Finding Creative and Positive Ways to Transform a Language
It is certain that the prevalence of the masculine gender in Spanish is a symptom of sexism within the language and this has been part of a serious scholarly and coffee-table debate for quite sometime. This debate has intensified in the last decades.
People used to speaking in their mother tongue in neutral terms find it a strange novelty that things, people, animals and ideas in Spanish are gender specific.In Spanish the masculine plural is used to describe any group with a male element in it. In doing this, the female component of the group gets overridden.
This is a reflection of an androcentric way of thinking that believes men are the centre of reference; and women are dependent beings who can be hidden or ignored. This is also the case in other languages, for example: French, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew.
Languages are a reflection of our sociocultural evolution and evolve constantly echoing the changes in culture. Spanish has mainly evolved from the Latin imposed by Rome. The Latin languages are the product of a sociocultural conception characterised by Roman hierarchical gender polarities, which promoted the concealment of women. It was under the ancient Roman law, the Law of the XII Tables, where the father had the power of life or death over his children and wife and of his slaves.
In the Spanish language we can also see the influence of Arabic in different semantic, morphological fields and culture; which along with the Judeo-Christian tradition, helped to minimise – or even eliminate – the presence of women as a social subject.
As stated in Vertigo, the masculine plural in Spanish is used to describe any group with a male element in it. For example, parents will refer to a daughter as “hija” and to a son as “hijo”, but when referring to all of them, eg.: two daughters and a son, they will use “hijos”, the plural of son. This is the case regardless of the ratio of the male to female gender.
Would it be a repetition to state los niños y las niñas (the boys and the girls), instead of calling them “los niños (the children masculine), when describing a group of girls and boys? Certainly not, because a repetition would be to mention the same thing twice. Boys and girls are not the same, ergo, it is appropriate to describe such a group as “las niñas y los niños”.
I recall that in the sixties and seventies ‘the Left’ in Latin America, discussed el hombre nuevo (the new man). This discussion paradoxically came with a message where the use of the generic “el hombre”, described a society composed by both, “hombres y mujeres” (men and women). This “egalitarian idealism” was falling short of the egalitarian use of language. Fortunately, some progress has been made in the political arena regarding gender issues, but still the battle continues.
Similarly, as with the previous example, a group of women and men, should be described as las mujeres y los hombres; las personas (the persons); los seres humanos (human kind). Nothing simpler, as to describe a world, naming what is feminine and masculine.
Nombra is a document published in 1995, by the Comisión Asesora sobre el Lenguaje del Instituto de la Mujer, The Women Institute’s Language Advisory Commission, which could be considered a benchmark of excellence for other materials published subsequently; due to the fact that it brings a set of useful recommendations for a non-sexist language.
It also clearly defines the function of a word: A word cannot mean something or a whole that is different than named, and women and men are different. And further on states: “The sexual difference lies in the world, it is not the language which creates it. What the language should do is simply name it, because it already exists. If we consider that men and women have the same right to exist; failure to name this difference is not respecting one of their fundamental rights: the existence and representation of that existence in the language.”
Nombra poses a review of concepts linked to androcentric forms of language. It looks at the use of the Spanish language, which overlooks the sexual condition of humanity and the existence of women as autonomous and free subjects with their own voice.
There is a duty to make every effort to point out unambiguously the uses of language by tutors, language students in particular; and those whose mother tongue is Spanish. Promoting equality and respect of gender, regardless of beliefs that deny visibility and equality to all humans, must be a fundamental cornerstone of the way forward.
A language belongs to the people who use it. Finding creative ways to transform our language is the path to keeping it alive and current. Describing things truthfully will contribute to a better understanding of what constitutes society and should transform society for the better.
This is a follow up article to: Vertigo, published 28 Feb 2015.
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 The páter familias.
 The vitae nevisque potestas.
 Slaves were sub manu, that is “under the hand of their owner”.
 Free translation from Nombra (page 16): Una palabra no puede significar un algo o un todo que es diferente de lo que nombra, y mujeres y hombres son diferentes.
 Free translation from Nombra (page 16) la diferencia sexual está dada en el mundo, no es el language quien la crea. Lo que debe hacer el lenguaje es, simplemente, nombrarla, porque ya existe. Si tenemos en cuenta que hombres y mujeres tenemos el mismo derecho a ser y existir el hecho de no nombrar esa diferencia, es no respetar uno de los derechos fundamentales: el de la existencia y de la representación de esa existencia en el lenguaje.