Gender: a social or grammatical issue?

In modern times, the use of gender in Spanish has become a controversial political and social football as society tries to include male and female genders (and other possibilities in the gender spectrum) in its speech and texts. Traditionally—and some would say correctly in grammatical terms—the masculine form has been used to refer to a group of people if both men and women are present, for example. However, with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s new cabinet including more women than men, some now argue that as a group they should be referred to as “ministras” (the feminine form of minister in Spanish), since women are the majority in the group. The prescriptive boffins at the Royal Spanish Academy disagree.

 

The more left-leaning politicians in Spain usually make the effort to refer to groups of people including both genders (e.g. “ministros y ministras”) anyhow, though after a while this can become tiresome for both the speaker and their audience, having to repeat essentially the same nouns every time they are mentioned. There is also the problem that some forms are indeed technically neutral (e.g. trabajadores (workers), jueces (judges)), yet some people insist on “inventing” a feminine form to specifically include women (e.g. trabajadoras, juezas), when in theory they would already have been included in the neutral form. This may also unnecessarily create a social problem where none existed before. Surely if we call a judge a “judgess” or a worker a “workeress” we are creating an unnecessary division that didn’t exist before? One company in Córdoba even went as far as to pay their “workeresses” (trabajadoras) less than the men because they weren’t specifically referred to in the female form in their contract. This is a ludicrous example where a technically neutral noun form was shamefully assumed only to refer to men, taking advantage of the social habit of “inventing” a female plural form where none existed before. And therein lies the potential danger of constantly dividing up the genders in language: if we give workers and “workeresses” different names, then why not different salaries, different rights…? To avoid this problem, do we have to specifically mention the female form (or invent one if it doesn’t already exist) every time we refer to groups of people? And what about other gender categories that one should consider in the gender spectrum in future? Will we need to mention five or six gender categories every time we refer to a group of people so that nobody feels left out?

 

Of course, English-speakers technically have it easier than Spanish-speakers because nouns referring to people mostly don’t have genders. In fact, it is curious to see that in English the all-gender-inclusive trend uses completely the opposite solution to the one mostly favoured in Spanish, by removing genders altogether. This can be seen, for example, in the more extensive use of “actor” to the detriment of “actress” for female artists. In addition to making the language simpler and less repetitive, this does away with the potential problem of unnecessarily dividing up the genders.

 

So why can’t we go the same way in Spanish? The problem, after all, is a grammatical one, not necessarily a social one. A phone in Spanish is masculine (el teléfono), whereas a TV is feminine (la televisión). But what on earth does this have to do with human genders? Clearly nothing. The fact is that we are talking about a purely grammatical category, not a biological or social one. It doesn’t even need to be referred to as “gender”; we could just as easily call it a “noun class” and its different related parts of speech “inflections”. Perhaps if we start to refer to ministro/ministra as simple inflections due to the noun class, we could finally stop arguing about it and concentrate on the very real gender issues among humans.

 

© Gary Smith 2018.

(Photo by Cory Woodward on Unsplash)