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.

"Look after your language, it says it all'. Illustration cover of a document produced by the Instituto Asturiano de la Mujer, only available in Spanish.

“Look after your language, it says it all”. Illustration cover of a document produced by the Instituto Asturiano de la Mujer. For a pdf copy of the document,  only available in Spanish: click here.

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[1] had the power of life or death over his children and wife[2] and of his slaves[3].

The XII Tablets were the ancient Roman legislation. A set  of definitions of private rights and procedures.

The XII Tablets were the ancient Roman legislation. A set of definitions of private rights and procedures.

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”.

La niña y el niño.

La niña y el niño.

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.

Cover of the document published in 1995, by the The Women Institute’s Language Advisory Commission: Nombra.

Cover of the document published in 1995, by the The Women Institute’s Language Advisory Commission: Nombra.

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.[4] 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.”[5]

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.

Cartoon mocking the phrase "you're prettier when you keep quiet".

Cartoon mocking the phrase “you’re prettier when you keep quiet”.

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.

April 2015

— — —

[1] The páter familias.

[2] The vitae nevisque potestas.

[3] Slaves were sub manu, that is “under the hand of their owner”.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.


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About hoxton spanish tutor info

Hi, my name is Adrian Sanchez. I am passionate about words and languages, particularly Spanish, the language I learned at my mother’s knee. I am curious about how languages change and evolve. I am a qualified Spanish Teacher (CLTA) and a journalist. I have taught in literacy campaigns in Latin America and given Spanish tuition in Spain and in the UK. I would like to share some of my thoughts on the Spanish language; and particularly on what I have learned from my students, who in many ways have become my teachers throughout the years. Spanish is a vast and beautiful language and I would like you to accompany me on a journey of discoveries, so I will be presenting two blogs per month and I would like to hear from you. Here is a link to my webpage: You can visit my blog here: Email: Thank you!

14 responses to “Finding Creative and Positive Ways to Transform a Language”

  1. amapola says :

    Excellent post!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth Melton Parsons says :

    Fascinating. Fortunately attitudes have changed, but not so much as we’d like to believe. After all it is still a world ruled by men, even though there have been many women rulers. In the US we’ve never had a woman president. Only 35 have ever even given it a go and only two of them won nominations. The majority of men the world over have always and probably always will believe women are inferior . What they may not realize is that most women secretly or openly know men are inferior. Interesting look at language. Thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. teagan geneviene says :

    I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of other languages, so I won’t speak to how languages are set-up. However, I am not ashamed of being a woman. I certainly believe in EQUALITY, equal pay for equal work, every form of equality. I DO see myself as a feminist.
    However, terms that indicate gender do not offend me, because I don’t think i’m less, just for being a woman. English has pronouns, he, she, it… Speaking clearly without using them is difficult.
    What does offend me is derogatory terms. And women who call themselves feminists engage in them too… Particularly the word “sweet”… “You’re so sweet.” To me that is such a condescending term.(Unless it is from someone truly very close to you.)
    Nice post, Adrian. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hoxton spanish tutor info says :

      Hi Teagan. Your views are highly appreciated. Like you, I believe in equality. Any derogative terms and ways that take away visibility or concealed the presence of women should be identified and challenged in a manner that could set a way forward to a gylanic society: that is a social system based on the equality of women and men. Thank you! Adrián

      Liked by 2 people

  4. David Bennett says :

    My Spanish is very poor, so I wonder if you could explain why Lenguaje is used rather than Lengua in ‘Comisión Asesora sobre el Lenguaje del Instituto de la Mujer’ ?

    As for the use of the male form rather than doubling up, it has always baffled me why languages attribute gender to the names of things that do not have a gender – such as a table or a room. Part of me wonders what arcane perceptions these ancients had…

    Liked by 1 person

    • hoxton spanish tutor info says :

      Dear David

      in Spanish ‘lengua’ refers to the code, oral or written linguistics signs spoken by a community; whilst ‘lenguaje’ is the way in which that ‘lengua’ is used, according to different registers and genres. Therefore, it is more appropriate to use the term ‘lenguaje’ rather than ‘lengua’ in the manner that the Women Institute’s Commission does.

      As you said, regarding languages that attributes gender to things that are not genitally determined, this comes from an ancient period in pre-history. I stated in a previous article:

      “At some point during the Stone Age our Eurasian ancestors developed two different ways of living and thinking. One was agricultural and the other pastoral. One sedentary and the other nomadic. Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian archeologist, named these agricultural people living in southeastern Europe: Old Europe.

      From the clash of these two ways of living, in time, the Indo European languages emerged, giving birth to, amongst others: Germanic and Italic dialects, from where English and Spanish originate. (From my article Genesis published 14.08.14, click here).”

      Then, I would like to refer you to the fourth paragraph of this article, which follows up what I have stated above.

      If you would like to read more about this fascinating subject, I would recommend you read The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler; which provides an overview on this subject in the first chapters; and of course any or all of the books written by antropologist Marija Gimbutas.

      I hope this is useful, thank you for contacting me and keep in touch.


      Liked by 1 person

  5. Shards Of DuBois says :

    Just wanted to pop in and say thank you…. I took Spanish in High School and twice in college, and NEITHER time did the teacher point out this was a male based language. I could NEVER comprehend why everything was male this and male that…when it was clearly female at times ….. and I can’t believe my teachers didn’t explain it. I was confused from day one, And never did pass any of the classes I took because of it. BUT now I see what you mean…. and it is SO easy to explain…. I can’t imagine why they didn’t!!! In just two short paragraphs you explained it perfectly…. and I feel like NOW I could go back and take it again, and maybe pass this time!! Not comprehending it… kept me from following my dreams at a university… and I am too old to do it now… which begs the question… why the hell didn’t they explain it. Clearly two teachers with zero teaching ability if you ask me!! Thanks again for clearing it up for me!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • hoxton spanish tutor info says :

      Dear Deborah

      Thank you for your kind comments.

      Learning a new language always brings challenges that we have to overcome with patience and with resilient attitude at times.

      In my case, I found motivation to learn languages for my travels and jobs. When learning a language in context, we discover the culture and new ways of thinking.

      I believe it is never too late to learn a language, particularly now that it has been pointed out that learning a language may slow down the ageing of our brain.

      Thank you again.


      Liked by 1 person

  6. Julie Sopetrán says :

    Me encanta tu blog Adrián. Gracias por seguirme. Es un honor para mi. Un abrazo. Julie


  7. sheldonk2014 says :

    Thank you


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