Counteracting Sexist Spanish, While Respecting the Language

It’s important to distinguish sexo (English “sex”) from género gramatical (English “gender”) in Spanish. Although both have the same two categories, masculino and femenino, sexo pertains to differences in human reproduction while género is a linguistic property that has no necessary connection with biological sex. Sexist Spanish has three forms:

a) The first occurs when the género masculino of a noun or adjective has a positive meaning but the género femenino of the same word has a negative meaning. When a man is a called a zorro (fox, género masculino) it means that he is “crafty and astute,” but when a woman called a zorra (fox, género femenino) it means that she is a prostitute.

b) The second form consists of the metaphorical use of adjectives based on male and female genitalia to signify, respectively, good and bad qualities. Cojonudo (from cojones, testicles) can be used in the sense of “stupendous, magnificent, brave,” while Coñazo (from coño, akin to “cunt“) may be employed to signify “annoying, tiresome, unbearable.”

c) The third and most discussed form is the use of the género masculino as unmarked or “generic” which can represent just one of the géneros (masculino) or both (masculino and femenino). For example, Los empleados deben venir (Employees must come) may refer to male employees (empleados) only or to both male and female employees (empleadas). Empleadas are not mentioned explicitly.

The Real Academia Española, traditionally the highest linguistic authority on Spanish, rejects the idea that the generic is sexist because it includes both genders, but its opponents rightly point out that languages are dynamic and reflect changes in society, which also must be factored into this discussion.

US scholars focus on this form of sexist Spanish, and to avoid it they use neologisms such as the slash (barra in Spanish) as in Latinos/as, Latino/a students, Latino/a Studies Center. There are, however, ways to avoid Sexist Spanish while staying within the bounds of respecting Standard Spanish and we as academics should follow them as much as possible. An excellent guide was issued by Spain’s Comisión de Mujeres y Ciencia (Commission of Women and Science). One of its important observations is that “The use of words . . . regardless of grammatical género, which designate human beings collectively or individually but don’t specify sexo (male or female) is not sexist.” [My translation.]

Examples are pueblo and persona, as in “pueblo Chicano” or “persona Latina.” The words puebla and persono don’t exist. We follow this guideline in the title of our book, Latino Peoples in the United States instead of Latinos in the United States. Finally, names such as Latino/a Studies Center are not necessary, because sexist language applies only to people, not things.

It is important to keep in mind that these methods are not perfect. Sometimes appropriate “collective” nouns don’t exist and individuals who insist on avoiding sexist Spanish may have to resort to other approaches, such as “doubling” (as in Latino and Latina immigrants) that are less than ideal. Doubling is considered “too wordy” by some.

Scholars who insist on the use of both genders for inanimate objects may follow this usage: Choose the form that agrees with the género of the noun in Spanish. For example, Latino Studies (from estudios, género masculino), Latina Library (from biblioteca, género femenino), Latino data (from datos, género masculino), Latina statistics (from estadísticas, género femenino). Too much of a hassle? Perhaps, but it certainly beats artificial neologisms pulled out of the air in the United States.

These neologisms are usually another example of US hegemony at work. I don’t expect that US scholars are going to drop practices that they have been following for years after they read my post. But I’d like to get the message out there and, who knows, maybe some people will start thinking seriously about it.

The Spanish language has been kicked around long enough in this country. White school authorities tried to suppress (including violently punishing) the use of Spanish among Spanish-speaking children at different points in US history. Then there is the white racialized “humor” of “Mock Spanish,” (No problemo, Hasty banana [for hasta mañana]) and the common white harassment of Spanish speakers in public. The Trump Administration early on hastened to remove the Spanish portion of the White House website.

I’d like to emphasize that I’m not a snob and my main concern is not so much with how scholars or students choose to refer to themselves as with how universities are following these rules in the names of curricula, departments, centers and libraries, and therefore giving them legitimacy. Universities are institutions of higher learning and should respect the linguistic integrity of academic Spanish.