The most frustrating aspect, to me, about learning Spanish has been memorizing feminine and masculine nouns and adjectives. This is nothing new for many romance language speakers, but as a native English speaker, this is unfamiliar.
Because all romance languages are derived from Latin, many have adopted its triple gender distinction: feminine, masculine and neuter. The neuter form does not take either gender. Although English is considered a Germanic language, much of its vocabulary is taken from Latin. English slowly lost these gender distinctions, while Spanish maintained the feminine and masculine and lost the neuter.
In Spanish, the distinction between these two genders is completely arbitrary. It solely depends on the word, not the word’s association with females or males. For example, “la persona” refers to “a person,” and “el bebé” means “the baby.”
Often times, masculine becomes the default gender during assignment. In the case of words imported from other languages, masculine is generally used unless there is a reason to use the feminine form. “El marketing,” refers to “marketing,” while “la web,” refers to “the World Wide Web” and is feminine because the Spanish words for Web and network are feminine.
Although I don’t fully understand why inanimate objects need to be gendered, it is not as bothersome to me as using the masculine form to refer to a group of females and males. When referring to a group of children, Spanish speakers say “chicos,” which literally translates to “a group of boys.” The word “padre” means “father,” while “padres” means “parents.” If there is one male in a group of all females, “ellas,” (them, female) is changed to “ellos,” (them, male). In all of these cases, it seems like a matter of not wanting to threaten men’s masculinity.
I studied Spanish for several years at home and never noticed these peculiarities. While I’m actively forced to speak Spanish here, I’m much more cognizant of my word choice. Spanish pronouns, objects and nouns do not seem to consider gender inclusivity and neutrality, and like many others, I consider this a feminist and LGBT issue.
I’m aware that my view of this issue comes from a place of supposed superiority and judgment, but in reality, the English language has its slew of gender neutrality and inclusivity problems. Some issues are so internalized that we don’t even realize we’re saying them, like using “guys” to refer to any group of people.
Small steps have been taken, like in English, to create more inclusive pronouns. Instead of saying “él/ella” (he/she), people have begun using “le” or “ele.” People also use “@,” which Spanish speakers refer to as an arroba. This is because the sign looks like an “a” or an “o,” and replaces those letters to make the word either masculine or feminine.
But what’s more interesting is that while along with other international students, I am hyperaware of these words, native speakers don’t seem to think of them as controversial. When they hear “chicos,” they think of children, and not a group of little boys. The words change meaning depending on social context and how politically correct the speaker usually is.
While I’m happy that the Spanish-speaking community is taking steps in the right direction to be more gender inclusive, I’m not sure how effective it is in truly changing people’s minds. Does gradually un-gendering people and objects actually change people’s perceptions of gender, or is it too internalized after many years of speaking a certain way?
I believe there are many implications of speaking about gender as a binary starting at a young age. Any gender that is not masculine or feminine becomes taboo, and this way of thinking contributes to a culture of close-mindedness and patriarchal superiority. Gender issues here, like in the United States, are much deeper than a language’s surface-level gendered nouns and adjectives.