The post where I went on a tangent about gender issues garnered some interest so I thought I’d elaborate on the topic.
The main question is: how do we encompass non-male people when speaking generally, in a language where everything must have a gender—and the default gender is male?
For instance, if I want to address a group of young people, do I have an alternative to hola chicos, which imposes the male gender on all of them?
These are the solutions available to us.
Take a third route
Think outside the box and use a word for the collective: hola gente, mensaje para todo el alumnado, la reunión del profesorado, las preocupaciones de la ciudadanía. Incredibly effective and hassle-free.
Use the other gender
It used to be, or at least I remember so, that when the majority of he group was female, you could —should— use the female plural. I don’t know what happened to that, but in my own experience people do not remember that rule (if it ever existed) or just don’t care about it. It is one easy option, though, and it might raise the least eyebrows of all those in this article. It also only helps if you do know exactly the numbers in your audience, which is not that common, and you might want to include non gender-conforming people in your speech too. So what else?
Repeat the word
By far the most common solution for this: hola chicas y chicos, mis queridos y queridas amigos y amigas, las profesoras y profesores, los ciudadanos y ciudadanas, etc. Politicians do it all the time, often placing the feminine in front for extra points. If you want to go the safe route, pick this. Might irk some, but won’t stand out. It will also save you from the headaches that the other options can’t fix, like padres y madres.
I must now say that in generic formal letters, like the bank, it has always been common to use a slash for the opening salute: estimado/a señor/a, queridos/as alumnos/as. It has never really expanded beyond that, I think mostly because it looks ugly to pepper a text with slashes for every word. So it’s confined to things like forms (nacido/a en) and other official documents, where it’s considered perfectly fine.
Ok, this was the last stop before we cross the line into the land of make-believe. Venturing beyond this paragraph will positively fail you exams!
Ready? Then let’s address this problem head on and face the vowel.
Change the vowel
The vowel is key in this whole discussion. Languages like English can go long just picking a neutral pronoun—but in Spanish every noun and adjective is gendered and most of them are marked with -o- and -a-. So even though the pronoun is not that important, because it is skipped the vast majority of times, every other word is. So what can we do about that vowel?
The at sign
A clever typographic trick: an @ is like an «a» and an «o» at the same time. So: chic@s, amig@s, ciudadan@s. Also quite common, but not as formal. Still seen as inappropriate. It doesn’t always work (*profesor@s, or in cuidados del niñ@ notice how the contraction is still masculine), and can’t be directly read. If you do write it as such, you are supposed to read it expanded, as above: amigos y amigas.
Solves the problem (it can stand for any vowel, so profesorxs works) and it doesn’t force a gender binary, which makes it the best choice for some groups. Morphologically it’s a mess, it can’t be read, and if you expand it orally you once again fall back on the gender binary you wanted to avoid. Also common, but less that the others. Will cause more rage.
Other option I’ve seen thrown around is to always use «e» (because it’s halfway between «a» and «o»), but it fails to accomplish anything with words like profesores, and in the end, saying amigues, ciudadanes, chiques feels like you are doing a poor impression of Asturian.
I’ve also seen people arguing for «i», as “it looks like a person seen from afar, without any judgement on their characteristics”, but I’ve never seen anybody actually using it.
So that’s the status quo right now. I honestly think it’s very, very difficult to completely “fix” this problem in Spanish and I’m not even sure it can be done better than the options we already have (but I will be glad to be proved wrong).
- If you are ok with working around the problem, pick a collective noun: amistades, profesorado, ciudadanía.
- If you want to explicitly accommodate women in your speech and still be kind of proper, use both words: estáis todos y todas invitados e invitadas a mi fiesta, in whatever order you feel like.
- If it’s the above case but for something informal or relaxed, and you want to save space, you can try the @: estáis tod@s invitad@s a mi fiesta.
- If you absolutely don’t want to make anyone feel left behind, and be explicit about it, use the x, but beware of criticism: estáis todxs invitadxs a mi fiesta.
Originally published in Talk like a Spaniard.