As gender neutral pronouns become more commonplace, how will gender grammatical languages keep up?

Gender-Neutral Pronouns: How Do You Say ‘They’ in Spanish?

With inclusive vocabulary becoming more prevalent in English, the question now becomes how to translate such to gendered languages.

The topic of gender-neutral pronouns has been a hot button issue for some time now, and the use of the singular “they” is at the center of the controversy. Neopronouns such as “ey” and “zi” are potential solutions for those who reject the singular “they,” but they are not generally accepted and stand outside of the average person’s vocabulary.

But at least the English language has gender-neutral pronouns. Though neopronouns and the singular “they” are controversial, the option to use them still remains. Other languages may not have that option, with gender-neutral pronouns being much more difficult to implement.

Many languages have grammatical gender. Grammatical gender occurs when a language conjugates words depending on the assigned gender of a noun. The gender of a word usually represents a strict binary between male and female. Simply put, languages with grammatical gender designate words as masculine or feminine, and that assignment determines how that word can be used in a grammatically correct way.

The implementation of gender-neutral pronouns faces more challenges when it comes to languages that have grammatical gender. On top of the already formidable challenge of convincing the public to change their speaking habits and perhaps even overcome their own prejudices, gender-neutral pronouns require the long-standing grammatical structures of an entire language to be rewritten before they can be properly implemented.

The Spanish language is one such language with grammatical gender. Latinos are the largest minority population in the United States, and with so many Spanish-speaking neighbors, it is no wonder why Spanish is the second-most commonly spoken language in the country.

With the Spanish language becoming undeniably important in American culture, Americans (even non-Spanish speaking Americans) must work to make the language more inclusive. However, problems inevitably arise when non-Spanish speaking people attempt to determine how the language ought to be spoken.

Non-Spanish speakers tend to underestimate the difficulty of implementing gender-neutral pronouns in Spanish. Grammatical gender in Spanish is commonly expressed with the feminine suffix “–a” and the masculine suffix “–o.” For example, “alta” would be tall in its feminine form, and “alto” would be tall in its masculine form. One alternative that has been offered is to replace the gendered suffix with a neutral “x.” The term “Latinx” has become popular in America as a result.

However, the suffix is not a viable solution. Take into consideration this phrase: The tall person runs. A Spanish translation of this phrase could look like this: La persona alta corre. If this phrase were translated into Spanish with the neutral x, it would look like this: Lx personx altx corre.

Simply put, the neutral x clashes with Spanish grammar. And even native speakers would struggle to pronounce the resulting phrase.

Suffixes such as “-@” or “–e” are more frequently used by Spanish speakers in written and spoken language respectively. It is rather common to see emails addressed to all the maestr@s of a school’s department or for a speaker to greet a crowd with a cheerful, “¡Hola todes!” These alternatives seem more practical.

Still, for gender-neutral pronouns to become commonplace in any language, its speakers must face the tall task of overcoming their cultural prejudices.

Native Spanish speakers may struggle to communicate (and much less to understand) the concept of gender neutrality, as Spanish grammar only acknowledges two genders. Moreover, one must use the language’s grammatical gender in order to communicate these concepts, making the whole process seem paradoxical.

But there is still hope. The new generation is increasingly open-minded and empathetic, which is conducive to social progress. And while languages do not change overnight, the ability to adapt to the needs of the speaker has been a defining characteristic of language since its inception.

Elannah Swarnes Matos, University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez

Writer Profile

Elannah Swarnes Matos

University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez
Creative Writing

Elannah Swarnes Matos is an English Literature Major at UPRM. Her writing has appeared in the UPRM English Department Blog, Her Campus Magazine, and Sábanas Literary Magazine under the pen name Mari Louisa.

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