They, them and them: why does inclusive language generate rejection?


Gender inclusive language, inclusive language, non-binary forms, gender inclusive… Surely you have heard of this at some point. The truth is that it can be called many things in different linguistic communities, but it always produces some controversy. What really is “inclusive language”? And why does it generate rejection ?

It is advisable to start by remembering how gender morphology works in Spanish, to then understand a little better what the proposal of inclusive language is.

Languages ​​with gender

Different languages ​​express or mark gender in different ways. Some are simply genderless. A very widespread classification considers several types of languages : with grammatical gender (Spanish, Italian, German, which mark gender in all nouns and pronouns, as in all the words that are combined with them), with natural gender (such as English, that marks gender in pronouns but not in the rest of the words: for example, “she”/“he”, which in Spanish would be “ella”/“him”), with a combination of both (Norwegian, Dutch), or without gender (with some traces, like Basque, or without traces, like Turkish).

In Spanish, nouns (“child”, “spoon”), determiners (“el”, “la”), adjectives (“pretty”, “pretty”) and pronouns (“ella”, “they”) They always have gender. Furthermore, for a sentence to be well formed, all those words must agree in gender. In this way, it sounds very strange to us and it is difficult to understand a phrase like “That spoon is very pretty.” In English, for example, that does not happen, because “spoon” has no gender: “That spoon is very nice.”

Masculinity and femininity in grammatical gender

Spanish establishes a binary distinction between masculine and feminine . That is why the possibility that grammatical gender may be biasing the way we represent the world in our minds has been discussed for some time. Do we associate glasses more with masculinity and cups with femininity because of their grammatical gender ?

For example, in Spanish “sun” is masculine and “moon” is feminine, but in German the grammatical gender assigned to these nouns is inverted. Spanish speakers associate “sun” with stereotypically masculine traits such as strength and power and “moon” with stereotypically feminine traits such as softness and delicacy. However, when German speakers are asked, the association is inverse, that is, consistent with the grammatical gender that those words have in that language.

Social gender and biological gender in language

Much more interesting is what happens when we refer to people: what relationship do grammatical gender, social gender and biological sex have? Numerous proposals maintain that linguistic forms and grammatical gender can condition the binary representation of people and reinforce heteronormative stereotypes . For example, in a very classic study, expert Manuel Carreiras and his team found different results for Spanish (which marks gender in its morphology) and English (which does not). Specifically, they showed that, in the case of Spanish, the clues to represent the gender of a referent do not only come from the stereotypes associated with the words (for example, “truck driver” associated with men) but also from explicit morphological marks. That is to say, reading “truck driver”, “trucker” or “camionere” would not be the same to imagine the gender identity of that person.

Furthermore, some studies consider that the unmarked use of the masculine as generic (which, in general, is understood as the default use of the masculine form to refer to any gender) systematically hides women and other sex-gender identities when It is used to refer to mixed groups or groups with non-uniform gender.

For example, if we say that “scientists have worked hard to develop this vaccine,” we may be making invisible the fact that among these people there are women or people who do not recognize themselves as men or women. This calls into question whether the generic masculine adequately represents this diversity.

An inclusive alternative

The use of “gender inclusive language” provides an alternative to overcome these limitations. The proposal consists of modifying the binary morphological gender paradigm of Spanish . Expressed in non-binary forms, a sentence like “she has proven to be a very creative girl” would require modifying several words to meet the agreement requirement. In this way, the phrase would be “she has proven to be a very creative child.”

It has been objected that inclusive language makes understanding difficult. However, there are studies that show that sentences presented with non-binary forms are not read more slowly or understood less well. On the contrary, the use of inclusive language facilitates the representation of groups of people without uniform gender , especially for nouns that are strongly associated with males.

In this way, most of us think of men when we hear the word “truck drivers” , while when we hear the word “truckers” it is easier for us to relate it to a group of people of different genders who drive trucks.

Most of this research has been done in adults . Therefore, we do not know what would happen to children who acquired a language in a community that systematically used three gender forms (-o, -a, -e).

However, in theoretical terms, it seems plausible to predict that the adoption of the form [-e] as a gender morpheme would not pose any problem at the cognitive level or for the language system.

A change in the making?

Now, is the use of non-binary forms already as widespread as thinking about stable linguistic change? It doesn’t seem to be the case .

Legislating the way we speak is very complicated, since linguistic uses can only be regulated implicitly by the speaking communities themselves.

The attempt to restrict uses that are not even that widespread seems to have more to do with cultural and political elements than with grammar. Among the factors that generate resistance to adopting new forms of gender , some studies fundamentally highlight two. On the one hand, the idea that changes in languages ​​are always negative and destroy a supposedly perfect, stable and homogeneous system. On the other hand, the denial that non-binary sex-gender identities exist .

Variation in linguistic usage is the rule and not the exception . Numerous linguistic forms coexist simultaneously in different communities at the same time. And throughout the history of humanity, languages ​​have undergone continuous transformations.

Neither prohibit nor impose

Non-binary forms could be a useful tool to guarantee rights . The fact of being able to refer to people with sex-gender identities outside the cisheteronormative paradigm fosters basic respect for others .

Of course, including a new form or admitting new linguistic uses in no way means eliminating existing ones. In any case, any change that becomes stable as a new form will depend on the massive and sustained diffusion of its use. We cannot predict linguistic changes, we simply observe a process whose final result we do not know.

It is important, then, to say that just as linguistic uses cannot be prohibited, they cannot be imposed either: variation and change in linguistic uses are always in the hands (or mouths) of the speakers.

Author Bios:Gabriela Mariel Zunino is a Doctor in Linguistics – Experimental Psycholinguistics at CONICET, José Antonio Hinojosa Poveda is a Full Professor of the Department of Experimental Psychology, Cognitive Processes and Speech Therapy at Complutense University of Madrid, Miriam Aguilar López is the Juan de la Cierva Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Cognitive Processes and Speech Therapy both at the Complutense University of Madrid and Noelia Ayelén Stetie is a Doctoral scholar at the Institute of Linguistics of the University of Buenos Aires at CONICET