Spanish: Non-Binary Life in a Gendered Language?

What pronoun would a non-binary person use in Spanish? In 2020, the Royal Spanish Academy* posted the word, “elle” (inclusive language like they) on their site as Under Observation**. People around the world wondered, will he (él) and she (ella) have a new non-binary sibling? Will Spanish become more inclusive? Unfortunately, so far the answer is no. When the appearance of elle on the Royal Spanish Academy website caused a big flutter on Twitter, the Academy quickly erased the word and announced it was not proper Spanish. *(RAE in Spanish)/**(aka we’re thinking about it.)

Spanish speaking people who are non-binary and their allies were very disappointed. Some may wonder why the RAE controls the Spanish of 483 million people in 20 countries. This organization designed to keep Spanish grammar and usage separate from the influence of other world languages was founded in 1713 in imitation of the French Academy of Language. The Real Academia Española meets with the Academies from all of the Spanish speaking countries in order to have (impose?) consensus. So, no elle from the RAE, means no elle (officially) anywhere.

Curious why this matters? If someone you love is non-binary, the challenge when speaking heavily gendered Spanish is clear; in the pronouns, nouns, and adjectives. Someone dear to me does not identify with either gender. In English, I am accustomed to using “they” pronouns when referring to them. When we speak Spanish, however, we have been stumped as to how to proceed. In the last month, we have begun to experiment with using elle. For example: Elle está dormide. (They are asleep.)

Remembering the correct ending will take time (like dormide), but the effort is worth the smile on their face. In Latin America, many young people are using inclusive language, whether or not it is approved. Latinx (pronounced: Latinex) or Latin@ (Latinao or Latinoa) are other examples of common gender workarounds en español. Time will tell whether the language will flex or whether popular usage will create new grammar despite the Academy.

Do you wish we had an Academy of Language in English, or is the Oxford English Dictionary close enough to regulate the language?

¡Olé! –Rebecca

El/Elle/Ella. Art: Rebecca Cuningham
Rebecca Cuningham

39 thoughts on “Spanish: Non-Binary Life in a Gendered Language?

  1. It’s a difficult one. Gendered languages bring obvious difficulties, even before this current debate (A roomful of female teachers + one male apparently makes the lot male). But the English solution is clumsy too. ‘They’ doesn’t trip easily off the tongue in this context and leads to confusions of its own. I’m sure appropriate vocabulary will emerge, but I agree that it’s frustrating and difficult, especially for those who have the greatest interest in having a good inclusive solution that they can live with cheerfully and feel ownership for.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Margaret, for your thoughtful comments. Yes, the debate about inclusion while using nouns and adjectives describing groups of women and men in Spanish has received a lot more attention in the past 20 years. Instead of padres for parents, I am hearing more people say padres y madres. In English, I do not find the singular pronoun they to be ideal. I was encouraging them to consider the alternative “ze” as in Ze is making zere lunch for zemselves. But *they* was their preference. I think that as the currently youngest generation become adults, we will find solutions.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lou. That is significant! The NYT likes to refer to people by titles, so it makes sense the editors would see the need for a non-binary title for the subjects that prefer them. I appreciate the example. Gracias.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your vocal support, Carol Anne. For now, Spanish-speaking people are inventing pronouns to use. If the Academia wants to have input on that decision making process, it would be great for them to use their knowledge of Spanish grammar to create a space in the language for people who are non-binary. Gracias!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It is a complicated issue in Spanish, and French. Daughter #2 is a consultant for NGO’s and large organizations on gender issues. Making a name for herself over the years. She does gender issue diagnostics and training seminars. Inclusive writing is of course part of it. We do have some arguing over inclusive writing. I’m not sure per se it will solve many of the gender issues in Latin America. I also tell her that it’s easier to just say that the “o” suffix is neutral… 😉 Open debate.
    Cuídate.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. She says: “Les niñes”. substituting an ‘e’ for an ‘o’ or an ‘a’. But I find it difficult to… follow. 😉 But I don’t argue, she takes her job very seriously and I support her 150%, even I don’t agree with everything…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for sharing information from her. Yes, I have heard that construction from friends in Chile. The new generations will continue to express their identities, it will be interesting to see how the languages evolve with them.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As an addendum. Languages are complicated things. The product of centuries of evolution. With many roots. French, Latin, and Germanic languages in the case of English. English being easier to “accommodate” for gender issues. e.g. I tend to use s/he as a pronoun. But inclusive writing in Spanish or worse in French produces… “linguistic monsters” that make the language much less fluid. Therefore counterproductive?
    Example, in French, dots are used. Les étudiant.e.s. in lieu of les étudiants. It’s just very cumbersome. And being cumbersome, I think the language itself will reject it. Forget about the REA, or l’Académie Française.
    🙏🏻

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, a perfect solution has not been invented quite yet for English, Spanish or French. I think people will continue to figure out how to expand into inclusivity. The attempts on the street toward non-binary pronouns by the people most concerned about the issue will continue and I am sure with time they will forge a construct that will work. Time will tell. : )

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes. Time. In French there have been neologisms such as “auteure” (Authoress) when the “auteur” is a woman. But again most of these new constructs tend to be… “heavy”. I don’t know if I explain myself with the word “heavy”. There is a beauty in every language, where most words have an elegance of their own. And some words are just plain “bulky”, “heavy”.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Changes, especially after one speaks a language for a long time, can seem cumbersome and awkward. It took me about a year to reliably produce the pronoun *they* in regard to our teen. The way they feel supported has made it very worth it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating and thought-provoking post, Rebecca. I suspect that it will take some time and an organic solution will evolve. Elle is clearly problematic – it explicitly means “she” in French.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that ‘they’ is somehow clumsy. Other solutions will certainly appear. One way is for them to be used in novels and writing, and so enter the language. There are many SF novels where different pronouns are used. Ann Leckie has a third Gender in ‘Provenance’ that uses e/eir. It works very well!

    As someone who happily makes up words, and bends other words to her use, I’m very glad that we have no authority telling us what is proper English.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kim. Yes, I like the role of writers to test drive new pronouns and grammar. Another SF writer, Becky Chambers uses ze to good effect in her novels for her non-binary characters. I agree that I’m happy we don’t have an official language edict organization in English. I’m glad we are all free to wrangle or mangle the language as we choose.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosaliene thanks for your comments. Pronouns seem to be a key identity issue for many young people 12-22 years old. It is so prevalent that teachers ask students for their preferred pronouns. When that generation is in power in 30-40 years, language will change and then their grandchildren will have additional new territory to explore!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s also happening with the French language, with “iel” to combine the masculine “il” with the feminine “elle.” Funny that in Spanish, it’s “elle,” as that’s the French feminine! Although I’m all for inclusion, I have mixed feelings about the use of the non-binary form, as it appears that the language academies (in Spain, in France…) are sort of dictating what people can or can’t say, which is sure to cause dissent in the public. Honestly, there’s the possibility to use the inclusive pronoun while still accepting the traditional forms…after all, that’s really what makes it inclusive!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Rebecca. Interesting to know about “iel” in French. Yes, “elle” in Spanish might be confusing for French speakers, “ele” is another possibility for Spanish. If I understand correctly, you’re saying that people can choose to use the inclusive pronoun despite what the language academies say. Correct?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I meant to say that it shouldn’t matter how society uses the pronouns. I believe the académie in France is fine with either way, so here’s hoping the neutral pronouns don’t become forced upon in the future!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments, Nilla. Yes, the word elle may not be the solution. Another possibility is ele, but that is he in Portuguese. Yes, les niñes works for the plural, then would le niñe be the singular? I appreciate the friendly debate in the discussion for this post.

      Like

    1. Good morning. Thanks so much for your comment. I always check out someone’s site and hand approve the first message on Fake Flamenco to avoid the marketers and the haters. Your site is private at the moment, but I’m going to take a chance. Glad you liked the post and look forward to reading your poem when your site is public again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Alright, thank you! I cannot make my site public yet because I need money for that and I am just a teen right now.
        Have a wonderful week!

        Liked by 1 person

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