NiLP Guest Commentary
The Case Against Non-Sexist Spanish
By José A. Cobas
The NiLP Report
I was a university professor in the United States for thirty-six years and in the course of my career was exposed to efforts of Latino scholars to avoid sexist Spanish. I disagree with such efforts for reasons that I discuss below.
Spanish grammar distinguishes sexo (masculine and feminine) from género (masculine and feminine). Although both have the same two categories,sexo refers to male-female distinctions in reproductive functions while género is a linguistic property in a language that has no necessary connection with biological sex.
In Spanish, as is the case in many languages, the masculine form of a noun is generic because it may be used irrespective of sex. It is the default category. For example, "Los empleados deben venir" (Employees must come) may refer to male employees only or to male and female employees together. The Real Academia Española [The Spanish Royal Academy] is the highest authority on the Spanish language and asserts that the generic use of male-gendered nouns is not sexist because they refer to both males and females. ("Persona" [person or individual], "gente" [people] and "familia" are grammatically feminine but include both men and women.)
Some feminist critics disagree with the Academia and call the "generic " masculine sexist when it applies to living beings such as people, because it does not include women explicitly. They advocate that the generic masculine should be avoided. This is not difficult to do in Spanish. The Comisión de Mujeres y Ciencia [Commission of Women and Science] posted a brief but excellent document on sexist language that recommends ways of avoiding the generic masculine. For example, instead of saying "Los Americanos" [generic masculine] they recommend "El pueblo Americano" ["Pueblo" is not sexist. It refers to a category of people] and instead of "Amigos" [generic masculine] they prefer "Amistades"[again a category of people.]
My co-authors and I follow the Comisión's recommendation in the title of our forthcoming book, Latino Peoples in the New America: Racialization and Resistance.
Although non-sexist language is often not difficult to construct in Spanish, purportedly non-sexist forms of Spanish that American scholars use are a different story. They ignore the rules of Standard Spanish completely (more about the importance of Standard Spanish later). They are artificially constructed from an American point of view to advance an ideology. They are nonsensical.
American scholars focus on word endings and depend heavily on the slash method. This is viewed as "inclusive" because it links masculine and feminine endings, that is, "o" and "a," by means of a slash. (For the record, some Spanish masculine nouns end in "a" [el día, day] and some feminine nouns end in "o" [la mano, hand]). These scholars will use expressions such as Chicano/a faculty and Latin@ students when non-sexist alternatives that conform to Standard Spanish are available, such as "Chicano faculty" and "Latino student body." They will write "Latino/a Studies" even though "Studies" is an inanimate object and the issue of language sexism is not relevant.
A relatively new approach, the use of Latinix, represents an effort to avoid the "binary" gender by avoiding final vowels altogether. This is a neologism unrelated to standard Spanish, which unfortunately is drawing some attention in the American media.
All of these approaches represent American perspectives that are alien to Spanish. Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea make this point lucidly in their Swarthmore student newspaper:
"This is problematic for many reasons. It serves as a prime example of how English speakers can't seem to stop imposing their social norms on other cultures. It seems that U.S. English speakers came upon Spanish, deemed it too backwards compared to their own progressive leanings, and rather than working within the language to address any of their concerns, 'fixed' it from a foreign perspective that has already had too much influence on Latino and Latin American culture. The vast majority of people in Latin America from personal experience, would likely be confused and even offended by this attempt to dictate for them how their language is to be structured and how they ought to manage their social constructs."
American scholarly publications follow standard Latin in gendered words such as alumni. I think that standard Spanish should be followed as well. Spanish became a racialized language after the seizure of Mexican territory following the war between the United States and Mexico. There were efforts to eradicate Spanish. Spanish is commonly defined as a language that does not belong in the United States: Spanish speakers are commonly told "This is America, speak English." Spanish is commonly mocked in the popular culture: "no problemo," "buenos nachos," and "José can you" see are common examples. The definition of Spanish as un-American has received a boost with the election of Donald Trump.
Spanish needs respect and its legitimacy affirmed in this country, particularly at this point in time. Even though the proponents of non-sexist Spanish are not malicious, their efforts are counterproductive. There are ways of avoiding sexist Spanish that fall within the purview of Standard Spanish. Let's use them.
There is a last element to be considered: Non-sexist language is a major issue in US universities. Although sexist language in Spanish can be avoided grammatically, many US scholars choose to address the issue as they see fit and "resolve the problem" by creating neolgisms involving at signs, slashes and vowels that are nonsensical. This is not good for the Spanish language which has been mistreated in this country for such a long time. Let's respect it.
José A. Cobas is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Arizona State University. He is the co-author of "Latinos Facing Racism: Discrimination, Resistance, and Endurance" (2014), "How the United States Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences" (2009), "Cubans in Puerto Rico: Ethnic Economy and Cultural Identity" (1997), and the forthcoming "Latino Peoples in the New America: Racialization and Resistance" (2018). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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