Is Your Language All-Inclusive?

Is it fair to say that a language is non-inclusive or sexist? Most languages (mainly those derived from Latin and Greek) have a somewhat special quirk: grammatical gender. For example, one of the tricky things when learning French as a second language – at least for Spanish speakers – is when the same word has the opposite gender in the other language (where we can find uses such as “el auto” (the car, masculine) in Spanish, and “la voiture” (the car, feminine) in French), where some/most of the articles would change due to noun-gender. If this is tricky for Spanish speakers, it is even more so for English speakers when learning either one of these two languages, as English uses no grammatical gender.

Now, the idea of a defined gender is changing rapidly in this day and age. The LGBT community, for example, has been challenging “the norm” in this regard for a long time, finally getting the recognition they deserve. We are now listening to new terms related to gender or sex, although not all “legally” accepted. There’s a legal void when it comes to being inclusive. Laws still have different provisions for men and for women in terms of pensions, retirement age, and marriage (still defined as two-non-same-gender union, specifically between a man and a woman). So, what happens to people who identify themselves as Third or Non-Binary, Intersexual, Agender, Bigender, Genderqueer, Queer heterosexuals, etc.? People who don’t identify with a specific gender go by “they”/ “them” instead of “he”/ “she” or “him” / “her;” which, as we go back into grammatical gender, can still present a bit of a challenge if we speak a “non-neutral” language.

As far as language being inclusive, going beyond mere noun-gender issues, one of many debates regarding the use of Spanish out there is the neutrality – or lack thereof – of the language as a whole. The Spanish language is regarded as one of the most sexist and non-inclusive languages out there, where the masculine form of words, evident in the use of the plural forms of nouns (and some pronouns) as the norm (i.e.: “nosotros” to refer to every one of us in a group, regardless of gender, instead of “nosotras” where the latter implies women only), does not extend to women and the feminine form. Although feminine forms are being included when using plural nouns, but many linguists feel they unnecessarily overfill the language. When referring to someone’s relatives, we see hijos (children), padres (parents), abuelos (grandparents), so we’d have to always write hijos(as), padres y madres, and abuelo(as) to be more inclusive. Try being inclusive when translating ‘cousin,’ or ‘sibling’ from English into Spanish; there’s a way, but women might be against it. Another good example of over extending protocol and speech is seen in the Venezuelan constitution, where the forms presidente, presidenta, ministros, ministras, viceministros, viceministras are used to formally address government members (bureaucracy represented by a greeting that takes longer than actually debating an issue).

Gender inequality is part of a more insidious inequality problem, so why throw languages into the mix? Because languages are regarded as living-ever-changing entities, why shouldn’t they evolve at the same pace human relations and cultural evolution do? Sometimes languages try to be somewhat giving and provide us with certain attempts to equality, as it is the case of Spanish where Tie ([la] corbata) is feminine and Dress ([el] vestido) is masculine.

On the other hand, translating into English can be a delight when we think about it as a genderless language. Some might say that English holds, among its many advantages, the title of most (or one of the most) inclusive languages out there. If we don’t want to be caught in an “Am I covering everyone in my speech?” dilemma, just use the word ‘person’ and you’ll get away with murder. Policeman, Fireman, Businessman, etc., can easily be replaced by Policeperson, Fireperson, Businessperson and you’ll be OK. Maybe the only noun/profession that is normally related to the feminine form is Nurse, which, as it is always assumed to identify a person of the female gender, we use “Male” Nurse to establish a difference, clearly opposite to the “machismo” inherent in gendered languages.

So, should we dare to say that inclusiveness in a language shows somehow how inclusive society is? Are English-speaking people more open and inclusive than Spanish-speakers? Maybe, as Latin America still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality. Let’s hope languages evolve at the same speed society seems to be changing.