The Gatehouse Blog

Gender neutralising a language: amigos, amigues, amigix or amig@s?

It’s impossible to imagine the Spanish language without gender. Every noun is inextricably linked to its ‘el’ or ‘la’, and each adjective defers to its noun by feminising or masculinising itself. But as the topic of gender becomes more and more politically charged, the Spanish language is coming under scrutiny and being labelled machista for its grammatical tendency towards masculinity.

Despite the feminine and masculine labels inherent in the language, when nouns are pluralised, the picture gets a little more complicated. For example, if you have a mixed group of men and women, the default plural form is always masculine, making the women invisible participants within the group.

People have pushed back against this for some time now, and feminists have started to use ‘@’ and ‘x’ at the end of nouns in order to avoid ‘gendering’ the word. So, Latino becomes Latinx or Latin@. A more recent addition to this trend has been to use ‘e’ as an alternative.

The rise of feminist movements over the past decades has also ensured that the language issue is on the diversity agenda now, says Florencia. “They propose a more neutral written and spoken language. Ungendered Spanish is now being used naturally in speech. But it’s being resisted by conservative people,” she adds.

The Royal Academy of Spanish, the largest authority on the language, refuses to even entertain the idea of using an x, @ or e ending.

“Companies are understandably worried about this. Diversity and gender equality are big challenges right now. They’re obviously not new things, but they’re new things that companies are worried about.”

Florencia explains that companies face a dilemma. They either risk being branded non-inclusive by sticking to the classic language, or they evidence inclusivity by using a language that’s not formally recognised.

“Honestly, I don’t think it will ever be formally recognised,” she adds. “But why be so formal? Is formality more important than inclusion? Language creates reality and reinforces culture.”

The rise of feminist movements over the past decades has also ensure that the language issue is on the feminist agenda now.

“These are all questions and considerations that companies are facing right now. And I think that they’re kind of lost. They don’t know how to speak to employees. Some of my clients consider themselves pioneers and do all the written communication with @ symbols. Others try really hard to do this, but it gets rejected by management who just want to stick with the traditional way.”

Even amongst those who completely resist the idea of neutral language, the topic of diversity is being discussed. “It’s touched a nerve,” says Florencia. “It’s not just a female issue. It’s getting companies thinking about transgender, non-binary etc., and the things potentially stopping people making a career.

It’s getting companies thinking about transgender, non-binary etc., and the things potentially stopping people making a career. 

“There’s a lot of companies that are giving talks on diversity for employees. They’re looking at the environment and now providing things like rooms for breastfeeding — something that was never considered before. They’re looking at other things, such as what is and isn’t appropriate when making jokes. I’ve seen several campaigns related to these topics and there are also programmes dedicated to empowering women in the workplace. So, even if they’re not using the inclusive form of language, it’s prompted organisations to talk about these issues.”

Language inevitably evolves. Maybe the most important thing is the element of choice. If a new language style slowly gets adopted by the majority, then the future might see a development in Spanish to a more gender-neutral form of communication.

Take Old English, for example. It used to have masculine, feminine and neutral genders but, over the years, the language evolved, mixing with Old Norse, French and Germanic languages, resulting in the gendered endings finally being dropped from the words.

Biography: Florencia Giaquinta

Florencia Giaquinta was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she gained a degree in social communication with an institutional orientation. For the last decade, she’s worked as an internal communication (IC) consultant for several companies in Argentina and across Latin America. In addition, she’s a well-respected speaker, author of academic and professional papers related to the IC discipline, and an IC lecturer at universities in Buenos Aires.

   Tweet her: @Florencia_Gia