Language and Social Inclusion. Is Spanish Really Sexist?

Carmen Curcó
We are living intense changes. The sharp insistence on the use of inclusive language suggests that our language has no place for new realities and that something very important in it must change. Recently, the radio program Voces del español (Voices from Spanish Language), produced by UNAM-Chicago, questioned if Spanish is inherently sexist, given its tendency to use the masculine gender over the feminine.

Before I continue, I want to state, so that there is no doubt, that I am strongly in favor of non-violent expressions that support standings for greater justice and equity. No one should mind if women wear a green or purple scarf or if people change the way they speak to express their position on gender issues.

But languages cannot be inherently machistas just as they can’t be blue, cold, bitter, or happy. It is people, social systems, public policies, communities, ideologies or social practices who can be machistas, sexist, racist, classist, discriminatory, and oppressive. Sexism, racism, classism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression are a matter of collective mentalities and concrete actions, not of linguistic forms per se. Another issue is that the way we speak reflects some of the things we think and the ways we conceive reality. But an abstract grammatical system is one thing, and the concrete use that speakers make of it is another.
The truth is that this is one of the most polarizing issues for our communities in our times. It is difficult to insert oneself into the debate dispassionately because this public conversation takes place in the context of extreme and exalted social emotions. Not without reason. We are witnessing the emergence of new struggles and feminisms that reflect an enormous accumulated indignation and weariness. We are a country with deep historical wounds on several sides; many of them caused by crude—and sophisticated—versions of the illusion of male superiority that inhabits us. Overwhelmed by the unspeakable place that femicide occupies in our society, we pass in a somewhat morbid way through a scenario that looks more like a circle of Dante’s inferno than of a barely prosperous country. In addition, new ways of conceiving identity and gender have become apparent. This places us in a social context of deep changes and very intense passions that produce very diverse forms of struggle and resistance.

What we inherit from this circumstance is an electrified space with radical beliefs and growing intolerance. On the one hand, we see a position according to which the use of inclusive language is a sine qua non condition to place oneself with dignity on the side of feminism and in one’s own right to affiliate oneself with liberating standings. Any kind of opposition to the so-called inclusive linguistic forms is seen as a gesture that places us in a shameful ideology. On the other side, we have extreme purist positions, which think language should not change in this way—a transformation consciously directed by the speakers—so grammar should be protected from the whims of its users because it has intrinsic processes of modification and adaptation.

It would seem that the climate of growing polarization that animates us globally and locally cannot leave this piece of reality untouched. Our social life is in disarray, we are invaded by violence and overwhelmed by the spoils. Understandably, we are not willing to allow even one more crack through which injustice is reproduced, even if this crack is that of grammar and speech. If we cannot alter the deep structures that sustain an outdated world, at least let us not speak as its inhabitants. Let us allow reality to permeate our discourse and our ways of speaking with spaces of hope. Seen in this light, the staunch defenders of grammar are almost like criminals in disguise. Not surprising. A thousand times more important are the life and dignity of subjects’ social roles than a set of abstract rules. On the other hand, those who promote inclusive language are perceived by purists almost as alleged criminals and at best are seen as lost lunatics. Those who urge us to use inclusive forms, to create nouns with gender terminations different from the traditional a for the feminine, or o for the masculine (compañere instead of compañera and compañero), to split subjects in their feminine and masculine forms, and to use in our writing at signs or x variables to blur the sex to which each one belongs, are treated as delirious combatants who will destroy the culture accumulated and crystallized in a millenary linguistic system.

This way of addressing the problem does not help. We need a rational, informed discussion. Above all, because we would like to propose viable solutions with a favorable prognosis, rather than ideas with little chance of survival. To do this, it is necessary to soften positions; to understand, on the basis of rigorous data—taking in account the evidence we already have—what is really the relation between a grammatical system, the way we speak, the way we think, and our behavior in society.

Humanity already knows that absolutely everything is always in a process of change, whether we like it or not. Languages are not and cannot be the exception. “Time changes everything. There is no reason why language should escape this general law,” once said the famous linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics (1991). In reality, we all know this. To give an example, I transcribe below the first verses of The Song of the Cid, a medieval Castilian text estimated to have been written around 1200. I beg the reader to read aloud the Old Spanish text in the opposite column.

A modern version of these verses, below the previous in the Spanish column in these pages, by Alberto Montaner (2018) a specialist in this text from the University of Zaragoza, can be translated into English as follows: 

Silently, intensely crying, 
he turned his head, he was looking at them. 
He saw open doors, hinges without padlocks,  
empty hangers, without fur tunics or cloaks,  
no falcons, and no molted goshawks. 
My Cid sighed, overwhelmed by sorrow, 
My Cid spoke well and very measured: 
“Thank you, Lord, Father who art on high! 
This is what my wicked enemies have plotted against me!” 

Surely no one is surprised that Spanish has changed so much after more than 800 years. What maybe not everyone knows is that languages do not change in any odd way, but that they do so according to general rules and principles that affect their sounds, their words, their structures, and their uses. These are natural processes that linguists have studied in depth, with patterns of change tending to occur in all languages of the world.

Changes do not happen suddenly, they are gradual. At first the old and the new forms coexist until the new one dominates and eliminates the old one. This is in terms of how languages change. As to why they change, there are many reasons. Some are of a social nature: adapting to new needs, as is happening now, is one of them. But others have to do with ease of articulation or ease of cognitive processing, although we know that the languages of the world do not all change in the same direction and that some even change in opposite directions in some areas.

Moreover, there is no way to predict accurately the changes a language will experiment. Linguists can venture hypotheses about what might happen in certain areas of the language system that are more susceptible to transformation than others, but, as with psychology, which understands a subject’s psychic stages and processes when they have already taken place, linguistic change is best appreciated and well understood when it has already happened. It is also important to note that throughout history most of the changes we observe in languages not only take place over relatively long periods but also that speakers are not very aware of what is happening as the change is occurring. Finally, languages are systems with patterns: sound patterns, lexical patterns, grammatical patterns, and usage patterns. A transformation in one area of a language tends to induce others and impacts the linguistic system as a whole.

We are now facing significant social pressure to transform gender marking in Spanish, a movement that is also occurring in other languages. In my view, regardless of one’s political stance, there is confusion permeating the public conversation that stems, at least in part, from two mistaken assumptions. The first is that grammatical gender is a conceptual category. This is not the case. Grammatical gender is a formal category. The second is that grammatical gender marking symmetrically and mutually exclusively divides the conceptual space of masculine and feminine. Nor is this the case, as I will try to point out in more detail below.

Linguistic change is best appreciated and well understood when it has already happened

In society, gender is understood as a set of roles, behaviors, functions, opportunities, rights, obligations, and norms that are socially considered appropriate for human beings of one sex or the other. This is a concept external to language. Within a linguistic system, gender is something else. It has little to do with some set of socially stereotypical traits that are assigned to individuals of one sex or another. In natural languages, gender is a grammatical category, that is, formal and not conceptual, whose function is to classify nouns.

But why would there be a need to classify the nouns of a language? To mark some syntactic dependency relations that aid comprehension. For example, if I say El hombre pensó en su esperanza mustia [The man thought of his withered hope], we will understand something very different than if I say El hombre pensó en su esperanza mustio [The withered man thought of his hope]. In the first case we must understand that it is hope what has lost its vigor, in the second, it is the man who is decayed. In the first case, the feminine ending of the adjective mustia [withered or wilted] matches with the gender of the noun esperanza [hope], and, in the second case, the ending mustio matches with the masculine gender of hombre [man]. It is concordance that allows us to attribute to one entity or another the trait of being withered. In the first case concordance is marked by the feminine gender (although hope is not a sexed entity) and in the second by the masculine gender, where man is a sexed living being. I want to show two things with this example: one is that the sex of the referent may or may not be involved in feminine or masculine gender marking, and the other is that gender marking helps to identify the appropriate interpretation. Let us now consider Los muchachos encontraron soluciones a problemas viejos [The boys found solutions to old problems] and Los muchachos encontraron soluciones a problemas viejas [The boys found old solutions to problems]. In the first case, we know that the old ones are the problems, and in the second that the solutions are the old ones. Neither problems nor solutions refer to sexed beings, nor are they entities that play social gender roles.

Thus, the function of gender marking is to group the nouns of a language into categories that linguists call nominal classes. When gender classification criteria do have some meaning, they can be quite varied and are not restricted to, nor even encompass the difference between male and female. In Spanish, the difference between leño [log] and leña [wood] cannot refer to biological sex because these nouns do not refer to sexed entities. The semantic correlate, i.e., of content, of the morphological gender marker, in this case, is the difference between the individual (leño) and the collective (leña).

An interesting fact is that most natural languages (about 80%) have no grammatical gender marking. In the few that do have it, the diversity is enormous and the conceptual dimension that gender encodes is not necessarily the biological sex or the social gender of the entities that the nouns designate. There is a great deal of variation in this. A few facts may help to understand.

In languages that mark nouns with gender features, the nominal classes to which this marking gives rise may only be formal, meaningless categories, although in some cases they are semantically motivated. Indo-European languages (Spanish, French, Greek, or German, among many others) generally have two or three genders. In contrast, the Bantu languages spoken in Africa have about 12 genders on average. A notable case is Swahili, which has 18 genders. The nominal classes that originate in these languages as a result of gender marking do not have the conceptual dimension of biological sex as a defining criterion. Gender in Swahili distinguishes, in a first class, persons, in another class, plants, in another class are nouns designating animals and inanimate things, one more corresponds to elongated objects and trees, in another class are objects that appear in pairs or groups (such as eyes or clusters), in another class are instruments or means, and in yet another class are some types of animals. Occasionally, some of the nouns designating these referents fall into a different nominal class than expected because the gender marking reflects tendencies and in some cases is completely arbitrary.

Chinese, on the contrary, has no gender marking. Neither do English, Persian, Kurdish, Japanese, Korean, Hungarian, Finnish, or the Polynesian languages. The case of Finnish is striking because, although it has fifteen grammatical cases (which gives it a complex morphology), it has no gender marking.

In Spanish, gender marks apply to nouns, some adjectives, articles, demonstratives, and pronouns. As we have said, this marking serves mainly to establish a match between an adjective and the noun it modifies, and between an article and the noun to which it is linked. The main function of gender in Spanish is not to indicate the sex of the referent, which is why the labels feminine gender and masculine gender are as unfortunate as they are arbitrary. Numbers could have been assigned to these classes and then we would have gender one and gender two. Of course, then we might fear that class one would be more important than class two. We could have designated them as positive gender and negative gender, with the obvious consequences. These names have nothing to do with the role of gender. There is no basis of meaning that leads a noun to belong to one gender or the other. Why do we say el periódico [the newspaper, masculine] and la revista [the magazine, feminine], el problema [the problem, masculine] and la solución [the solution, feminine], la esperanza [the hope, feminine] y el desamparo [the hopelessness, masculine]?

In Spanish, grammatical gender correlates with the biological sex of the referent only in nouns that designate persons or animate and sexed beings. This can be marked with different words (varón [male]/hembra [female]; dama [lady]/caballero [gentleman]) or by inflection; that is, with different endings (niño [boy]/niña [girl]; actor [actor]/actriz [actress], monje [monk]/monja [nun]).

Some nouns have two forms, like the ones above. But others have the same form for both genders (el/la artista [the artist], el/la modelo [the model], cantante [the singer], estudiante [the student], portavoz [spokesperson]).

Finally, there are nouns that have no gender variation (la víctima [the victim], la persona [the person], la cucaracha [ the cockroach], la criatura [the creature], una figura [a figure], una eminencia [an eminence], el búho [the owl], el águila [the eagle], el personaje [the character], el avestruz [the ostrich], el cocodrilo [the crocodile], el colibrí [the hummingbird], el delfín [the dolphin]): the same form is used to designate female and male subjects. Here we can see very well that the biological and grammatical dimensions do not necessarily match.

I anticipated that there is a second confusion permeating the public discussion: the assumption that grammatical gender marking symmetrically and mutually exclusively divides the conceptual space of masculine and feminine. This is not the case.

Many formal properties of languages are organized through oppositions based on the presence or absence of some linguistic feature, but not all oppositions are equal. In some cases the terms of the opposition are mutually exclusive, for example: alive/dead; if something is alive it is not dead, and vice versa. This is a symmetrical opposition. In other cases, there is one term that is general and inclusive and another that is specific and exclusive. For example, the opposition between day and night. The term night covers the period between sunset and sunrise. But the term day can refer either to the period in which there is sunlight or to the entire period it takes the Earth to make one revolution over its axis. In this second case, the day/night opposition is not symmetrical. The term day is said to be unmarked because it is general and inclusive of the period referred to by night: “She has been sick for three days” almost certainly indicates that she has also been sick on the corresponding nights. On the other hand, the term night is specific and exclusive: it cannot include the period when there is sunlight; “She has been coughing for three nights” suggests that the person only coughs at night.

The gender system in Spanish consists precisely of an asymmetrical opposition: what we call masculine gender is all-encompassing, inclusive, and general. The female gender is specific and exclusive. Several data attest to this fact.

Let’s think, for example, if someone asks me “¿Tienes hijos?” [Do you have children?], I might answer “Sí, tengo tres hijas” [Yes, I have three daughters]. But if the question is “¿Tienes hijas?” [Do you have daughters?], I would not answer “Sí, tengo dos hijos” [Yes, I have two sons], but “No (no tengo hijas), tengo dos hijos” [No (I don’t have daughters), I have two sons]. This is because the masculine gender is general and inclusive, and the feminine gender is specific and exclusive.

If someone says about a singer “Su voz y su timbre son adecuados” [Her voice and timbre are adequate], we know that the speaker is referring to both the singer’s voice and timbre, but if he says “Su voz y su timbre son adecuadas” [same translation into English], we would be puzzled because the feminine gender is marked and then the term adecuada [adequate] cannot modify timbre [timbre] which is masculine. It is also a strange sentence “Su voz y su timbre son adecuada y adecuado” [His voice and timbre are adequate (feminine) and adequate (masculine)]. Firstly, it places us before an additional processing effort that does not provide any benefit in return. The unmarked form is inclusive and does not contain the masculine trait, because if it did, we could not say “Su voz y su timbre son adecuados” without contradiction, since voz [voice] is a feminine noun and therefore could not be modified by a masculine adjective.

In short, those who label the generic use of the masculine as sexist surely do so because they equate the grammatical gender distinction feminine/masculine and the conceptual biological distinction male/female, man/woman. But gender subsystems in natural languages do not work in this way. There is no full and absolutely systematic coincidence between formal linguistic marks and conceptual phenomena external to the language itself. Gender does not run parallel to the biological distinction between male and female, nor binary social gender distinctions. Languages are not inherently sexist, classist, or racist; it is the speakers who can be so. For the same reason, if speakers decide to express political positions by making new uses of their linguistic system, I find no reason to be displeased, although it is possible that what is being pursued in this way is not adequately focused. Time will tell whether these changes remain or will show us how language adapts to a changing world in the best way.
Carmen Curcó holds a PhD in Linguistics. She is a fulltime professor at UNAM’s National School of Languages, Linguistics, and Translation. She coordinates UNAM’s Master’s and Doctorate Program in Linguistics.

De Saussure, Ferdinand (1991). Curso de lingüística general. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.

Montaner Frutos, Alberto (2018). Cantar de mio Cid. Versión Modernizada. Mestas Ediciones. 
Current issue
Previous issues
No category (1)
Encuadre (8)
Entrevista (6)
Entérate (8)
Experiencias (2)
Extensión (4)
Enfoque (1)