December 17, 2019
Teens in Argentina push for a gender-neutral Spanish language
by Alyea Canada
Language evolves much slower than vocabulary. It is something the average person probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about, but the question of gendered language is a large part of the global debate around gender. As feminist movements and the visibility of nonbinary people grow, gender-neutral language is becoming more of a mainstream issue. I’m sure most readers are aware of debate over whether or not singular pronoun “they” is grammatically correct despite its constant use in casual conversation. (A use which was formally added to Merriam-Webster this year.) However, for languages such as French, German, and Spanish that assign gender to almost all nouns, gender-neutral language stands out more as an aberration.
Samantha Schmidt wrote an excellent piece for the Washington Post about Argentine teens creating a gender-neutral Spanish by replacing “o” or “a” with “e.” So amigos becomes amiges, bienvenidos–bienvenides, todas–todes, and so forth. This new gender-neutral Spanish garnered mainstream attention about two years ago when teenage activist Natalia Mira was interviewed on the news about abortion rights and used “e” casually despite correction from the news anchor. Mira and her peers have been using this Spanish for years and even some older adults have adopted it as well. In addition, five universities, judges, and even the president of Argentina accept and use gender-neutral Spanish.
Unsurprisingly, there is resistance to the language’s evolution. On Twitter the Royal Spanish Academy has declared all gender-neutral changes “unnecessary and artificial,” and more conservative Spanish speakers are stuck on the usual debates over grammar and tradition. But there is also resistance among some feminists who believe that the movement should amplify women’s voices through the use of feminine words. The gender-neutral “e” isn’t the first attempt to correct the Spanish language’s rigid gender. Fixes such as the “x” in Latinx, or use of @ to include the “o” and “a” have appeared online and in activist writing for years both in English and Spanish. But for Mira and others these corrections either don’t sound as conversational or still rely on a gender binary.
While Mira unfortunately suffered threats and aggressive online attacks in the wake of her 2018 interview, “e” seems to be spreading across Argentina. As our vocabulary continues to be reevaluated in the wake of social change it seems like language needs a closer look as well.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.