Putting Gender Inclusive Language into Practice in English and Spanish

This month we published Hablar español en Estados Unidos by Jennifer Leeman and Janet M. Fuller, a Spanish edition of their 2020 book, Speaking Spanish in the US. In this post Jennifer discusses the translation process between the English and Spanish editions.

Although non-sexist language has long been a subject of discussion and debate, in recent years gender inclusive language has received increased attention around the world. Regardless of the context, these discussions reflect similar concerns, such as whether the use of masculine forms as the generic is exclusionary, which pronouns to use for people who don’t identity with a gender binary, and what impact the linguistic representation of gender might have on individual and societal understandings of gender identities and roles. Underlying and running through these debates are broader tensions between linguistic innovation and conservatism, disagreement about whether the emergence of new ways of expressing gender reflects ‘natural’ language change or ‘artificial’ social and linguistic engineering, and different understandings on the locus of linguistic authority: language academies and other institutions or language users themselves. Despite these commonalities, there are also language- and context-specific differences.

In the English-language edition of our book Speaking Spanish in the US: The Sociopolitics of Language (2020) we discussed the competing positions regarding gender-inclusive language, the ideologies that underlie them, and their connection to broader social and political issues. In addition to talking about gender inclusivity, we also used gender-inclusive language throughout. As we prepared the Spanish-language edition, Hablar español en Estados Unidos: La sociopolítica del lenguaje, the cross-linguistic differences between English and Spanish came into sharp relief. Specifically, although we were able to adapt our discussion about gender inclusivity for a Spanish-speaking audience without much difficulty, putting it into practice proved a bit more complicated.

Because English has a relatively limited system of gender marking, it was easy to use gender inclusive forms in the English-language edition. For one thing, except for pronouns and possessives, the majority of English nouns (including animate nouns) and adjectives lack gender marking, so phrases like many Spanish-speakers, Mexican immigrants and researchers are all gender inclusive. Whereas the masculine form was long prescribed for generic cases (e.g. Every parent wants the best for his child), the use of singular they/their is now widely accepted (i.e. Every parents wants the best for their child), and it is also fairly easy to avoid the issue by simply using the plural (i.e. All parents want the best for their children.). Along the same lines, nouns that were once gender-specific, such as those referring to professions (e.g. fireman, mailman, and waiter/waitress) have largely been replaced in common usage by gender-neutral forms (i.e. firefighter, mail carrier, server). Thus, in English, gender inclusive language is easily achievable and for the most part, uncontroversial.

One exception to English’s lack of gender marking, and one that is particularly salient in the context of our book, is the identity label Latinx/a/o, which is believed to originate with the Spanish word latinoamericano, and which exhibits patterns of gender-marking similar to those found in Spanish. In the US, the term Latinx has taken hold as the most commonly used gender inclusive form in English, and it is particularly popular among younger adults, activists and academics. We too adopted Latinx for the English-language edition, and took advantage of the opportunity to explain how our choice to do so constitutes an example of language use as a way of positioning oneself as a particular kind of person (in this case as people committed to gender inclusivity), a subject to which we dedicate sufficient attention in the book.

Achieving gender-inclusive language was far more complex in Spanish than it was in English, because almost all Spanish nouns, pronouns, adjectives and articles are marked for gender. As in English, Spanish grammars and language authorities traditionally have prescribed the use of masculine forms for generics, as well as in instances where there is even a single male among many females. For example, whether you are referring to students in general, a specific group of all male students, or a specific mixed gender group, prescriptive grammars and language authorities such as the Real Academia Española (RAE) mandate the use of the masculine generic los alumnos. Earlier critiques of this usage focused on the linguistic invisibilization of women and girls; some more recent proposals for gender inclusive language also call for greater recognition of people who do not identify with a male/female gender binary. Proposed alternatives to the masculine generic include ‘doubling’ (e.g. los alumnos y las alumnas) as well as the use of new non-binary gender morphemes such as -e (e.g. les alumnes) or -x (e.g. lxs alumnxs). Some speakers see gender-inclusive language as a way not only to recognize the diversity of human gender, but also to promote greater societal inclusivity. Others (including many well-known authors and members of the RAE), have pushed back at what they see as unnatural, arguing that the masculine generic is in fact inclusive according to the long established norms of Spanish. It’s worth noting that the RAE has also rejected ‘doubling’ as unnecessary, despite the fact that it is fully consistent with traditional Spanish grammatical patterns. The reaction to –x has been particularly harsh, in part due to the difficulty of pronouncing it when it occurs before a consonant, such as in lxs. Moreover, some critics argue that the use of –x reflects an unwelcome linguistic influence of English on Spanish in the US, a topic of concern among language purists. (It’s worth pointing out that these critiques are often also leveled against the English-language use of Latinx, seemingly advocating for maintaining Spanish norms to a word borrowed from Spanish into English, and thus raising questions about the directionality of language influence in the case of this particular neologism).

We wanted to be true to the English-language original and the US context (where Latinx is widely used) without making it overly difficult to read, especially for readers unfamiliar with non-binary gender morphemes. Moreover, we were aware that some instructors would be hesitant to adopt the book for classes in which many of the students are learning Spanish as a second or additional language. Ultimately, we opted for a multifaceted approach in which we avoided the use of masculine generics through careful rephrasing, as in the following examples;

English Masculine generic Gender inclusive rephrasing
students los alumnos el alumnado


‘the student body’

many Spanish-speakers muchos hispanohablantes muchas personas que hablan español


 ‘many people who speak Spanish’

Mexican immigrants inmigrantes mexicanos inmigrantes de México


‘immigrants from Mexico’

researchers los investigadores quienes han investigado este tema


‘those who have researched this topic’

Although somewhat laborious, this turned out to be possible in almost every case of generics and mixed gender groups, far more than I had expected. In the few isolated cases where such gender-neutral phrasings were either impossible or awkward, we settled for doubling, such as when we referred to the children of immigrants not as hijos de inmigrantes but hijas e hijos de inmigrantes (‘daughters and sons of immigrants’). However, in order to include explicit reference to non-binary gender we used the -x morpheme specifically for the word Latinx. Through this combination of approaches, we sought not only to use gender inclusive language but also to highlight the limitations of normative binary gender marking. We hope that our approach also underscores the fact that language is a type of social action and language choices are influenced by multiple, sometimes competing factors.

Jennifer Leeman

For more information about this book please see our website.

The English edition of this book is available here.


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