Gender-Neutral Terms Are Not So Easy in Some Languages


The current push for gender-neutral terms is a direct result of an even greater push to erase the lines between the sexes. If you pay attention to the news, you have heard stories of people getting into trouble for not using the right pronouns in respect of addressing other people. Politics aside, some languages are fairly open to the concept of gender neutrality. Others are not.

In Germanic languages, there is very little emphasis put on word gender. The same cannot be said for Latin-based languages. For example, both Spanish and French rely heavily on word gender for a multitude of reasons. Removing gender from those two languages would significantly dilute them.

On top of that is the disconnect between gender and sex that modern culture cannot seem to grasp. This disconnect is easily seen in the term ‘LatinX’. The term was developed a number of years ago as a gender-neutral alternative to ‘Latina’ and ‘Latino’.

Words and People

‘Latina’ and ‘Latino’ are words that specifically refer to the sex of the mentioned persons. And by ‘sex’, we mean biological status as male or female. However, almost all nouns in Spanish have gender. The Spanish word for chair is ‘silla’, which is a female noun. The word for book is the male ‘libro’. But guess what? Neither chairs nor books are biological entities. They are neither male nor female in terms of biological sex.

Prior to the 15th century, the English language provided a clear and distinct delineation between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. Gender applied only to words while sex only applied to biological status. It wasn’t until we began using the words interchangeably that we began confusing the difference between words and human biology. That leads us to where we are today.

LatinX Not Widely Accepted

We can demonstrate that gender-neutral terms are not so easy in some languages by going back to the term ‘LatinX’. Despite the term being championed by media and the political class, research shows that only 25% of American Latinos and Latinas have even heard the term. Moreover, only 3% actually use it. One of the biggest objections to the term within the Hispanic community is that it takes away from the richness of the Spanish language by negating its emphasis on word gender.

In some instances, it works just fine. For example, New York’s Plurawl is a LatinX clothing brand. They proudly advertise LatinX T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and artwork. The term works extremely well for them, and they are happy to use it. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Moreover, despite using the term, Plurawl still distinguishes between women’s and unisex t-shirts and hoodies.

Linguistic Wants vs. Needs

What the whole gender-neutral thing boils down to is the difference between linguistic wants and needs. There is definitely a desire among a certain segment of the population to remove all gender references from language. But like it or not, there are legitimate needs for maintaining a distinction between male and female.

Imagine a paramedic communicating with a hospital emergency room regarding a critically injured patient who may be on the verge of death. ER doctors have to know the patient’s biological makeup in order to provide proper instructions. It is non-negotiable. A gender-neutral pronoun is not going to help. In fact, insisting on gender neutrality in such a case could be life-threatening.

The long and short of it is that gender neutrality is easily implemented in some cases and in some languages. But implementing it universally isn’t doable. There are just some languages for which it will not work.

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