It might sound strange for a non-native speaker, especially for an English one, that in addition to the common classifications we all use to distinguish substantives such as singular/plural or concrete/abstract, the Spanish language has one particularly problematic noun class that involves genre.

This trait, which is also shared with other Romance languages such as French or Italian, divides substantives according to whether they are “masculine” or “feminine”. This classification is entirely aleatory. For example: the noun ‘bridge’ is masculine, so we refer it as ‘he’, but in German, the same noun is feminine, so it becomes ‘she’. This phenomenon is present in some English words too, for example, with the word ‘ship’, normally referred as a ‘she’. In this case, the classical explanation is that sailors (which historically have been all men), named their ships after significant women in their lives, like queens, saints or just lovers, mothers or wives. The ship itself was considered a proud feminine force that sailors needed to take care, guide and decipher in order to persuade ‘her’ to go to the right direction.

This particular fact, although it reveals some of the most primordial sexists ideas (women, like ships, are uncontrollable beings which are need to be handled by an experienced man), is an isolated case in English, where the grammatical genre is not a very big problem.  In Spanish, conversely, we see that adjectives, determiners and pronouns change their form depending on the noun’s gender to which they refer. However, when we talk about a group of things, feelings or people which are either masculine or feminine, mandatorily we need to use the masculine form to refer to that group. This happens even if the collective is mainly feminine. In fact, if in a classroom, for example, there is only one single boy, and the other ones are girls, the masculine form will remain unalterable.

A lot of academic research has been made to answer this issue. The Royal Spanish Academy, the official regulator institution of the Spanish language, is as clear as day in this particular topic. Their statement is that the use of masculine as a generic form is perfectly deployed in the common language, and the use of both masculine and feminine forms is something ‘artificial’ and ‘unnecessary’, because it creates constant repetitions that makes sentences longer and more complex, which is directly opposed to the fundamental objective of any language: simplicity and expressive efficiency.

But language is not only a way to usefully refer to reality, but it is also something that shapes reality itself, like we have seen with the example of the ship. This is well known by poets, propagandists, and also by people who suffer discrimination. The historical reasons that have led to considerate the masculine form as a generic are probably the same reasons as those for that God entity is personified as an old man, or for that nowadays is normal for women to wear trousers while a man in a ball gown will probably create absolute stupefaction, or at least an initial shock.

This is the main position of the authors of the numerous manuals of non-sexist language published by a considerable amount of Spanish universities, unions, city councils and other territorial administrations. They conclude that language must reflect social advances, and even produce them. Thus, in addition to the fact that we do not use the word ‘invert’ to describe homosexuals anymore, or the word ‘retarded’ to speak about psychic disabled people, language must include women in order to progressively abandon the androcentric vision of reality. Beyond the fight against the generic masculine, this objective also includes, for example, the suppression of many sexist sayings such as the so-called benevolent “Behind every great man there’s a great woman”, or the classic “Who is wearing the pants in the relationship?”. The struggling for non-sexist language is also focused on the importance of the normalisation of the feminine form of job’s names, like ‘judge’, ‘doctor’ or ‘minister’, which were until recently unaccepted by the Dictionary of the Royal Academy.

The problem here, according to Ignacio Bosque, author of the report Linguistic sexism and women visibility (2012), is that many of these non-sexist pieces of advice contradict basic grammatical rules stipulated by the Academy.

The report, underwritten by twenty six more scholars, also pointed out that some of the requirements, like the use of collective nouns such as ‘professoriate’ or ‘student body’ instead of the masculine forms of ‘professors’ and ‘students’, can sometimes not be completely accurate according to the signification of such words, making language not only more complex, but also ambiguous.

Other linguists who applaud the Academy statement add that this obsession with being political correct is almost ridiculous, and completely away from the day-to-day use of language. Nobody, except maybe in the administrative and political areas, says los ciudadanos y las ciudadanas (which can be translated as ‘the male citizens and the the female citizens’) instead of the simpler form of los ciudadanos (‘the citizens’).  Besides, it is often claimed that the grammatical rules are not laws that can be periodically revised and changed due to a concrete will of the speakers, mainly because that process is much longer and more complicated.

A lot of women share this opinion too. Writers, scientists and artists who are very important in the Spanish cultural panorama (like Carmen Posadas, Almudena Grandes or Margarita Salas, to name a few) do not mind to use the generic masculine  because they do not feel excluded while using it. It is this a sign that shows that their social conscience as women is not developed? Ignacio Bosque answers ‘no’ to this question.

The issue is far from being solved, and the debate continues to today within the Spanish linguistic community. Is the generic masculine a way to make women invisible? Is the non-sexist language unnecessary, or is the negativity of the Royal Academy to use it a piece of evidence that shows its uncovered sexism?  The answer, of course, is again in the hands of the speakers, or, perhaps precisely or redundantly, in the hands of ‘men speakers’ or ‘women speakers’.

Cover image courtesy of Eleni Papaioannou via Flickr