In June 2018, student activist Natalia Mira made headlines in Argentina when she used gender-inclusive language in a televised interview.
The 17-year-old was speaking on an upcoming parliamentary vote to legalize abortion and referred to the government representatives, which included both men and women, in a gender-inclusive form that’s not yet grammatically accepted, but often used by younger generations.
LGBTQ and feminist activists have spearheaded a movement to use the letter “e” to diverge from the binary structure of masculine "o" or feminine "a" in Spanish and other Romance Languages. But the Royal Spanish Academy, the leading authority on Spanish grammar and vocabulary, has yet to recognize the need for this shift.
Mira was quickly cut off by the male journalist interviewing her, who told her that in school he had “been taught Spanish.” The exchange sparked a national conversation about language that later extended to other Spanish-speaking countries.
For Spanish speakers, talking in gender-inclusive terms is more challenging than for English speakers. For starters, Spanish — like many other Romance languages — is especially binary: Every pronoun, adjective and noun is gendered. And its plural form, when referring to a mixed group of people (even if it’s mostly women and just one man), is often the masculine “o.” But some Spanish speakers, like Mira, are trying to change that.
For years, the “@” symbol or the letter “x” has been used in an attempt to be more inclusive — sometimes even in an English context, where the terms Latino and Latina are often replaced with Latinx. Yet, for some, these forms have flaws: the "@" symbol is still binary — it represents both the masculine “o” and the feminine “a," and the “x” in Spanish can be difficult to pronounce.
The Royal Spanish Academy, founded in 1713 by Spain’s King Felipe V with the goal of “uniting the Spanish-speaking world,” all of which was ruled by Spain at the time, has yet to accept the growing movement to make Spanish more gender-inclusive with the use of the "e" suffix.
And to this day, the academy continues to be a point of reference for the more than 500 million Spanish speakers worldwide. Every year, dozens of academics and linguists meet in Madrid to update its official dictionary; this year’s newcomers are "coronavirus" and "deescalation."
When it comes to gender-inclusive language, though, the Royal Spanish Academy says the form is “artificial and unnecessary” because the masculine-plural already encompasses all genders. Rosalía Vázquez, a copy editor in Ecuador, says grammatically speaking, the academy is correct.
But language isn’t dictated by what an institution says — it’s dictated by how people speak, Vázquez added.
“The most wonderful thing about language is that if people speak a certain way, it inevitably becomes the rule. ... Because language belongs to the people.”
“The most wonderful thing about language is that if people speak a certain way, it inevitably becomes the rule,” Vázquez said. “Because language belongs to the people.”
The Royal Spanish Academy is slow to accept new words or linguistic trends. Its role is to observe what’s going on in various countries and once enough people use a word or syntax, add it to the dictionary.
Vázquez says the very foundation of the academy lies in standardizing the Spanish language. By the 18th century, Spain had noticed that the Spanish being spoken in Latin America was beginning to mix with Indigenous words, creating a fusion of languages. In an attempt to unify the Spanish from Madrid, the monarchy created the academy and enforced a set of rules.
“The academy is a colonialist institution,” Vázquez said. “No one can deny it. It was born when [Spain] colonized the Americas and imposed their language.”
Over the centuries, the academy has modernized. It’s come to accept words like chachay, derived from the Indigenous Quechuan language, used in Ecuador to express a cold sensation (much like the English “brrr”). But the academy’s members are still predominately male, white and European.
“The Royal Spanish Academy still has a long way to go before really being inclusive,” Vázquez said.
Since Mira’s 2018 interview went viral, the gender-inclusive “e” has been increasingly heard in Argentina. The form not only works in the plural to include everyone — for example, “Latines” instead of “Latinos,” but in the singular as well — “Latine” instead of Latino or Latina.
Linguistics researcher María Soledad Funes at the University of Buenos Aires says this is crucial because it allows nonbinary people to be included as well.
"... These things take time. And more so if it’s a morphological change because that implies a change to the whole grammatical system.”
“We don’t know yet if this form will stick, or if it will morph into something else, or if it will be lost entirely,” Funes said. “But these things take time. And more so if it’s a morphological change because that implies a change to the whole grammatical system.”
While most linguistic trends develop organically, Funes says this one is particular because it’s being done consciously. Most people who use the “e” form do so for political or social reasons — as a protest against centuries of gendered language or to promote full inclusivity on the gender spectrum.
Last year, a council of magistrates in Buenos Aires declared all judges could use gender-inclusive language. And many Argentine universities, like the one Funes teaches at, have accepted its use in official school work as well as communication forums.
Politicians are also publicly using the “e” form. Shortly before winning the election in October 2019, Argentine President Alberto Fernández referred to a group of high school students in the feminine, masculine and nonbinary form.
“This shows us that language is linked to power,” said linguist Elena Pérez, from the University of Córdoba, in Argentina. “The way we speak can affect the way we see the world and the way we treat others.”
In Argentina, a country polarized by politics, there’s been a lot of rejection of gender-inclusive language in part because it’s associated with leftist movements. But Pérez says that backlash also has to do with the taboo subject of sex and gender.
“[Sex and gender have] been so repressed, that we can barely even allude to it. ... The strongest insults in our language have to do with sex, particularly with female sexuality.”
“[Sex and gender have] been so repressed, that we can barely even allude to it,” Pérez said. “The strongest insults in our language have to do with sex, particularly with female sexuality.”
Despite its controversy, the gender-inclusive “e” form is increasingly being used in many Spanish speaking places, including Chile, Mexico, Spain and Puerto Rico.
Copy editor Vázquez, from Ecuador, says that with time, the Royal Spanish Academy will have no choice but to accept gender-inclusive language if enough people are using it. There are many ways to be inclusive in the Spanish language, she adds, and it’s a matter of agreeing on which form works best.
“Our culture is changing and no one can stop that,” Vázquez said. “What’s at risk here is the silencing of many people who want to name the world they see around them.”