Searching for a Voice, Hoping to Be Heard

Imagine knowing who you are, but not being able to express that inner knowledge verbally, to tell someone else, “This is me! I am _____________” This inability to successfully expound upon a facet of one’s identity is acutely felt by those of us who identify as a non-binary gender –a gender other than the stereotypical male or female dichotomy– and who speak a language which is heavily gendered. The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (WALSOnline) offers an extremely useful interactive map of the world categorizing spoken languages by their type of gendering. Specifically, I struggle with finding the words and expressions in Spanish, a language classified by WALSOnline as having gender in first, second, and third person pronouns. This pre-set gendering can seem inescapable, and, causes confusion when I say I am neither él (he) or ella (she): I am someone else. They question: How can you exist if there is not a word?

 

With the increased visibility of non-binary individuals, language and terminology, languages such as Portuguese and Spanish, which operate on a man/woman binary, have come under fire for their inability to include and provide a voice for its non-binary speakers. The grammatical structure of Spanish is based upon gendered nouns, whose gender is denoted by the accompanying article —el for masculine and ella for feminine; a general rule of thumb for those learning Spanish as a second language, is that el words end in “o” and la words end in “a.” This shows that rather than an entire word being gendered, it is only one letter added to the root which genders the word and compels adjectives to add the correlative ending –“o” or “a.” For example, the root of the Spanish word for puppy is cachorr-, the masculine-gendered being el cachorro and the feminine-gendered being la cachorra. Adding the adjective cute, lindo, the phrase changes to el cachorro lindo and la cachorra linda.

 

It would appear that everything in Spanish must be gendered; however, it is important to note that there is a difference in the inclusivity of the spoken language and the written language. Over the past few years, starting in an academic context and moving outwardly into the cotidiana (everyday), two alternative forms of word-endings have emerged. The first to arrive on the scene involved ending a word with both the “o“ and the “a“ and using both articles at the front: el/la cachorro/a. The slash is meant to create a separation between the gender and the word which allows for a mediocre version of gender-neutrality and a rather unwieldy vocabulary if one must always say “el/a cachorro/cachorra.“ The second gender-neutral ending to emerge involves the replacing of the typically gendered “o” or “a” ending with an “x,” a completely gender-neutral letter. However, this does not account for the preceding articles; one still has to write: el/la cachorrx. This creates gender-neutrality and a visual break from the typically gendered endings in the written language but still lacks a corresponding vocal. The most utilized gender-neutral ending for Spanish again seeks to combine the “o“ and “a“ endings through the use of the @ symbol: el/la cachorro/a becomes l@ cachorr@. Sadly, this form lacks a vocal, a spoken component.

Now, one would think that adding gender-neutral terms to a language would be seen as revolutionary –inclusivity and all– however, there has been some push back. Part of the reason for the resistance comes from the perception that the addition of gender-neutral pronouns would actually remove gender from the language, which would then disrespect and attempt to invalidate the gender identities of people who know that “I am a man!“ or “I am a woman!“ The addition of gender-neutral terms is not to eradicate gender, but instead to provide a linguistic space within which non-binary individuals can explore and express sus propias identidades (their own identities), within which they can bend the rules and establish new ones. From this space, they can proclaim to the world “No soy hombre ni mujer, soy nonbinari@ y llámeme ____!“ (I am not a man nor a woman, I am non-binary, and you call me by ________!)

2 thoughts on “Searching for a Voice, Hoping to Be Heard

  1. An, thank you for sharing this! I am now wondering about German, since I know you speak that language very well, too. Do you run into the same issues? “Neuter” doesn’t seem like what you are searching for, either.

    1. For some individuals, the “Neuter“ or neutral provided is enough. Recently, there has been a movement within German to prioritize an adjective to describe one’s personal identity -such as geschlechtlos (genderless)- coupled with the use of the neutral pronouns. Although it is not exactly what I want, I do subscribe to the views of this movement; German-speakers are still experimenting with pronouns that sound different from typical vocals (similar to how the ze/zir/zirs construction in English obtains its gender-neutrality from the “other” sound of the syllables). German also provides gender-neutral ways of addressing groups. Instead of using die Studenten, which can refer to a group of only male students or a mixed-gender group, or die Studentinnen, which refers to a group of female students, one can say die Studierende which is taken to mean the students, who may be male, female, trans*, geschlechtslos, agender, etc.

Leave a Reply to Betsy Lavolette Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *