In Argentina, an offer to make the language gender-neutral gains traction

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BUENOS AIRES — Three days into Argentina’s coronavirus lockdown, the country’s president called on men and women, Argentines and Argentines, to cooperate with the effort.

He also has appeals to the “Argentines‘, using a gender-neutral term that does not exist in traditional Spanish grammar.

It was not the first time that President Alberto Fernández, who took office in December, has publicly used gender-neutral language.

But his decision to do so again at a time of public crisis underscored the significance of a movement challenging longstanding language rules and working to make the Spanish used in Argentina more inclusive.

“We always talk about equality – and the truth is that language reveals the inequalities that exist in society at large,” said Buenos Aires city judge Elena Liberatori.

Last year, Judge Liberatori sparked controversy by handing down a ruling in which ordinarily gendered words were spelled with an ‘e’ instead of the ‘a’ or ‘o’ that usually denote feminine or masculine in Spanish. .

The quest to make Spanish less gendered is not limited to Argentina.

In the United States, for example, some politicians and academics, and even the Merriam Webster dictionaryy, adopted the word “Latinx”. It’s an alternative to Latino, the masculine form of the word used to encompass everyone by default in Spanish.

However, not everyone appreciates the change.

The push for gender neutrality has also been met with fierce opposition around the world, including among top Spanish language pundits. The Royal Spanish Academy, which oversees the language’s most official dictionary, considers the new formulations as an aberration.

What makes Argentina remarkable is how widely the new forms have been embraced not only by activists, but also in academic and governmental spheres.

In recent years, gender-neutral language has become increasingly common in academic publications, government documents, and even some court decisions, even as it continues to be hotly debated among the general public.

Judge Liberatori said she has long been aware of how language can uphold societal norms. When she was sworn in as a judge in 2000, the sign outside her door read “juez”, rather than the feminine term for a female judge: “jueza”. She changed him.

Later, when she issued a ruling using gender-neutral language, Judge Liberatori faced a complaint filed by a group of lawyers before the city’s Council of Magistrates, which has the power to punish judges for violated the standards.

The council sided with Judge Liberatori, deciding that judges could write their decisions with the “e” and stating that it would publish a manual for the use of gender-neutral language.

“We joked that we should name the manual after” the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said Cristina Montserrat Hendrickse, a lawyer who represented Judge Liberatori in the case.

Ms Hendrickse, who is transgender, believes embracing gender-neutral language can have a profound effect on societal and cultural norms. “He recognizes that it’s not just men or women,” she said.

Yet she admitted that she herself did not use it in day-to-day communication.

“I’m over 50,” she says. “It’s too hard for me to change my whole way of speaking.

Her 22-year-old daughter, Erika Sofía Hendrickse, “uses her constantly”, Ms Hendrickse said.

This kind of widespread acceptance makes Ariel Muzzupappa, a 22-year-old artist who is non-binary and also uses words with the “e” variation, feel “more comfortable.”

“It makes me feel more included,” the artist said, “like I’m not the odd one out anymore.”

There’s no consensus among experts on how long to use the letter “e” to neutralize gendered words in Spanish, said Karina Galperín, a literature professor at Torcuato di Tella University in Buenos Aires.

“It’s the result of a very, very broad historical process,” she said, though its newly widespread use may make it seem like a recent phenomenon.

Before the use of the “e” found wide acceptance, Spanish speakers who wanted to be more inclusive used both genders, or the @ symbol or an “x”. The “e” has been more widely adopted because it is easier to pronounce.

“It has obvious benefits, but some people find it totally repulsive,” Ms Galperín said. Even though there “is a lot of unanimity in rejecting the use of the default masculine form, the solution to this problem is not so unanimous,” she said.

The Royal Spanish Academy argues that gender neutral supporters are trying to solve a problem that does not exist.

The Spaniard, the academy says, already has a way of accommodating both genders. According to the rules of its grammar, they note, the masculine form of words can be used in the plural to encompass everyone. So, “Argentinos” with an “o”, for example, can be used to refer to Argentine citizens of any gender.

But by expressly rejecting the old rules, nongender proponents are making a larger point, said Santiago Kalinowski, director of the Argentine Academy of Letters’ Linguistic and Philological Research Department. (His views do not represent those of the institution.)

“This appeal explicitly places itself outside the language rules to make it more striking,” he said. “This intervention is interesting because its objective is not grammatical, but rather political and social, to create a consensus to change the culture and possibly change the laws.”

The change in language coincided with the rise of a feminist movement in Argentina that coalesced around a campaign against femicide, or the killing of girls and women because of their gender. The campaign, called “Ni Una Menos” (“Not One Less”), was key to broadening political support for legalizing abortion, a legislative priority for Fernández.

Non-Spanish speaking countries are also struggling with the place of gender in the language.

In Sweden, the effort has reached kindergartens, where teachers avoid pronouns like “he” or “she”, preferring to refer to children as “friends” or use a gender-neutral pronoun, “hen”.

In the United States, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun has become increasingly common among people who reject traditional gender designations.

In France, change has been slower in coming. The government has officially come out against gender-neutral formulations, although the French Academy, the official guardian of the French language, has finally agreed to allow professional titles to correspond to the gender of the person instead of being uniform masculine.

In Argentina, Mr Fernández, a law professor, courted the movement to make language less masculine when he campaigned for president. In his campaign logo, the word “todos,” which means “everyone,” was rendered with a sun symbol instead of the second letter “o.”

Shortly after he took office, some departments began adopting gender-neutral language. The pension system, for example, has published a guide for all its staff in inclusive language. But he refrained from ordering its use in official documents.

Mónica Roqué, Secretary General of the Agency for Human Rights and Gender, helped write the manual and thanks youth movements for encouraging changes in language.

“They made us think about that,” she said. “This transgression of using a letter that isn’t ‘a’ or ‘o’ really got us thinking about what it means.”

The National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism in Argentina has also started to use inclusive language in some official resolutions. But he refrained from using the ‘e’ wording lest it create more confusion than awareness.

“In general, there is a desire to always use inclusive language,” said Victoria Donda, the institute’s director. “But inclusive language cannot exclude some people.”

In poorer neighborhoods, Ms. Donda said, people aren’t as used to hearing the letter “e” replace the “a” or the “o,” and it can be confusing.

However, Mrs. Donda’s 5-year-old daughter still speaks with the “e”.

“I have to use it with her, because she corrects me if I don’t,” she said.



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