By Sevana Wenn
Anyone who’s taken a basic Spanish class is well aware of one of the language’s fundamental rules: all nouns are assigned a gender. “Table”- “la mesa”- is feminine. “Marker”- “el marcador”- is masculine. When addressing a mixed-gender group of people, the default masculine is used. To an English speaker, these grammar rules can seem arbitrary and confusing; however, to the world’s over 500 million Spanish speakers, they’re somewhat intuitive.
But in recent years, younger generations have begun to challenge age-old grammatical convention. They argue that changing the Spanish language to become more gender-neutral is the first step to changing what they see as a highly gendered society.
Recently, Argentinian teens have led the charge to neutralize the Spanish language. Natalia Mira, 18, made headlines when she used the proposed neutral form in a television interview.
As it stands, the masculine form of nouns ends in -o, and the feminine form ends in -a. The proposed neutral form used by Mira would have nouns ending in -e. Instead of “amigos” or “amigas”, young people have made the move towards “amigues”. The Royal Spanish Academy in Spain (regarded as the official authority on the language) has blatantly rejected this new form, but it is nevertheless slowly making its way into everyday speech.
This linguistic shift can be viewed in the context of a worldwide sociocultural push to make language less gendered, and more inclusive of those who fit outside the gender binary.
For instance, in 2019, “they” was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a single-person pronoun, which can be used for either an individual who identifies as nonbinary or to indicate that one’s gender is unspecified (i.e. “Each student submitted their essay”). The Swedish language recently gained the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” as an alternative to hon (“she”) and han (“he”). Though these linguistic changes have been met with considerable pushback from traditionalists, they are steadily gaining traction among the public.
Above all, this debate has prompted a deeper look at the way language shapes thought. When we look at a mixed group of men and women and default to the masculine form to refer to them, are we implicitly reinforcing the idea of men being more valued? Why do we use “mankind” to refer to humans in general? As society moves forward and continues to challenge longstanding gender norms, these questions may merit further introspection.
Information comes from The Washington Post, NPR, Vox, and Babbel