Gendered Language: Tradition or Barrier to Equality?

February 20, 2018

Sometimes there are certain aspects of our lives that we simply do not question.  Children, who are often the only people courageous enough to go against the grain, grow accustomed to hearing the phrase, “it’s just the way it is.”

Language tends to be one of these unquestioned pieces of our behavior.  We may know nothing about the origin of the words we use everyday, or why we have to follow certain rules, but we usually adhere to what we have been provided.  

For that reason, the growing pushback in Latin America against “gendered language” has been a challenging battle, and traditionalists have been unwilling to give up any ground for the cause.  Using the definition provided from the British Council, gendered language is “language that has a bias towards a particular sex or social gender” (Prior 2017).  In languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, this language manifests itself in terms like los trabajadores or os trabalhadores.  While both translate to “the workers,” which could include females, the domination of the masculine word construction may not make a reader immediately understand that women are also part of this group.  In fact, the inclusion of just one male causes the term to take its masculine form.  

And of course, English, while seen by many as a “neutral” language, still has its own biases as well, seen especially in professional terms like “businessman” or “actor.”  There is also no option for a neutral pronoun to refer to people, funneling people who may identify otherwise into the only options of “he” and “she”.

One academic, Allyson Jule, explained that gendered language is a perpetuation of “the historical patriarchal hierarchy that has existed between men and women, where one (man) is considered the norm, and the other (woman) is marked as other - as something quite different from the norm” (Prior 2017).

Aside from making it difficult to understand exactly who is in a group, or highlight those who have selected what is seen as a typically unconventional profession for their gender, such language may actually have much larger implications.  In one study called The Gendering of Language, it was uncovered that there is a correlation between grammatical gender languages (which would include both Spanish and Portuguese) and the gender inequality in countries where they are spoken (Lyons 2018).  

Regardless of whether or not the language we speak truly can affect characteristics of our society, like machismo, there has already been a wave of proponents for an update to Spanish and Portuguese language to better include women.  In Argentina, people began to notice that former president Cristina Kirchner had moved to address all of her speeches todos y a todas, making it clear that she was talking to everybody both male and female.  A similar change was present in the Venezuelan constitution, which speaks not only of venezolanos but also venezolanas. In Brazil, former president Dilma Rousseff made a motion to allow women to change the titles on their degrees to reflect their gender; for example, if a woman had achieved a doctorate, she is now able to write the newly invented feminine doutorada in place of the archaic form doutorado.  Rousseff led by example, using the word presidenta in place of the accepted presidente when elected.

Such changes are apparent in english, as well, perhaps showing that language is meant to evolve with society.  The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina explained that, in centuries-old writings like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it is quite common to see phrases which combine both men and women under one word: men.  Although it has been understood that in the line “all men are created equal,” ‘men’ wants to say ‘people’, it would no longer be acceptable to use ‘man’ or ‘men’ as an all-encompassing term.  Even in the popular show Star Trek, writers modified the famous quote “where no man has gone before” to a more contemporary option: “where no one has gone before.”

Of course, despite the many changes which have already been implemented in Latin America’s languages, there are just as many opponents to the inclusive language movement.  One of the more public critiques came from the Real Academia Española (RAE), which released a report from author Ignacio Bosque titled “Linguistic sexism and the visibility of women” (Sexismo lingüístico y visibilidad de la mujer).  The report argues that the generic use of the masculine form to designate both of the sexes is simply a part of the grammatical system, and trying to adopt another form would force the linguistic structure.  Bosque claimed that if people were to apply the most recently accepted guidelines for the Spanish language, nobody would be able to speak (Sack 2012).

Many others who agree with Bosque contend that defying the traditional rules and unnecessarily changing the language simply would not make any change in society.  They insist that language can not shape the behavior of society, and that if anything, society must change in order for a change to be reflected in its language.

Using this thought process, the debate becomes much more complicated.  There is not yet any clear evidence that society is dependent on language or vice versa.  One article from the Linguistic Society of America tried to investigate a variety of languages and if the people who speak these languages perceive the world in a different way.  One finding could well support the argument of those who would rather keep the language in its traditional form; the Dani of New Guinea only have two words which correspond to colors.  One refers to dark colors, and the other is used for light colors.  So, although the language of the Dani clearly divides the color spectrum differently than a reader from Latin America or the United States might be accustomed to, it does not necessarily mean that the Dani cannot differentiate different colors.  

However, those who back the movement for a more inclusive language structure can find evidence for their cause in the same study.  It is possible that Russians, who have two different words for light blue and dark blue, may actually think of this division as two separate colors, whereas an English speaker, for example, would just see one.  This is similar to how somebody who identifies pink as its own color might confuse another who, in their language, considers pink to be light red (Birner 2012).

No matter what, the challenge to develop a new gender-inclusive linguistic style has begun across Latin America, with solutions like the term ‘Latin@,’ (viable in both Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries) meant to simultaneously highlight both sexes, growing in popularity and professional use.  Among other terms meant to solve the gendered-language dilemma, ‘Latinx’ and in Mexico, ‘Chicanx’ have been making waves, as the word introduces an entirely new set of obstacles to equality: the inclusion of people who do not necessarily conform to o, a, el, or la.  There is not yet a widely accepted option for non binary individuals.     

An expert from the Babbel Didactics team, Birte Dreier, proposes that change in language can occur in two ways: implementing new language from the bottom up, or directly introducing language from the top down, from the governmental level.  For those hoping, to no avail, that their leaders will announce new additions to their vocabulary, such as Sweden’s 2012 introduction of its gender-neutral pronoun “hen,” change is not impossible.  According to Dreier’s logic, language can shift corresponding to its use.  By electing to not use certain language in an individual or small group setting, words eventually disappear.  Likewise, by using other words as frequently as one can, society can make them the norm.

It is yet to be seen whether or not Latin American governments will make a decision regarding gendered language for their people.  Depending on the will of the community, though, they might not have to.  

Works Cited

Prior, Jemma. 2017. “Teachers, what is gendered language?” 1 March. British Council. Available to read here: [Accessed 19 February 2018].

Sack, Adrián. 2012. “La Real Academia Española, contra el ‘todos y todas’.” 5 March. La Nación. Available to read here: [Accessed 17 February 2018].

Lyons, Dylan. “How ‘Latinx’ Is Leading The Resistance Against Gendered Languages.” 2018. Babbel. Available to read here: [Accessed 17 February 2018].

Birner, Betty. “Does the Language I Speak Influence the Way I Think?” 2012. Linguistic Society of America. Available to read here: [Accessed 18 February 2018].

The Writing Center, UNC. 2018 “Gender-Inclusive Language.” UNC College of Arts and Sciences. Available to read here: [Accessed 19 February 2018].

Reichard, Raquel. “Latino/a vs. Latinx vs. Latine: Which Word Best Solves Spanish’s Gender Problem?” 30 March. Latina. Available to read here: [Accessed 17 February 2018].


About Author(s)

Rachel Rozak
Rachel Rozak is an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh where she majors in Spanish and marketing and is additionally pursuing a minor in Portuguese and a certificate in Latin American studies. Through her studies she quickly became passionate about Latin America and its people and culture. She hopes to continue finding ways to blend her business skills with this love through opportunities like her recent summer internship abroad in Solola, Guatemala and semester of studies abroad in Heredia, Costa Rica.