Language Change and Gender Neutral Language: More Than a Kalinad

How do you refer to a person who doesn’t ascribe to a particular gender? What about language that’s supposed to be gender neutral, like “each child needs to put away his shoes”?  It’s a conversation we’ve heard often enough in English, with varying answers. Some people advocate new pronouns like “ze” and “zer,” others prefer the use of the singular “they,” and yet others are against all grammatical changes and will only consider rewording sentences. All these options have their pros and cons, and none has yet managed to be universally accepted.

One argument I’ve occasionally heard is that Spanish and many other languages have every word have a gender. If it doesn’t bother them, why should it bother us?

However, there is plenty of debate in the Spanish-speaking community about gender neutral language. I recently read La lengua en disputa: Un debate sobre el lenguaje inclusivo by Beatriz Sarlo and Santiago Kalinowski, and they go so far as to say that the debate in Argentina is one of the most active today. Of course, the book is a transcript of a panel presentation that happened in Argentina, so they may be biased.

The first point Sarlo and Kalinowski discuss is linguistic change in general. When we get new words or new meanings of words, it often seems random. A neologism like “kalinad,” to mean a near miss, doesn’t immediately become common after just one person uses it. Rather, someone starts to use “kalinad,” and it is gradually picked up by more and more people. People rarely remember—at least without stopping to think and research—where “kalinad” came from, and there are many factors to the spread of the word. It spreads easily, under the correct circumstances, and nobody minds its use as long as it is grammatically correct and useful, as well as in any required dictionary.

Gender neutral language requires a more complicated change, because it changes grammar. “Kalinad” is a noun, and it doesn’t really change the rules you learned in school. It fits into the schema easily. “Ze,” “zer,” and the singular “they,” on the other hand, are grammatical words. They need some way to fit into the rules you learn in elementary school—which are often the hardest for people to accept changes to.

Thus, Sarlo and Kalinowski agree that gender neutral language must be an intentional change. It can’t happen just by accident, because—especially in Spanish, where it pervades much more than in English—it is tied to basic rules of writing and speaking. We don’t think about those rules much, but we are reluctant to accept changes to them. That sort of change often takes centuries to really take effect.

In Spanish, the solution is more agreed upon than in English. They would add an e instead of the o or a on gendered words. For example, they would say: “Espero que todes estén contentes.” It can be written in various ways, such as todxs or tod@s, but it’s always pronounced as todes.

However, more agreement on the system doesn’t not make it less contentious. As in English, it must be argued for and explained. University students in Argentina actually got together and decided to write disclaimers at the beginnings of their papers to explain the system, saying how it is the style they are using and they should not be docked for writing badly when they are simply trying to be inclusive. Responding to the university students’ defense, Kalinowski said he could not dock students’ grades if they chose to use gender neutral language.

We must have grace with those who do and do not use these terms, because there is much that goes into the choice beyond ideology. All the methods used in English (i.e. new pronouns, singular “they,” and rewording) have their uses, and it is good to know when to use each one. In different situations, different words communicate best.

I hope that the introduction of gender neutral language isn’t just a kalinad. Not everyone finds it necessary in their experience, but it can help with acceptance of minorities like women and trans people. As they call it in Spanish, it is inclusive language (lenguaje inclusivo) and really does help us accept and respect people better.