Ungendered Spanish

by jefftkjefftk2 min read7th Dec 20199 comments

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Philosophy of Language
Personal Blog

Spanish has gramatical gender in a way English doesn't:

una amiga ruidosa — a loud (female) friend
un amigo ruidoso — a loud (male) friend
unas amigas ruidosas — some loud (female) friends
unos amigos ruidosos — some loud (not-all-female) friends

I remember when I was studying Spanish, learning the rule that even if you had a hundred girls and one boy you would use the male plural. My class all thought this was very sexist and unfair, but our teacher told us we were misapplying American norms and intuitions.

It's been interesting, ~twenty years later, following the development of gender-neutral ‑e:

unes amigues ruidoses — some loud friends

(Some Spanish language sources, English language sources.)

Spanish gender-neutral ‑e has something in common with English singular they that makes me optimistic about it: a decent path through which it could become a standard and unremarkable part of the language. For they this has looked like:

  • Existing long-standing use in someone and everyone constructions: someone lost their fork.

  • Usage expands into more generic constructions: I hear you have a new lab partner; what are they like?

  • Many non-binary people adopt it as their pronoun. People get practice referring to specific named individuals with it: Pat said they might be early.

  • Usage expands into cases where the person's gender is not relevant: The person who gave me a ride home from the dance last night doesn't take care of their car.

  • [prediction] Usage expands to where people use they unless they specifically want to emphasize gender.

Unlike the alternatives, amigos y amigas, amigxs, amig@s, and amig*s, gender-netural ‑e fits well with spoken Spanish. Reading articles from a while ago it seems strange to me that this wasn't seen as more of a priority before? Still there's now something of a path for it to enter the language as it's generally spoken:

  • Existing long-standing use in words like estudiante, though still with gendered articles and agreement (los estudiantes ruidosos).

  • Usage starts as an inclusive plural: Les estudiantes ruidoses.

  • Usage also starts with non-binary people: Presento a Sol, mi espose.

  • Usage expands to when the individual isn't known: Necesito une amigue...

  • Usage expands to when the gender isn't known: No puedo adivinar el género de le maestre por su voz.

  • [prediction] Usage expands to when the speaker doesn't want to specify gender for whatever reason.

  • [prediction] Usage expands to where people use ‑e unless they specifically want to emphasize gender.

My Spanish is pretty bad, and the cultural issues are probably different in ways I'm missing as well, but I'm very curious to see where this goes.

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My perception as a nonbinary is that this order of events makes things difficult

Many non-binary people adopt it as their pronoun. People get practice referring to specific named individuals with it: Pat said they might be early.
Usage expands into cases where the person's gender is not relevant: The person who gave me a ride home from the dance last night doesn't take care of their car.

Edit: A more succinct way of saying this is; making the neutral pronoun mean "third gender" will make it harder for it to come to mean "indeterminate gender", although The Third Gender is often defined as indeterminacy, I'm not sure how true or obvious that is for a lot of nbs

Having the nonbinary identity enter public consciousness seems to have caused the neutral pronoun to take on a weight and colour that makes it harder to apply it to non-nonbinary people. In English, since use in situations where gender is irrelevant is already grammatical, so I'd guess this has a negligible effect on usage (though it does seem to have caused a notable amount of brain inflammation in terfs and reactionaries that I must mention but probably shouldn't go into depth about), but in a different place, seems like this might be more of a thing

If you make it about identity first, gender-neutral terms become charged, and the second phase of making them common and truly neutral and uncharged will be delayed.

Some other force I'm not aware of could overwhelm these ones. I just find it a little hard to imagine. Oh well. Most cultural shifts, at some point, were hard to imagine.

But, as an alternative: The internet is an environment where reference-without-knowing-gender is likely to frequently occur. Maybe it would be better to start by advocating the use of genderless pronouns on spanish internet as a default, and talk about why that's important for everyone (why is it important for everyone?), and then start talking about nonbinary people later.

Having the nonbinary identity enter public consciousness seems to have caused the neutral pronoun to take on a weight and colour that makes it harder to apply it to non-nonbinary people. In English, since use in situations where gender is irrelevant is already grammatical, so I'd guess this has a negligible effect on usage (though it does seem to have caused a notable amount of brain inflammation in terfs and reactionaries that I must mention but probably shouldn't go into depth about), but in a different place, seems like this might be more of a thing

This isn't how I think the path of 'they' has gone in English? Using it where gender is irrelevant is super new ("my friend said they might be late") and felt wrong to me ten years ago. Having there be specific individuals who go by 'they' feels like it has done a lot to get people to practice and be comfortable with 'they', though it's possible I'm paying too much attention to my local communities?

It's interesting to hear that, I didn't realise that much change had occurred.

I would guess that the normalisation would have come from people spending a lot of time online/being in more situations where they don't want to and don't have to disclose a person's gender. Hm. I can see how the "they seem queer, don't want to assume their gender" might have promoted adoption by a lot.

Lucky they had the "-e" available.

(I don't suppose a language would exhaust all vowels by having five genders, but I could imagine a language were e.g. all "female" words are randomly assigned endings "-a", "-e", "-i", and all "male" words are randomly assigned endings "-o", "-u", and there is no gender-neutral vowel left.)

Portuguese uses the same vowels terminations for genders, but our articles are a simple 'a or 'o' (instead of 'la' 'lo') and we also use 'e' as the and connector. It means that the vowels 'i' and 'u' would still free for the third gender, but we do some vocal accommodation orally (I'm not sure about the correct linguist term) and often the sound 'e' becomes 'i' and 'o' becomes 'u' (it does not happen the other way). Because of that, all of our vowels are already "taken" with just two genders.

I found it fascinating that it works so well in Spanish and not at all in Portuguese, even with both languages being very similar (I feel that Portuguese is slightly more gendered than Spanish).

Would words like jefe (boss) have to be changed to jefo to specify a male boss? Currently, el jefe is a male boss or a boss without their gender being specified....except that it kinda does specify because it is not la jefa, female boss.

I suspect it would be "le jefe" / "les jefes", with no changes to existing gendered forms.

The 'le' would need to be created in the language and used to mean a non-gender specific human then? Does this then follow; el jefe male boss, la jefa female boss, le jefe non gender specific boss? Would this flow onto all the gendered words in the language, la oficina (the office) becomes le oficine for example? I am guessing you would save the le for humans or you end up changing the entire language. le nine for non-gender specific child maybe?

You don't need to make inanimate words gender neutral, so no need for "le oficine". But yes, "le niñe".