The Gender-Sensitive Evolution of Languages

One of the characteristics that makes the English language such an easy-to-learn and accessible language is – from a grammatical perspective – its neutrality when using masculine and feminine nouns, and more importantly, articles. Latin languages (such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese) are gender-sensitive languages, where the differentiation between masculine and feminine is evident. Anybody who is a native speaker of one of these languages realizes how easy it is to learn English when compared to the struggles native English speakers undergo when using articles and matching them to their gender-like nouns.

Translators are prone to make mistakes classified as gender disagreements, which of course clients would not accept. It is important to be aware of such details, we want to satisfy our clients’ needs and deliver an accurate translation so, it is important to put ourselves in their shoes, so let’s go a bit deeper into the topic. There are many gender variations from one language to the other, despite talking about related Romance languages. For example, in Spanish, the noun “car” is masculine and it is preceded by a masculine article, i.e., “el auto,” but in French, it is feminine and it is preceded by a feminine article, i.e., “la voiture.” This can be pretty tricky to wrap your head around, let alone learn if you are not a native speaker of one of those languages. We even encounter many irregular nouns and articles which do not always match even within the same language, for example, because of “cacophony.” The Spanish article “el” and the noun “agua” or “area” (water and area in English) do not follow the gender-matching rule. Both “agua” and “area” are feminine, so why are they preceded by a masculine article? The answer is actually quite logical. In order to avoid a double “a” sound (“la-agua”), which is much trickier to pronounce—and which would also sound like the word “lagua”, a delicious thick Bolivian corn soup—the simplest solution is to use the masculine article “el”. However, since “agua” is innately feminine, the word’s gender doesn’t change, which means that the correct way to utilize it in a sentence would look something like this: “el agua está fría” (the water is cold).

When comparing English to Spanish, in regard to gender-related nouns, some rules regarding the gender-sensitive nature of the Spanish language seem to be changing. The RAE (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language), the main regulator of the language, has been updating the use of certain gender-related nouns. In English, there are not many nouns that can be used exclusively for masculine or feminine subjects – such as professions or occupations, the use of nouns such as Architect, Engineer, Lawyer, just to name a few, are used for both genders. There are only some exceptions when it comes to specifying gender – such as Male nurse, Policewoman, etc. The Spanish language does, however, differentiate gender when it comes to such nouns – we find “Arquitecto” & “Arquitecta,” “Ingeniero” & “Ingeniera,” and “Abogado” & “Abogada.” Although there are some language purists who are against such differentiation, the RAE has started to include and accept these gender modifications.

It can be argued that the Spanish language is a representation of the chauvinistic nature of Latin languages, and with the current movement championing the equal role of women in society, there is now, more than ever, a very strong case for it. Purists may argue otherwise, but just as humans have done over centuries, languages also have a right to evolve.