The front page of the Mexico City newspaper Reforma recently featured an article announcing the publication of a handbook promoting the use of nonsexist language under the eye-catching headline “Lanzan manual contra machismo” (roughly, ‘They’re Launching a Manual Against Male Chauvinism’). The “they” in question are the Office of the Secretary of Governance (Segob) and the National Commission for the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women, the manual is entitled Manual para el Uso No Sexista en el Lenguaje [‘Manual for Nonsexist Language Usage’], and its initial distribution will be to “all functionaries in the Federal Government.” The article begins:

 “In order to eradicate verbal violence against women, the Federal Government yesterday introduced a manual to counter male chauvinism (machismo) that proposes, among other things, the avoidance of the usage of such words and phrases as “vieja” [‘old (female),’ or, as undoubtedly intended in this case, ‘old lady’] and “si quería trabajar, ¿para qué tuvo hijos?” [‘if you wanted to work, why did you have children?’].”

Though the writer does not elaborate on these two examples, they encapsulate a number of the most daunting of the sociolinguistic obstacles that speakers of Spanish will inevitably encounter on the way to gender equality—never mind the way to gender blindness/agnosticism, which isn’t even on the horizon at this point in the game: We are talking about progressing from something like lady policeman to policewoman, not from policewoman to police officer. (Not that as sensitive new-age speakers of English we should be too smug: Hands up if it immediately occurred to you that “If you wanted to work, why did you have children?” might have been addressed to a dad?) The basic linguistic problems stem from the association of a grammatical feature called gender with a biological feature called sex (gender in reference to humans nowadays being used by many speakers of English to designate a culturally rather than strictly anatomically defined attribute not applicable to the other members of the animal world).

To some extent, speakers of Spanish can blame history and the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis (that your language shapes the way you think) for their sociolinguistic troubles: Like the other Romance languages, Spanish evolved from Latin in which all nōmina (nouns and adjectives) belonged to one or another of five classes called declensions, distinguished from each other by their endings.  As a rule, nōmina from the first Latin declension that survive in Spanish end in –a; those that come from the second declension end in –o; those that come from the third declension typically end in a consonant or –e; the tiny handful of fourth-declension relics end in –o; and the one holdout from the fifth declension (día ‘day’) ends in –a.  So far so good. However, to complicate matters, every Latin nōmen had associated with it a grammatical gender—masculine, feminine, or neuter (i.e., ‘neither’), though in theory they could just as well have been named van, choc, and straw, were it not for the fact that those nōmina of the first declension that refer to animate creatures generally (though not always) refer to anatomical females while  those nōmina of the second declension that refer to animate creatures almost always refer to anatomical males. 

The upshot in Spanish, to grossly oversimplify the story, was to generalize from the above that, except for inheritances from the Latin third, fourth, and fifth declensions, nouns and adjectives referring to females end in –a and those referring to males end in –o, so if you want to coin a term to refer to a creature of one sex or the other, you can basically take a root and stick –a or –o on the end of it, and you’re home free. Indeed, this is a strategy suggested by the manual, following mutatis mutandis a template provided by the Romans themselves. By implication, this strategy can be employed to avoid another historical quirk, the use of the masculine form when referring to a mixed group of males and females such as the hijos (‘children’) in the example quoted above. True, “¿para qué tuvo hijos o hijas?”  (“why did you have sons or daughters?”) is a mouthful and a gender-neutral single word substitute (like English children or kids) does not readily come to mind, but there are other subtler difficulties, one raised by the previously cited word vieja and another (not mentioned in the article) exemplified by the polite words for the police.

Vieja and viejo are the feminine and masculine forms, respectively, of a word whose basic, canonical meaning is ‘old.’ They are the direct descendents of Latin vetula/vetulus ‘elderly,’ the diminutive form of veta/vetus ‘old, aged.’ When used substantively (i.e., when the adjectival form is used as a noun), vieja can have a pejorative sense (‘old lady’), a wrinkle shared by a number of feminine/masculine pairs in Spanish in which the masculine form is neutral or positive in connotation while the corresponding feminine form is tainted—the manual cites zorro/zorra (literally, ‘male fox/female fox’ but figuratively something like  ‘clever guy/foxy lady’) and hombre público/mujer pública (literally, ‘public man/public woman’ but in general usage  ‘prominent man/ prostitute’). The manual suggests substituting non-loaded terms for such pairs as zorro/zorra and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

But sometimes the challenge would seem insurmountable. ‘The police’ is la policía, grammatically feminine.  ‘A policeman’ is un policía, grammatically masculine (despite the –a ending). And ‘a policewoman?’ Not, as one might expect, una policía, but either un policía, or if further precision is called for una mujer policía (literally, ‘a woman policeman’) or una agente feminina de policía (‘a female agent of the police’). Well, as the Reforma article concludes, “Segob’s subsecretary of Human Rights, Felipe Zamora, said that it will take work to reduce the gender gap in diverse areas.”