Gender neutrality in Spanish and Portuguese

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Both Portuguese (Pt.) and Spanish (Sp.) have gendered nouns of masculine or feminine gender - they have no neuter gender. In both languages, feminine nouns often end in -a while masculine nouns often end in -o. As in other Romance languages, masculine form of nouns and pronouns are generally used to refer to a group of both males and females, or to someone of unknown gender. Advocates of gender-neutral language modification consider this to be sexist and favor new ways of writing and speaking.[citation needed] Activists against sexism in language are also concerned about words where the feminine form has a different (usually less prestigious) meaning.[citation needed]

Traditional Spanish and Portuguese orthography regarding genders

In both languages, the masculine is often marked with the suffix -o and it is generally easy to make a feminine noun from a masculine one by changing the ending -o to -a: cirujano, cirujana (Sp., surgeon; m./f.); advogado, advogada (Pt., lawyer, m./f.); médico, médica (both languages, physician, m./f.) If the masculine version ends with a consonant, the feminine is typically formed by adding an -a to it as well: el doctor, la doctora (Sp., m./f.); o doutor, a doutora (Pt., m./f.). However, not all nouns ending in -o are masculine, and not all nouns ending in -a are feminine:

  • Singular nouns ending in -o or -a are epicene (invariable) in some cases: testigo (Sp., witness, whatever gender); testemunha (Pt., witness, whatever gender), caixa (Pt., cashier, whatever gender).
  • Nouns with the epicene ending -ista, such as dentista, ciclista, turista, especialista (dentist, cyclist, tourist, specialist; either male or female in both languages) are almost always invariable. One exception is modisto (Sp., male fashion designer), which was created as a counterpart to modista (Sp., fashion designer, or clothes maker); in Portuguese, both of these terms are nonexistent for a professional (estilista is used for fashion designer of whatever gender, while modista would be pejorative since its ubiquitous sense is for someone who inventa moda i.e. has crazy ideas and actions and/or readily adopts silly fads).
  • Some nouns ending in -a refer only to men: cura, that is "priest" in Spanish, a word which ends in -a but is grammatically masculine, for a profession held in Roman Catholic tradition only by men; this is also the case of the most common Brazilian homophobic slurs directed at males.[citation needed]

Invariable words in Portuguese and Spanish are often derived from the Latin participles ending in -ans and -ens (-antem and -entem in the accusative case): representante; comerciante; estudante (Pt.), estudiante (Sp.). Some words that normatively epicene, can have an informal feminine ending with '-a'. Example: la jefe (Sp.), a chefe (Pt.) [female boss, normative]; jefa (Sp.), chefa (Pt.) [informal]. The same happens with cliente (client), although clienta seems to appear more often in Spanish than in Portuguese.

There remain a few cases where the appropriate gender is uncertain:

  • Presidenta used to be "the president's wife", but there have been several women presidents in Latin American republics, and in modern usage the word means mainly a female president. Some feel that presidente can be treated as invariable, given that it ends in -ente, but others prefer to use a different feminine form.
  • El policía (Sp., the policeman). Since la policía means "the police force", the only useful feminine counterpart is la mujer policía (the police woman).[citation needed] (In Portuguese, the translations for policeman/policewoman, policial or simply polícia, can be used for whatever gender; high-variant Brazilian Portuguese gives preference to the earlier – polícia also intends for the police force as a whole –, while low-variant Brazilian Portuguese, especially the most basilectal vernacular, gives preference to the latter – the police force is known as "lawmen", os homens da lei, or for short, and more commonly, simply "the men", os homens [ujˈzõmi].)[citation needed]
  • Juez (Sp., male judge). Many new judges in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries are women. Since the ending of juez is uncommon in Spanish, some prefer being called la juez while others have created the neologism jueza.[citation needed] Common nouns ending in -z are usually feminine, as in the cases of nuez, vez and paz. (In Portuguese, juíza is formed normally from juiz, male judge.)

Social aspects

Activists against sexism in language are also concerned about words where the feminine form has a different (usually less prestigious) meaning:

  • An ambiguous case is "secretary": a secretaria is an attendant for her boss or a typist, usually female, while a secretario is a high-rank position—as in secretario general del partido comunista (Sp.), secretário-geral do partido comunista (Pt.), both "secretary general of the communist party"—usually held by males. With the access of women to positions labelled as "secretary general" or similar, some have chosen to use the masculine gendered la secretario and others have to clarify that secretaria is a decision position, not a subordinate one.
  • Another example is hombre público (Sp.) ["public man", a politician] and mujer pública (Sp.) ["public woman", a prostitute].

Proposals for gender-neutral spelling

As in other Romance languages, it is traditional to use the masculine form of nouns and pronouns when referring to both males and females. Advocates of gender-neutral language modification consider this to be sexist and favor new ways of writing and speaking.

One such way is using a «x», but one of its main alleged flaws is that it cannot be pronounced in a commonly agreed manner,[1] albeit it is more inclusive in genderqueer-friendly environments than the at-sign or the æ ligature, given the existence of gender identities like agender and demigender and/or the existence of gender-abolitionist people (they are different from agender people in that their reasons to not adopt any gender are based on ideology rather than inner identity). Other argument is that the at-sign and related symbols still take part from an idea that there is a gender binary, instead of trying to break away with this construct, among others.[2]


A way that can be pronounced in Portuguese when it comes to personal pronouns is a literal translation of both singular and plural English they, êla/êlas. It is pronounced /ˈelɐ ~ ˈelɐʃ/, an in-between of masculine ele/eles /ˈeli ~ ˈeliʃ/ (that is traditionally used, nevertheless, even for a group of e.g. 999 women and 1 man) and feminine ela/elas /ˈɛlɐ ~ ˈɛlɐʃ/, and such a rule can also be adapted to various other contexts where Portuguese possesses gendered language (êssa,[3] aquêla, dêla,[4] dêsta, etc.), though one of its most common adoptions is a derogatory use,[3][5][6][7][8][9] albeit generally not as much as some common transphobic slurs.

Some Spanish-speaking people advocate for the use of elle/elles.[10] While an equivalent would easily get hold in Portuguese through ilo, a form that has fallen out of use completely, remaining only in the fossilized term aquilo (that).[11] Its former use is similar to Spanish lo (alive in Portuguese) and ello, which cannot be used for objects, non-human living beings or people, as there are no neuter nouns or descriptive adjectives in Ibero-Romance languages.[12][13] Despite this, some still employ this pronoun in a gender-neutral personal third pronoun fashion, even if not allowed according to the historical use and etymology of the now-defunct word (in the spirit of a revival of the neuter form in early Romance that died off in most Romance languages).[14]

At-sign (@), slashes (a/o), ligature (æ) and anarchist symbol (Ⓐ)

One of the proposed "gender-neutral" alternate spelling, seen most often in Spanish-speaking countries,[15] refers to use of the at-sign (@) to replace -o -a or even -e: l@s niñ@s, l@s trabalhador@s.

The anarchist circled A (Ⓐ) is also used in this manner, especially in radical political writing (¡CompañerⒶs!).

Many people, though, prefer use of the slash (/) as in (el/la candidato/a), though such use is binarist.

The ligature æ, proposed in Português com Inclusão de Gênero (PCIG, Portuguese with Inclusion of Gender)[16] can be used in the same way. This proposal is also valid for Spanish. Escritoræs (writers) can replace escritoras/es or escritores/as. See also Satiric misspellings.

Small at-sign

Inside PCIG, there is also a suggestion to utilize a small at-sign as lower-case letter, as in "muit@s menin@s". Preferred size is 25%-40% less than the regular '@'.[17] Many computer programs allow selective font size reduction. Text editors, like MS Word and OOo Writer, allow font size changes to specific number of points. In blogs and many HTML editors, the small tag can be used.

Proposals for a gender-neutral pronunciation

Opponents of the use of '@' and 'æ' as letters in these languages feel that these characters are a kind of degradation. Many also raise the question of how these new words are to be pronounced. Proposals exist, though, such as those made by PCIG.

According to the PCIG proposal, Spanish and Portuguese speakers can pronounce the at-sign using the phoneme /ɔ/ and the ligature with /ɛ/.

However, some Spanish speakers are concerned that this proposal is unlikely to be adopted, since the Spanish language does not distinguish /ɔ/ and /ɛ/ from /o/ and /e/ respectively, and most of its speakers would therefore not even notice a difference in pronunciation.

The Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, published by the Real Academia Española, says that the at-sign is not a linguistic sign, and should not be used from a normative point of view.[15]

As for Portuguese, these two phonemes are widely used, but almost always in stressed syllables. What is new and requires a little practice is the use of the two phonemes in non-stressed syllables. Nouns and adjectives that vary in gender are paroxitone or proparoxitone and, according to PCIG, the use of the two phonemes should not change the stress. Examples:

  • Since, 'médico' /ˈmɛdiko/ ([ˈmɛdʑiku ~ ˈmɛðiku], [ˈmɛdiko] in much of southern Brazil) and 'médica' /ˈmɛdikɐ/ ([ˈmɛdʑikɜ ~ ˈmɛðikə]) are proparoxitones, 'médic@' or 'médicx' should also be. So, its suggested pronunciation is /ˈmɛdiko/ (out of southern Brazil and non-portunhol only) or /ˈmɛdikɔ/.
  • Likewise, 'escritoræs' or 'escritorxs', /eskɾiˈtoɾes ~ eʃkɾiˈtoɾeʃ/ (out of southern Brazil and non-portunhol only) or /eskɾiˈtoɾɛs ~ eʃkɾiˈtoɾɛʃ/, should be paroxitone, because 'escritoras' /eskɾiˈtoɾas/ ([iskɾiˈtoɾɜs ~ ɨɕkɾiˈtoɾəɕ]; note: vowel reduction is not consistently done in Brazil in pre-stressed position, especially in the southwestern half of its accents, and Brazilian accents also have different characteristics in how to determine what coda sibilants to be palatalized) and 'escritores' /eskɾiˈtoɾes/ ([iskɾiˈtoɾis ~ ɨɕkɾiˈtoɾɨɕ], [eskɾiˈtoɾes] in much of southern Brazil) are too.
  • In a way, the use of a neuter gender through [ɛ] is not as weird-sounding as one would think with exposure to solely standard Portuguese pronunciation and written Portuguese, as it is already somewhat widely practiced in Brazil because of vowel reduction: say, in a phrase like amigo/amiga é assim (that is the way friends work/are like, literally "friend is this way"), the colloquial pronunciation is most likely [əˈmiˌɣɛ ɜˈsĩ], fully omitting the suffix that informs gender. The use of [ɔ], though, is more likely to stir estrangement.

The phoneme /ɔ/ is between the [a ~ ə] characteristic of feminine nouns and the [o ~ ʊ ~ u] characteristic of masculine nouns in the scale of vowel height, which can be characterized symbolic of gender inclusion. Analogously, the "gender-inclusive" /ɛ/ is intermediate step between the "feminine" /a ~ ɐ/ and the "masculine" [e ~ ɪ ~ i ~ ɨ].

The use of «e» instead of the gender-informing suffix (when it does not intend for masculinity itself), in both Spanish and Portuguese, may also be recommended.[10] In a way, it is already vastly known in the internet culture of Brazil, through the use of the neologism meninë(s) ([miˈniˌnø], in-between of menina, girl/lass, and menino, boy/lad; the use of the umlaut is for humor purpose) that is often recognized as the ubiquitous symbol of the tiopês sociolect/subculture.

Political use

Some politicians have begun to avoid perceived sexism in their speeches; the Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada, for example, was famous for repeating gendered nouns in their masculine and feminine versions (ciudadanos y ciudadanas). This way of speaking is subject to parodies where new words with the opposite ending are created for the sole purpose of contrasting with the gendered word traditionally used for the common case (like *felizas and *especialistos in *felices y felizas or *las y los especialistas y especialistos). (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also had this same characteristic, and the expression companheiros e companheiras was his most iconic, but generally, it was only parodied when he was portrayed having a speech directed at a given target audience e.g. feiticeiros e feiticeiras in a witches' convention.)

Minority Iberian languages

These changes would not work quite the way they are intended for Spanish and Portuguese, when it comes to Basque and Catalan, given their many linguistic differences that include the way language might be gendered, but the rule of thumb for minority West Iberian languages and Aragonese, though, is that if something works for both Spanish and Portuguese, it is very likely to work for them, too; the only exception being the Silbo Gomero, a whistled way of "speaking" an island dialect of Spanish that contains solely 4 vowel phonemes, /a/, /e/, /i/ and /o ~ u/, given widely common physical constraints, and as such the addition of more vowel phonemes is not a realistic way of addressing gender difference in language.

See also