Gender neutrality in Spanish and Portuguese

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Spanish (Sp.) has gendered nouns of masculine or feminine gender - with some neuter gender. In Spanish, feminine nouns often end in -a while masculine nouns often end in -o. As in other Romance languages, masculine form of nouns and pronouns are generally used to refer to a group of both males and females, or to someone of unknown gender. Advocates of gender-neutral language modification consider this to be sexist and favor new ways of writing and speaking.[citation needed] Activists against sexism in language are also concerned about words where the feminine form has a different (usually less prestigious) meaning.[citation needed]

Traditional Spanish regarding genders[edit]

In Spanish, the masculine is often marked with the suffix -o and it is generally easy to make a feminine noun from a masculine one by changing the ending -o to -a: cirujano, cirujana (Sp., surgeon; m./f.); médico, médica (physician, m./f.) If the masculine version ends with a consonant, the feminine is typically formed by adding an -a to it as well: el doctor, la doctora (Sp., m./f.). However, not all nouns ending in -o are masculine, and not all nouns ending in -a are feminine:

  • Singular nouns ending in -o or -a are epicene (invariable) in some cases: testigo (Sp., witness, whatever gender).
  • Nouns with the epicene ending -ista, such as dentista, ciclista, turista, especialista (dentist, cyclist, tourist, specialist; either male or female) are almost always invariable. One exception is modisto (Sp., male fashion designer), which was created as a counterpart to modista (Sp., fashion designer, or clothes maker).
  • Some nouns ending in -a refer only to men: cura, that is "priest" in Spanish, a word which ends in -a but is grammatically masculine, for a profession held in Roman Catholic tradition only by men.

Invariable words in Spanish are often derived from the Latin participles ending in -ans and -ens (-antem and -entem in the accusative case): estudiante (Sp.). Some words that normatively epicene, can have an informal feminine ending with '-a'. Example: la jefe (Sp.); jefa (Sp.). The same happens with la cliente (client); "la clienta".

There remain a few cases where the appropriate gender is uncertain:

  • Presidenta used to be "the president's wife", but there have been several women presidents in Latin American republics, and in modern usage the word means mainly a female president. Some feel that presidente can be treated as invariable, given that it ends in -ente, but others prefer to use a different feminine form.
  • El policía (Sp., the policeman). Since la policía means "the police force", the only useful feminine counterpart is la mujer policía (the police woman).[citation needed]
  • Juez (Sp., male judge). Many new judges in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries are women. Since the ending of juez is uncommon in Spanish, some prefer being called la juez while others have created the neologism jueza.[citation needed] Common nouns ending in -z are usually feminine, as in the cases of nuez, vez and paz.

Social aspects[edit]

Activists against sexism in language are also concerned about words where the feminine form has a different (usually less prestigious) meaning:

  • An ambiguous case is "secretary": a secretaria is an attendant for her boss or a typist, usually female, while a secretario is a high-rank position—as in secretario general del partido comunista (Sp.), both "secretary general of the communist party"—usually held by males. With the access of women to positions labelled as "secretary general" or similar, some have chosen to use the masculine gendered la secretario and others have to clarify that secretaria is a decision position, not a subordinate one.
  • Another example is hombre público (Sp.) ["public man", a politician] and mujer pública (Sp.) ["public woman", a prostitute].

Proposals for gender-neutral spelling[edit]

As in other Romance languages, it is traditional to use the masculine form of nouns and pronouns when referring to both males and females. Advocates of gender-neutral language modification consider this to be sexist and favor new ways of writing and speaking.

One such way is using a «x», but one of its main alleged flaws is that it cannot be pronounced in a commonly agreed manner,[1] albeit it is more inclusive in genderqueer-friendly environments than the at-sign or the æ ligature, given the existence of gender identities like agender and demigender and/or the existence of gender-abolitionist people (they are different from agender people in that their reasons to not adopt any gender are based on ideology rather than inner identity). Other argument is that the at-sign and related symbols still take part from an idea that there is a gender binary, instead of trying to break away with this construct, among others.[2]

Pronouns[edit]

Some Spanish-speaking people advocate for the use of elle/elles.[3] Its former use is similar to Spanish lo (alive in Portuguese) and ello, which cannot be used for objects, non-human living beings or people, as there are no neuter nouns or descriptive adjectives in Ibero-Romance languages.[4][5] Despite this, some still employ this pronoun in a gender-neutral personal third pronoun fashion, even if not allowed according to the historical use and etymology of the now-defunct word (in the spirit of a revival of the neuter form in early Romance that died off in most Romance languages).[6]

At-sign (@), slashes (a/o), ligature (æ) and anarchist symbol (Ⓐ)[edit]

One of the proposed "gender-neutral" alternate spelling, seen most often in Spanish-speaking countries,[7] refers to use of the at-sign (@) to replace -o -a or even -e: l@s niñ@s, l@s trabalhador@s.

The anarchist circled A (Ⓐ) is also used in this manner, especially in radical political writing (¡CompañerⒶs!).

Many people, though, prefer use of the slash (/) as in (el/la candidato/a).


Proposals for a gender-neutral pronunciation[edit]

Opponents of the use of '@' and 'æ' as letters in these languages feel that these characters are a kind of degradation. Many also raise the question of how these new words are to be pronounced. Proposals exist, though, such as those made by PCIG.

According to the PCIG proposal, Spanish speakers can pronounce the at-sign using the phoneme /ɔ/ and the ligature with /ɛ/.

However, some Spanish speakers are concerned that this proposal is unlikely to be adopted, since the Spanish language does not distinguish /ɔ/ and /ɛ/ from /o/ and /e/ respectively, and most of its speakers would therefore not even notice a difference in pronunciation.

The Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, published by the Real Academia Española, says that the at-sign is not a linguistic sign, and should not be used from a normative point of view.[7]


The phoneme /ɔ/ is between the [a ~ ə] characteristic of feminine nouns and the [o ~ ʊ ~ u] characteristic of masculine nouns in the scale of vowel height, which can be characterized symbolic of gender inclusion. Analogously, the "gender-inclusive" /ɛ/ is intermediate step between the "feminine" /a ~ ɐ/ and the "masculine" [e ~ ɪ ~ i ~ ɨ].

The use of «e» instead of the gender-informing suffix (when it does not intend for masculinity itself), in Spanish, may also be recommended.[3]

Political use[edit]

Some politicians have begun to avoid perceived sexism in their speeches; the Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada, for example, was famous for repeating gendered nouns in their masculine and feminine versions (ciudadanos y ciudadanas). This way of speaking is subject to parodies where new words with the opposite ending are created for the sole purpose of contrasting with the gendered word traditionally used for the common case (like *felizas and *especialistos in *felices y felizas or *las y los especialistas y especialistos).

Minority Iberian languages[edit]

These changes would not work quite the way they are intended for Spanish, when it comes to Basque and Catalan, given their many linguistic differences that include the way language might be gendered, but the rule of thumb for minority West Iberian languages and Aragonese, though, is that if something works for Spanish, it is very likely to work for them, too; the only exception being the Silbo Gomero, a whistled way of "speaking" an island dialect of Spanish that contains solely 4 vowel phonemes, /a/, /e/, /i/ and /o ~ u/, given widely common physical constraints, and as such the addition of more vowel phonemes is not a realistic way of addressing gender difference in language.

See also[edit]

References[edit]