/verlas pronto [hope to see you soon].

Finally, possessives in Spanish are reduced to a single pronoun: su, which refers to what él, ella, ellos, or ellas (or elle, elles) own, without making gender nor number explicit. In English, the three options remain.

Questioning the Generic Masculine
In recent debates on inclusive language, there has been controversy over the generic masculine: a feature of both English and Spanish. This is particularly evident in Spanish where gender marking occurs, as mentioned above, in many more words than in English. For a Spanish speaker, a practice that pretends to be inclusive can lead to excessive use of words: queridas y queridos amigas y amigos is already cumbersome if we do it systematically. The querides amigues option alone does not solve the problem, since the non-binary group, which does not identify with either of the two genders, masculine/feminine, excludes those who do identify with one. So, to include all three groups we would have to say Queridas, querides y queridos amigas, amigues y amigos, while in English it is enough to say Dear friends!

Nuisance from having to make these duplications in Spanish has generated great controversy and one of the arguments against it is that we must respect Spanish language’s feature of using masculine gender as the unmarked gender, that is, that it functions as a kind of neutral gender, unisex, which includes the feminine and, potentially, the non-binary gender as well.

In this regard, it is worth reviewing some of the usages we have in Spanish that show gender bias, such as when we generally refer to doctors: los médicos, and nurses: las enfermeras. If we are convinced that the use of the masculine really represents both genders, i.e., that in this “los médicos” we can perfectly include both men and women, how can we explain that in the case of “las enfermeras” we do not do the same? Getting used to consistently say los médicos and los enfermeros is also challenging because it contradicts the argument proposing that when we use the generic masculine we are thinking of both genders.

In the field of Spanish language teaching, speakers of other languages are beginning to question teachers about uses they find in textbooks. A phrase such as “los altos ejecutivos y sus esposas serán convocados a una reunión” [senior executives and their wives will be summoned to a meeting] prompted a reaction from a female student who asked why was the assuming that “los altos ejecutivos” [senior executives] were all men. The generic masculine argument falls in this case: if “los altos ejecutivos” includes both men and women, then the sentence should continue “y sus esposos” [and their husbands], to be consistent with the generic masculine argument, which is not the case and, in fact, even makes some people uncomfortable. 

Other words that present challenges to speakers concerned with gender issues, apart from pronouns and adjective and noun endings we choose, are those we use to refer to men and women differently (see Table 3).

Table 3. Differentiated words for men and women
English Spanish
actor/actress actor, actriz
host/hostess poeta, poetisa
husband, wife marido, esposa

We should analyze in detail a lot of examples like these. Women who write poetry in Spanish prefer to be called poetas instead of poetisas; likewise in English, some women prefer to be called actor than actress. It is a matter of approach and taste as well. For example, some prefer to mark gender so the feminine becomes visible, and some consider that no difference should be made.

In this sense, it is important to consider people’s dignity and their right to choose the way they want to be referred to. It is better to ask first! If the preference is not known and we are speaking in a general manner, then it is worth changing less inclusive expressions such as Guests are cordially invited to attend with their wives to more inclusive ones such as Guests are cordially invited to attend with their partners

Table 4. Neutral options for referring to partners
English Spanish
spouse, partner cónyuge, pareja

People’s marital status has also imposed other gender-biased linguistic practices that are being challenged, such as marking a woman’s name according to her marital status, which is not the case for men. Marking a person’s first or last name based on their partner without consulting them may be inappropriate. For example, we can look at this UN recommendation for inclusive language in English: 
Ms or Mrs? 
Care should be taken to use the form of address preferred by each individual. However, when that preference is not known, precedence is given to 
Ms. over Mrs., as the former is more inclusive and can refer to any woman, regardless of marital status. (United Nations: https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/
Another practice that occurs in both Spanish and English is to use the husband’s last name for the wife. Again, it is recommended that personal preferences are taken into account before entering a name on any document or file.

What Do We Say or How do We Say It? 
Beyond syntactic resources such as pronouns, articles, and endings of nouns and adjectives, and beyond the use of differentiated words for men and women, we can find in everyday language expressions with gender bias that should be avoided, as in the examples in Table 5.

We need to pay a little attention to the infinity of gender-biased expressions that are used in Mexico in a thoughtless way, such as saying 
that a man “helps” his wife with the housework or that he “helps” his wife take care of the children, which are the responsibility of both.

Table 5. Comparative chart of pronouns in English and Spanish
English Spanish
She runs like a girl. Corre como niña.
That’s women’s work.
Eso es trabajo para mujeres.
Thank you to the ladies for making the room more beautiful.
Gracias a las mujeres por embellecer el espacio de trabajo.
Men just don’t understand.
Los hombres simplemente no entienden.
Men cannot do two things at the same time.
Los hombres no pueden hacer dos cosas a la vez.
Source: Naciones Unidas (https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/)
The most respectful of people’s rights is to ask each person how they want to be named

In Spain, the name of our country is still written with a j instead of an x: Méjico. Spanish Royal Academy considers that both forms are correct, they are both accepted by that institution. The need for regulations has been a social constant because it allows us to unify criteria for academic, editorial, and literary fields, among others. However, just as we have recommended above that the most respectful of people’s rights is to ask each person how they want to be named, likewise, Mexico as a society has chosen how it wishes its name to be written: with x. This x has a historical and social baggage going back to the baroque era, when x had the sound of Spanish j (remember Don Quixote) and also has a relation with the historical roots of Mexico and the names of places that come from native languages, such as Oaxaca or Texas.

Nowadays, in the United States, x is used by Mexicans in words such as Xicago (here the x allows emulating the sound that the name of the city of Chicago has in English), xicano, instead of chicano and also with the sound of /e/ as in Latinx (pronounced /latineks/). Our country’s attachment to the x is evident and it is not surprising that it is currently used as a way of communicating a sense of identity that goes beyond borders. A good example of this is pioneering Chicana writer Cherríe L. Moraga, who more than ten years ago decided to self-identify herself as Xicana to openly subvert patriarchy, and toxic binarism, and exalt the invisibilized indigenous voices.

The use of e for terminations in Spanish (x in some communities and academic circles) is related to the queer movement, which looks for a plurality of gender identities that go beyond the restrictive patriarchal feminine/masculine binary. Queer theory emerged in the 1980s just as the HIV pandemic was at its peak and theorists such as Eve K. Sedgwick and Judith Butler initiated a bold approach to gender studies by drawing on the recent writings of Michel Foucault. In this context, Spanish pronouns elle/ellx, elles/ellxs, and the e endings in words such as amigues [friends] and todes [everyone] have operated as mechanisms of expression of these new identities that had previously been invisibilized. Whether or not these forms reach dictionaries and grammars does not affect the fact that they are a reality, that they expand gender expressions with dignity, and that there are communities, especially among young people in which they have been accepted.

To be true, consistent use is not observed throughout the discourse, but rather in contexts where there is a desire to acknowledge the existence and presence of people with non-binary identities, so it can be heard in greetings and introductions, or in contexts where the topic of gender identity is discussed. There does not seem to be a struggle for these forms to be normalized, that is, to find their place in linguistic norms. They rather seem to be looking for a voice for a resistance movement that seeks to challenge and subvert traditional gender conceptions, and to provoke reflection, to rethink traditional and patriarchal conceptions and gender roles or expressions.

Is Inclusive Language a Fad?
We cannot know how language will evolve in 50 years. Some linguistic changes take centuries while others take only a few decades. It is something we cannot predict nor control, just as we cannot generally predict the future of a country. Languages are nothing more than a reflection of the societies who speak them, therefore what we can expect is language to accompany these social changes.

Languages go where their speakers go. How long will the various feminist movements and the queer movement, which continues to expand both in universities and among young people and activists, last? We do not know. However, we should not overlook the fact that proposals for an inclusive language will last as long as these resistance movements last, as they serve to communicate the great diversity of social realities.
Erika Erdely Ruiz  obtained her master’s and doctorate degrees in Hispanic Linguistics at UNAM. She is a career teacher at UNAM’s Teaching Center for Foreigners (CEPE), where she teaches since 2001, both in the Spanish area and in teachers’ training. She coordinated and participated in the writing of CEPE’s textbooks Así hablamos. Intermedio 3 and Dicho y hecho 7. Español como lengua extranjera. She is Academic Secretary at UNAM-Chicago. 

Héctor García Chávez holds a PhD from Chicago University, on Iberic and Latin American Literature, Literary Theory and Cultural Studies. At Loyola University, he participates in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature through the Woman and Gender Studies Program and leads postgraduate studies programs on gender. He is a board member in MAKE/Lit&Luz Festivals, an initiative of bilingual festivals that open literary and artistic spaces both in Chicago and Mexico City. 

This article reworks a lecture given by the authors at the Internal Commission for Gender Equality (CInIG) of UNAM’s CRAI, DGECI, and CEPE. The lecture is available on YouTube (https://youtu.be/mOGCACNOUHE).
Current issue
Previous issues
No category (1)
Encuadre (8)
Entrevista (6)
Entérate (8)
Experiencias (2)
Extensión (4)
Enfoque (1)