Last week, as soon as I saw it, I clicked on Peter Davies’ piece on the use of inclusive language in Mexico. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for years now but haven’t dared.
It’s highly emotional for some, and when high emotional loads are in the mix on any subject, no amount of nuance and thoughtfulness, especially from someone like me who is trying to understand and be sympathetic but mostly doesn’t have a clue, is generally appreciated.
But now that the box has been opened, I’d like to weigh in, since language and its relationship to culture are both of deep importance and of interest to me. And since the bulk of my income these days actually comes from translating, it’s not simply an issue of armchair philosophy; it has real implications for my work.
As anyone who speaks even rudimentary Spanish knows, the plural of articles (those words like el/la, un/una, etc.), as well as those of nouns and adjectives default to the masculine when you are talking about a group with both genders. So, for example, the most likely translation for los niños ruidosos is “the loud children,” a group that probably includes both boys and girls.
However, it could also refer to loud boys and not include girls at all. But, it definitely could not mean “the loud girls” — at least not exclusively. Even if there were a group of nine girls and one boy, in Spanish, the male gender is still the default when you pluralize.
I was in college and very new to the Spanish language when then-president Vicente Fox began referring to children as niños y niñas rather than simply niños. While some linguistic purists thought it was a ridiculous gesture, I appreciated it. It did make me feel that girls were being as specifically included and given as much importance as boys, rather than simply assumed to have been (perhaps) mixed in with them.
Making decisions about how to talk about human beings is fairly straightforward: do you want to make sure everyone knows they’re being included or don’t you? Niños y niñas, señores y señoras, and even los y las maestros — these pairings have become commonplace and widely accepted.
But for some people, this seems to be their limit: I’ve seen and heard plenty of people get very worked up about the “ridiculousness” of specifically including women instead of simply letting the masculine plurals do the work for them — rather than letting women be (like Schrödinger’s cat) simply assumed to either be or not be present.
Notably, I’ve never seen or heard a woman get upset about being specifically included.
So most people say niños y niñas nowadays. Great! But there will be no resting on our laurels. Language is a living organism that changes with us, and more change is always upon us.
I’m thinking specifically of ways to recognize and respect linguistically people who consider themselves to be nonbinary, neither male nor female. Because while it’s something I don’t feel I understand at all, I’d still recommend, just as a human, always erring on the side of assuming people aren’t joking or being overly dramatic when they say something about their identity is deeply important to them.
Yet, it is a concept that has made me feel pretty old. When did this come about, and how did I not notice? In western culture, it feels brand new, though it’s not new among humankind: in the Zapotec cultures in Oaxaca, the muxe occupy a sort of third gender space, and there are numerous other examples throughout the Americas of indigenous cultures that made room for gender expression beyond the male/female dichotomy.
And I’m not that old. But when I was studying gender and sexuality from a sociological perspective in college 20 years ago, the term “nonbinary” in reference to people who wished to neither designate themselves as female nor male did not exist. I knew straight people, gay people, transexual people and people who liked to dress up as someone of the opposite sex occasionally. While they may not have preferred the pronoun that matched their biological gender, it wasn’t until much later that I came upon anyone who wished to be referred to as neither he nor she.
Thus, the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them” in English: it’s been a bit tricky to learn and remember, but if someone has explicitly expressed their desire to be referred to as such, I do my best.
I haven’t the faintest idea of what it might feel like to identify as neither male nor female, nor how it might feel to perceive that a person is misgendering me (or would it simply be “gendering” in the case of a nonbinary person?) by insisting on referring to me as one or the other. But since it’s something capable of upsetting people very much, I want to do my best to make sure others feel seen and respected.
All things considered, a slight change in pronoun is a pretty simple way to do that.
And while it can be confusing (“Wait, you have more than one person staying with you?” a friend asked me last summer when I referred to my nonbinary houseguest as “them”), the fact that in English, gender only exists in our pronouns (and that there are easy fixes for nouns — “policeman” can become “police officer,” for example) makes the changes required relatively easy to make.
But in Spanish, gender is all over the place, so the task of working gender neutrality into baked-in gendered language is a bit stickier. Writing “@” or “x” is simple enough to do, but how are we to pronounce it?
Using “e” (as in, “les amigues”) has been suggested and used by some but currently seems to provoke ridicule and eye rolls from most people — or in the case of second-language speakers like me, assumptions about my lack of knowledge about the Spanish language.
Will it eventually become the norm? Time will tell.
I feel for the student who sobbed “¡Soy tu compañere!” at her university classmate (read Peter’s article above for more details) and found herself having gone viral, not least of all because this is a country in which jokes are made of literally everything. He (or she? No, “the person”) who gets upset, loses.
But the reaction of this student also makes it clear that it’s an incredibly painful issue for them, which I think is something that should make anyone who cares about being respectful sit up and pay attention.
I appreciate being specifically included, and I bet everyone else would appreciate that too. Language matters, and whether these new linguistic suggestions take off or fall flat, it would behoove us to remember that being named is a big part of what makes us human.