S is for Sexist language

18 03 2012

You know the one about the judge who, on being shown the name of the culprit to be tried, said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’  Another judge was summoned, who – no sooner given the name of the culprit – said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’

How can this be?  Well, of course, one judge was the culprit’s father, the other his mother. (I’ve adapted this from an original which was about two surgeons, but you could create a similar puzzle involving two nurses, or two plumbers, or two manicurists, and so on).  The puzzle plays on the fact that, while in English most professions are not marked for gender, we are disposed to assume (foolishly, of course) that the representatives of certain professions are either male or female, by default.

The puzzle wouldn’t work in Spanish, where – apart from anything else – the determiner clearly flags the gender of el juez and la juez. (Not to mention the feminine ending, in the case of the relatively recent form: la jueza).

On the other hand, because the masculine form is the unmarked (i.e. the default) form, when you have a group of judges or architects or surgeons, they are automatically ‘masculinized’, whether or not the group includes any women members. So the puzzle becomes: Dos jueces caminaban por la calle, y los dos dijieron… (Two judges were walking down the street, and both said ‘That’s my son!’  etc).

That the masculine is the default form in Spanish accounts for all sorts of oddities, such as the fact that a parents’ association in Spain is una asociación de padres, even though the only people who attend are las madres. Or that, when you walk up to a crowded stall in the market, you ask ¿Quién es el último? (Who’s the [masculine] last?), even if the bulk of those in line are women.

The invisibility of women that is instantiated in such usages is, of course, way out of step both with reality and with feminist aspirations.  Consequently, this linguistic bias has prompted the publication, in Spanish as in English, of a number of ‘style guides’ that promote the use of non-sexist and inclusive language. The Spanish style guides, however, have irritated the self-appointed guardians of ‘la lengua’, i.e. the Real Academia Española (RAE), to the point that, a couple of weeks ago, a leading Spanish grammarian and lexicographer, Ignacio Bosque, was moved to write a long piece in the national press, signed by 24 of his fellow ‘academicians’, taking these style guides to task. Unsurprisingly, this put el gato (or la gata?) among las palomas (or los palomos?) and, as they say here, the debate was served.

The principle arguments levelled by the (mainly) male academicians at the (mainly) female style guide writers are that their recommendations are

  • inelegant
  • wrong
  • impractical
  • ineffectual
  • misconceived
  • ideological

Inelegance, it is true, often results from the doubling up of gender-marked nouns in the interests of inclusiveness (los hermanos y las hermanas de mi padre y mi madre son mis tíos y mis tías), and an extract from the Constitution of Venezuela that takes this trope to an extreme is quoted with derision.

But worse than inelegant, many of the recommendations are (according to Bosque) simply wrong, and ‘contravene the norms laid down by the RAE’.  In 2008 the then Minister for Equality was roundly mocked for addressing her parliamentary colleagues as ‘miembros y miembras’ (members). The RAE declared this attempt at greater visibility ‘incorrect’.  That coinages like miembra or jueza are wrong simply because they are coinages overlooks the fact that new words are being coined at an astonishing rate (8,500 English words a year, according to a recent study). Language changes, resist it as we may.

Of course, it is not always that easy to unpick the deeply embedded cognitive structures of a language, especially those encoded in its grammar. Attempts to invent gender-neutral pronouns in English have failed miserably. But change does occur, relentlessly, even at the level of grammar. Apart from a few residual suffixes, English lost its gender distinctions long ago, as did Persian, while some languages (e.g. French and, hey!, Spanish) collapsed a three-way distinction into two. Will there still be grammatical gender in Spanish in 500 years? Place your bets.

More serious is the charge that militating for non-sexist language is both ineffectual and misconceived. It’s ineffectual, according to the RAE, because you can’t legislate for language change, which is ironic, since this is exactly what the RAE (through its grammars and dictionaries) has always done. As Deborah Cameron (1990: 162) has argued, ‘defenders of “the language” regard language as their property’, and the tone of the Bosque article is very much ‘back off!’

And the movement for greater inclusiveness is misconceived, so the argument goes, because linguistic change does not effect social change: it merely reflects it. Again, Cameron (1990: 90) is eloquent on this subject:

Anti-feminists are fond of observing that eliminating generic masculine pronouns does not secure equal pay.  Indeed it does not – whoever said it would?  Eliminating generic masculine pronouns precisely eliminates generic masculine pronouns. And in so doing it changes the repertoire of social meanings and choices available to social actors.

Moreover, as she writes elsewhere (Cameron 1995: 143), ‘changing what counts as acceptable public behaviour is one of the ways you go about changing prevailing attitudes – ask anyone who still smokes cigarettes’.

Finally, a great deal of the debate about the RAE communique hinges on the claim that language is ideologically neutral. ‘La gramática no tiene ideología’[i] ran a headline in El País (March 13, 2012). But this is debatable. Languages reflect the cultures out of which they have emerged and bear the traces – the scars, even – of their origins. A language which divides all of creation into two genders, and then selects one of those genders as the preferred form, is ideological to the core.


Cameron, D. (1990) ‘Demythologizing sociolinguistics: Why language does not reflect society’, in Joseph, J.E., and Taylor, T.J. (eds.) Ideologies of Language, London: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene, London: Routledge.

[i] ‘Grammar has no ideology’