Gender neutrality in Spanish

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A sign at a feminists' protest in Madrid, Spain, explaining gender-neutral, inclusive language in Spanish.

Feminist language reform has proposed gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender, such as Spanish. Grammatical gender in Spanish refers to how Spanish nouns are categorized as either masculine (often ending in -o) or feminine (often ending in -a). As in other Romance languages—such as Portuguese, to which Spanish is very similar—a group of both males and females, or someone of unknown gender, is usually referred to by the masculine form of a nouns and or pronoun. Advocates of gender-neutral language modification consider this to be sexist, and exclusive of gender non-binary people.[1] They also stress the underlying sexism of words whose feminine form has a different, often less prestigious meaning.[2] Some argue that a gender neutral Spanish can reduce gender stereotyping, deconstructing sexist gender roles and discrimination in the workplace.[3]

Grammatical background[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 from o to a: cirujano, cirujana (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. 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 (witness, any 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 (male fashion designer), which was created as a counterpart to modista (fashion designer, or clothes maker).
  • Some nouns ending in -a refer only to men: cura ("priest") 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. Some words that are normatively epicene can have an informal feminine ending with '-a'. Example: la jefe; jefa. The same happens with la cliente (client); "la clienta".

Social aspects[edit]

Activists against sexism in language are also concerned about words whose 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, "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 an executive position, not a subordinate one.[citation needed]
  • Another example is hombre público, which translates literally to "public man", but means politician in Spanish, while mujer pública or "public woman" means prostitute. [2]

One study, conducted in 2014, looked at Spanish students' perception of gender roles in the information and communication technology field. As predicted, the study revealed that male and female Spanish students alike view ICT as a male-dominated field. This could correlate to the use of gender in Spanish language, including the use of masculine nouns in many historically male-dominated fields(see examples above). [4]

Reform proposals[edit]

In Spanish, 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 to replace gender-specific word endings -o and -a by an -x, which represents the syllable "ex" (such as in Latinx, pronounced as /ləˈtnɛks, læ-, -nəks/, as opposed to Latino and Latina[5]). It is more inclusive in genderqueer-friendly environments than the at-sign, given the existence of gender identities like agender and demigender and/or the existence of gender-abolitionist people. (The latter are different from agender people in that their reasons to not adopt any gender are based on ideology rather than inner identity.) One argument is that the at-sign and related symbols are based on the idea that there is a gender binary, instead of trying to break away with this construct, among others.[6]

A list of proposals for reducing the generic masculine follows, adapted from the Asociación de Estudios Históricos sobre la Mujer's 2002 book, Manual de Lenguaje Administrativo no Sexista:[7]

Method Standard Spanish Reformed Spanish Notes
Collective noun los trabajadores la plantilla de la empresa "the staff of the company" instead of "the workers"
Periphrasis los políticos la clase política "the political class" instead of "the politicians"
Metonymy los gerentes la gerencia "the management" instead of "the directors"
Splitting los trabajadores los trabajadores y las trabajadoras literally "the (male) workers and the (female) workers"
Slash impreso para el cliente impreso para el/la cliente/a literally "printed for the (male) client/the (female) client"
Apposition El objetivo es proporcionar a los jóvenes una formación plena. El objetivo es proporcionar a los jóvenes, de uno y otro sexo, una formación plena. literally "The objective is to provide the youth, of one and the other sex, a full training."
Drop articles Podrán optar al concurso los profesionales con experiencia. Podrán optar al concurso profesionales con experiencia. literally "Professionals with experience can apply for the competition."
Switch determiner todos los miembros recibirán cada miembro recibirá "each member will receive" instead of "all of the members will receive".
Impersonal passive voice Los jueces decidirán Se decidirá judicialmente "It will be decided judicially" instead of "The judges will decide"
Drop subject Si el usuario decide abandonar la zona antes de lo estipulado, debe advertirlo. Si decide abandonar la zona antes de lo estipulado, debe advertirlo literally "If it is decided to leave the zone before the stipulated time, notice should be given"
Impersonal verb Es necesario que el usuario preste más atención Es necesario prestar más atención literally "it is necessary to pay more attention"

In recent decades, the most popular of gender neutral reform proposals have been splitting and the use of collective nouns, because neither deviate from Spanish grammar rules. They don't sound awkward in speech, so they are more widely accepted and used than the other examples listed above.[8]


Some Spanish-speaking people advocate for the use of elle/elles.[9] 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.[10][11] 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).[12]

Replacing -a and -o[edit]

There are several proposed word endings that combine the masculine -o and the feminine -a.

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


Sign Sign comment Ref Example Comment
@ at-sign, U+0040 [13] l@s niñ@s
anarchist circled A U+24B6 [citation needed] lⒶs niñⒶs especially in radical political writing: ¡CompañerⒶs![citation needed]
x [5] lxs niñxs The ending -x is often used to be inclusive of non-binary genders when talking about mixed gender groups, particularly in the context of activist efforts: Latinx, Chicanx, etc.
e [9] les niñes

The use of -e instead of the gender-informing suffix (when masculinity is not implied by the use of the -e suffix itself)[9]

«¡Mis alumn@s…» means "My students…"
«Todxs a la huelga» means "Everyone on strike"


Opponents of the use of the -a/-o combination '@' as a letter in these languages feel that the character is a kind of political correctness. 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.[13]

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].

Political use[edit]

Some politicians have begun to avoid perceived sexism in their speeches; the Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada, for example, commonly repeated 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).

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

  • Presidenta used to be "the president's wife", but there have been several female presidents in Latin American republics, and in modern usage the word generally means a female president. Some feel that presidente can be treated as invariable, as it ends in -ente, but others prefer to use a different feminine form.[citation needed] The usage is inconsistent: clienta is often used for female customers, but *cantanta is never used for female singers.
  • El policía (the policeman). Since la policía means "the police force", the only productive feminine counterpart is la mujer policía (the police woman).[14] A similar case is música (meaning both "music" and "female musician").
  • Juez ("male judge"). Many judges in 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. [15]


  1. ^ Schmidt, Samantha (December 5, 2019). "A Language for All". Washington Post.
  2. ^ a b Miño, Rodrigo (June 6, 2018). ""Hombre Público" vs "Mujer pública": Polémica Genera Diferencia de Significado en la RAE". Meganoticias.
  3. ^ Sczesny, Sabine; Formanowicz, Magda; Moser, Franziska (February 2, 2016). "Can Gender-Fair Language Reduce Gender Stereotyping and Discrimination?". Frontiers in Psychology – via Gale.
  4. ^ Sáinz, Milagros; Meneses, Julio; López, Beatriz-Soledad; Fàbregues, Sergi (2016-02-01). "Gender Stereotypes and Attitudes Towards Information and Communication Technology Professionals in a Sample of Spanish Secondary Students". Sex Roles. 74 (3): 154–168. doi:10.1007/s11199-014-0424-2. ISSN 1573-2762.
  5. ^ a b "Definition of Latinx in English". Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  6. ^ Miniguide for the linguistic guerrillerx – Revista Geni (in Portuguese)
  7. ^ Lomotey, Benedicta Adokarley (2011). "On Sexism in Language and Language Change – The Case of Peninsular Spanish". Linguistik Online. 70 (1). doi:10.13092/lo.70.1748. ISSN 1615-3014.
  8. ^ Nissen, Uwe Kjaer (January 1, 2013). "Is Spanish becoming more gender fair? A historical perspective on the interpretation of gender-specific and gender-neutral expressions". Linguistik Online. 58 – via Gale.
  9. ^ a b c Building a neuter gender in Spanish – for a more feminist, egalitarian and inclusive language (in Spanish)[1]
  10. ^ The Neuter Gender in Spanish – Spanish language
  11. ^ Pronouns of the Spanish language – Wikipédia, a enciclopédia livre (in Portuguese)
  12. ^ [2]
  13. ^ a b Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, GÉNERO2, in Spanish.
  14. ^ "La mujer Policía, madre, esposa y garante de la seguridad ciudadana". Ministerio de Gobierno de la República del Ecuador.
  15. ^ "El juez/ la jueza". SpanishDict.

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