Columns, Opinion

NADEL: Gendering issues reflected in language

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.

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  1. Get a life, and shove your feminist verbiage up your rectum while you’re at it.

  2. Grow the hell up. Kids are dying from Malaria all over the world and you prance around throwing hissies over nouns being genderered. You privileged punk.

  3. Check your (English) privilege?

  4. Racist. Linguistic Imperialist. Grammatical neo-colonialist.

  5. Please cease your misapplied, misguided, misandry forthwith. It has no place in our modern society, nor is it desired by rational, intelligent citizens.

  6. Oh good God. Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Like oh, I don’t know, terrorism and the bombings and murders in Belgium? This is so incredibly superficial that I don’t even know where to begin. Get off the special snowflake train and get a life. Be more concerned about how we treat each other and what we need to do about people who actively want to kill us and particularly want to kill, in the most obscene and horrific manner possibly, anyone who is LBGT or whatever the order is.

  7. Ouch. Now even Spanish speakers are evil….. cuz their language is not inclusive enough. Why don’t you invent new pronouns for Spanish – instead of El Camino, you can say Zer Camino etc.

    And if those Spanish speakers continue to exert their linguistic micro aggression towards people and objects, protest them. It’s what you do, right?

    Perhaps you can lobby Twitter to ban those who don’t conform.

  8. Tony,

    Such language does not contribute to the discussion. Your reaction to the article is, of course, correct. However, the goal should be to educate the left-wing feminists, not to cast their beliefs in concrete.

  9. Dirty filthy degenerates, the lot of them

  10. You sincerely have to much time on your hands, if you have time to worry about this kind of stuff

  11. How dare you try to appropriate and change Spanish culture to suit your privileged prejudices!

  12. When I am eating 10 “las tacos” for lunch, I don’t care about their sex, only if they contain enough ground meat to fill my belly. Usually they don’t, so I have to chase them with a grande eggnog frappuccino… and in that moment of syrupy rapture, I don’t care at all whether Starbucks culturally appropriated Italian cafe culture.

  13. Western grammatical imperialism.

  14. Does she know that Geman has gender?

  15. Mark:

    A tough thing it is, to educate the brain dead.

  16. There are many languages that follow that pattern, basically all Latin-derived…and then some. That does not make them non-inclusive. That is why we Spanish do not think much of it and make fun of the political correctness that abounds these days with regards to word gender. Just to give you an idea of how inclusive our society is, when women get married in Spain, they do not need to adopt their husband’s name. They keep their own. Their children will bear both parents’ last names and in any order they choose. This is ancestral, and dates back to 1501, when cardinal Cisneros established it was mandatory to have a last name. Women have been availing of that very inclusive practice for over 5 centuries. That’s a fact of life, not a self-conscious pondering exercise on gender. Feel free to dig further into the important aspects of Spanish life, because Spanish is beautiful regardless.

  17. Can you say El “Regressive Left”?
    Der “Moral Placebo”?

    Señora Nadel has been addled by regressive education.

    Ella está libre de escribr sobre este asunto, pero la gente puede burlarse sin restricción.

    Ms. Nadel, get ready for a career as a low-level government employee or in a university as an adjunct professor peddling regressive ideas

  18. Olivia Nadel you should build a wall to keep all these folks outta ‘merica with their god damn patriarchal language

  19. One could argue the exact opposite about chicos/chicas. That mixed groups default to masculine is a way of erasing the importance of masculinity — the masculine in spanish also serves as the neuter.

    And that’s the problem with this article. It does little more than point out that words are gendered in Spanish. There really isn’t even so much as an attempt to point out if that causes any specific real world harm. A number of Latin American countries, despite lower average education levels, still were ahead of the US on gay marriage rights and Argentina offers transgendering on one’s state i.d. The author would have done well to do an iota of research outside of the Spanish 101 class (for example, the neuter does persist — esto and eso).

  20. I actually think that this is a great article. The forcing of gendered words on inanimate objects and the male gendered words being seen as universal are two aspects of language that have needed to grow and change for a long time. The gendered inanimate objects may only apply to certain languages, but even in English we have male gendered “universal” terms; mankind is a good example, and even the colloquial “dude”.
    As for the commenters saying that the author should focus on “real” issues like terrorism, if this is what the author knows and can do to shape the future, why is that a bad thing? If you’re so focused on terrorism, how about you go deal with it rather than troll an article?
    And for the arguments about “Racist. Linguistic Imperialist. Grammatical neo-colonialist.”, it does not appear to me that the author is saying anything about how one language is superior to another at all, and I see nowhere that it is related to racism. People of multitudes of racial backgrounds consider themselves Latinx/a/o and/or speak Spanish. What i gather is that this is an issue in any language with pointless gendered inanimate objects and male gendered “universal” words, Spanish just being used as this example as the term “Latinx” and using the @ at the end of Spanish words has been at the forefront of a lot of gender neutral conversation recently.
    Honestly, I don’t understand why people so vehemently oppose more inclusive language. I get that no one likes change, and men (and some women) don’t see anything wrong with misogynistic practices being “normal”. But both language and society is constantly growing and changing. Rather than attacking something that is slightly unknown to you, perhaps you would like to educate yourself.

    • Nobody will tell us how to use our lenguage go i woll use the words i feel like and i dont care about feminazi feelings

  21. Isabella de la Fuente

    I actually think this is a terrible article. The issue that gendered words are valid targets of language by non-native speakers is a theme amongst a certain group of folks who identify with progressive and social justice politics in English speaking countries. The belief an English speaker has authority to impose upon the Spanish speaking world (which includes countries in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, North and South America) a new grammatical structure and syntax because the Spanish language offends the author’s feminist and political sensibilities is not only out of touch with reality but astoundingly ethnocentric and and judgmental.

    The commenters saying that the author should focus on tangible issues like terrorism are correct; indeed, it is not trolling, merely an attempt to clarify the salient issues in a convoluted article.

    This author has no background whatsoever in etymology and despite protestations to the contrary is in fact stating her native language is superior to Spanish.

    It is the very definition of racism and the basis of colonialism attitudes towards other peoples. It is offensive and a clear example of the author’s internalized racism disguised with progressive buzzwords.

    If you cannot comprehend why native Spanish speakers are vehemently opposed to clumsy and bigoted attempts to impose “inclusive language” upon a people of cultural, ethnic and regional diverseness then perhaps you should return to school and take some basic courses in logic. In the interim, don’t tell us how to speak our language.

  22. Porque no se va mucho al carajo usted señora? Ni siquiera piense en meterse con nosotros los hispanohablantes, porque no cambiaremos