Jakob Franco, Juan Salcedo, Krystal Quinto, T. Singh
Our research group entered this project seeking to gain clarity on the continued reception of a controversial topic within modern Spanish, the use of gender-neutral suffixes for some traditionally gendered nouns and pronouns. Perhaps most famously within the United States, the term “Latinx” has become a cultural lightning rod in relation to ongoing debates about the progression of social activism (Higa & Dunham, 2022). However, the Spanish language community is far from a monolith, with grassroots movements in multiple Latin-American countries seeking to make the grammatical change as well (Lankes, 2022). We began our research then seeking to assess the rates of use for these terms, particularly in informal settings, as well as to directly gauge opinions on the subject through a variety of survey methods. Ultimately, we also wanted to assess trends within the backgrounds of those who did or did not use these terms to see if these rates correlated with sociodemographic data or opinions on other social issues. Our data provided a nuanced picture that both confirmed many of our predictions about the backgrounds of our research participants, especially in regard to age and political affiliation, but confounded others. The data bore out a fairly strong consensus against adopting the gender-neutral suffixes.
Introduction & Background
In recent years, the topic of gender neutrality within the Spanish Language has been a major point of contention as well as the terms used to describe Latin American communities. Spanish is a gendered language currently with a masculine default, but some individuals have proposed alternatives such as replacing the masculine suffix -o for neutral terms with an -x or -e. Proponents of such a change argue it would help promote inclusivity and challenge embedded patriarchal norms while opponents suggest it is unnecessary or even harmful to the preservation of Spanish as a whole. This topic has been the focus of much controversy to the point where gender-neutral Spanish was entirely banned by the government of Argentina (Lankes, 2022). This podcast from Vocal Fries elaborates on the history of gender neutral Spanish in Argentina and its recent controversy: (Gillon & Figueroa, 2018). The goal of this study was to investigate individual attitudes towards gender-neutral Spanish as well as gather input on the actual use of gender-neutral Spanish. This was achieved through a survey of 122 individuals of varying backgrounds and an analysis of Spanish meme accounts in social media. We hypothesized that older individuals and individuals on the right of the political spectrum would be more likely to have negative attitudes towards gender-neutral Spanish and its use. In the following section, we will take a deep dive into the two methodologies that served as the backbone of this research project.
We created a survey using Google Forms, consisting of four separate sections. The first section consisted of collecting background information on the respondents such as their age, education level, gender identity, political ideology, social media usage, etc. The second section inquired about their language background and familiarity with Spanish and gender-neutral Spanish. The third section used the likert scale to assess different opinions on gender-neutral Spanish. In this section, respondents were provided with five different statements and were then asked to state whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement on a 1-5 scale. Finally, the respondents were provided with a text-entry box with no limit and were encouraged to share their thoughts on gender-neutral Spanish. This was done in order to collect more detailed opinions on this nuanced matter in order to ensure that opinions outside the scope of the survey questions would be accounted for. The survey we created and utilized for this study can be found in Appendix A of this paper.
This survey was distributed across two different social media platforms: Instagram and Reddit. The majority of the respondents came from Reddit where this survey managed to gain some traction. Additionally, less than 5% of the respondents were friends and family members whom the survey was distributed to as well. In total, we collected 122 responses to our survey.
We set about finding memes relevant to our survey respondents as well as within the online Spanish community as a whole. As such, we looked for Spanish language meme accounts on these platforms which had at least 10,000 followers, were active within the last month, and were Latin American based. This last parameter helped limit the scope of Spanish varieties we encountered and reflected the background of our survey respondents more closely. We ultimately found 20 accounts across the aforementioned platforms which met our criteria. Then for each of these accounts, we analyzed the first 20 posts of theirs that contained nouns or pronouns which referred to individuals of an unspecified gender. These are the types of words which would be traditionally gendered as masculine that proponents of “Lenguaje Inclusivo” (or Inclusive Language in English) argue should be altered to include a gender-neutral suffix. We then took note of the appearance of gendered or neutral suffixes in these select posts for each account. We classified loan words that fit the same use case within a separate category as well. Qualitatively, we also took notes on the general content of the accounts to help with later comparisons in relation to their rates of gender-neutral suffix usage.
Results & Analysis
The overall response to the survey was overwhelmingly negative with respondents being quite upset that this survey was even being conducted in the first place. This resulted in our respondents being very vocal in stating their opinions and many even left very detailed thoughts on the matter in the text-entry section. The data we collected was analyzed in two different ways: firstly, Google Forms provides statistics for each question; it generates graphs and charts for each question and provides a percentage breakdown for the responses to each question. Secondly, we downloaded and exported all of the responses into an excel spreadsheet, which we then filtered for various different factors in order to find correlations in the data. In the following few sections, the results will be broken down and discussed section by section:
Section 1: Background Information
64.8 % of our respondents were aged 19-29. This was followed by 30-39 year-olds who comprised 14.8% of respondents. Following closely behind this age group, were 1-18 year-olds who made up 13.9% of respondents. 40 and up respondents were in the minority. 57.4% of our respondents were male, while 33.6% were female. The rest were comprised of non-binary individuals and those that preferred not to answer. The education levels were varied, but the majority of respondents had a higher education background of some sort. When it came to political ideology, almost 50% of respondents identified as either left or far left, while 26.4% self-identified as centrists/moderates. We had initially predicted that right-leaning individuals would be more likely to oppose gender-neutral Spanish, while left-leaning individuals would be more in favor of it. This turned out to not be the case at all; our data analysis revealed that out of 68 left-leaning respondents, 40 respondents had a strongly negative or negative opinion towards gender-neutral Spanish – a staggering 58.8%. In comparison, exactly 50% of individuals who self-identified as right-leaning had a strongly negative or negative opinion towards gender-neutral Spanish. In other words, left-leaning individuals were actually 8.8% more likely to be in opposition to gender-neutral Spanish, completely in contrast to what we had originally hypothesized. This will be discussed further in later sections.
Section 2: Language Background & Familiarity with Gender-Neutral Spanish & Terminology
A total of 91.8% of our respondents were Spanish speakers with more than 75% identifying as intermediate and up in fluency. 25.4% of these speakers self-identified as being native Spanish speakers. However, given that only 27.9% of the respondents said that Spanish was their first language growing up, approximately 6 of these respondents were most likely heritage speakers. When it came to having heard of gender-neutral Spanish, 73% of respondents said they’d heard of the term and 82% said they’d heard of the term “Latinx”. 12.3% had heard of gender-neutral Spanish and 9% “Latinx”, but weren’t sure what these terms meant. Out of all of our respondents, only 23% said they’d used gender-neutral Spanish, while 77% claimed to never have used it. Those that did use it, primarily used it on social media. Finally, 50% of all respondents said they had a strongly negative opinion of gender-neutral Spanish, while only 9.8% said they had a strongly positive opinion.
Section 3: Statement Assessment
In this section, respondents were provided with 5 different statements relating to gender-neutral Spanish and its usage and were then asked to assess whether they strongly disagreed with the statement (a rating of 1), or strongly agreed with it (a rating of 5). A rating of 2 was “disagree”, 3 was “neutral”, and 4 was “agree”. 73.8% of respondents expressed that they did not believe that regular gendered Spanish promotes harmful stereotypes that favor one gender over the other. 54.1% of respondents actually felt that gender-neutral Spanish is degrading to the original language and culture. 69.7% disagreed with the sentiment that it’s easy to make the switch to using gender-neutral Spanish. 69.6% of respondents expressed that they would not prefer to speak a gender-neutral version of Spanish over gendered Spanish.
The sentiments expressed in the fourth section of the survey will be discussed in the discussion section.
Our data for the meme pages largely lined up with that of our survey responses discussed above but with some key divergence. Only three out of the 20 accounts we looked at, or 15%, ever used gender neutral suffixes in their posts. Of these three accounts, two used exclusively gender neutral suffixes and the last one used the gender neutral terms twice as often as gendered forms. This suggests individuals will generally commit to using the neutral form almost exclusively if they use it at all with the large majority of individuals never doing so.
Interestingly, the two accounts which used gender neutral loanwords from English never used a neutral suffixed Spanish.
While we could not collect substantial demographic information about the administrators of the social media accounts themselves due to their predominantly anonymous nature. However, we could look at the content of their posts to see if certain subject matter correlated with a greater likelihood to use gender neutral suffixes. We found that two of the accounts which used gender neutral suffixes engaged in political discussions supporting left politics within their meme posts such as @pelaeldiente on Instagram. While our survey suggests that the political left holds even worse opinions of gender neutral suffixes than the right, the meme accounts suggest they are more likely to include it in their language.
Today, the US recognizes people who are non-binary as an official gender option on a federal level. Inclusivity is a term that can be difficult to define, but Díaz et al. (2022) define an inclusive language as, “’Inclusive’ of many (disenfranchised) communities across the intersections of gender-orientation, race, ethnicity, ability, religion, age, social class, etc. For this reason, many scholars have committed to advocacy of gender nonconforming communities, particularly, trans and non-binary subjects, prefer the use of the term “non-binary” (lenguaje no binario) or “gender neutral” language…” (p. 4). However, Real Academia Española does not acknowledge more than two genders in the language. The adoption of gender neutral Spanish would need the support of a large swath of Spanish speakers at all levels of society to take hold and our data suggests this coalition remains a distant possibility at the moment. Additionally, ethical concerns regarding this topic remain as well with Salinas (2020) writing “Latinx might be unpronounceable for some people of Latin American descent” (p. 153). Perhaps there is a way to become more inclusive, but Salinas argues to take into consideration whether the people of that region can even pronounce Latinx, as it does not follow morphological or phonemic rules of the language.
In the fourth section of the survey, respondents were given the opportunity to express their thoughts on gender-neutral Spanish and the pervading sentiment was that gender-neutral Spanish is “a push by white academics onto a culture who doesn’t want it,” and that it is nothing but another attempt at linguistic imperialism. One respondent said, “As a latino, I find latinx to be one of the worst things to come out of academia and is a barrier to having the broader latino community embrace progressive ideas.” Yet another respondent said, “‘Latinx’ is a colonialist, classist solution dreamt up by white people speaking on behalf of minorities.” Many respondents also questioned why there’s so much focus on incorporating gender-neutrality into Spanish when the same is not true for other gendered languages such as French. Proponents of gender-neutral Spanish expressed concerns over the suffix “x” and expressed a need for better alternatives that make more phonological sense for Spanish speakers. You can watch this tik-tok to hear more opinions on this divisive subject.
Examining the responses of non-binary individuals to the survey reveals that even this community remains divided on the subject. Of the 6 non-binary respondents to the survey, they were evenly divided in holding positive or negative views of gender-neutral Spanish and most do not use it in their everyday lives. This spread of opinions does not provide a clear mandate in favor of gender-neutral Spanish but also shows a higher level of support than among the general population. Some scholars such as Bonnin and Coronel (2021) argue, “The use of gender-neutral forms, and even of languages with less gendered grammar, helps women to overcome stereotyped gender roles and develop as active agents in institutions” (p.1). However, this sentiment only holds true if the change itself is received well by the populations it attempts to support and not as a performative intrusion. Further research into the role gendered language plays in gender roles and stereotypes within society remains necessary, especially to assess how these opinions continue to shift over time.
Overall, the question of whether the Spanish language, and perhaps other gendered languages, may function, or merely be accepted, as a more gender-inclusive language remains inconclusive. As the data from our surveys demonstrates, attitudes towards changing the Spanish language to be gender-neutral remain resistant and largely skeptical of whether it is even necessary. Surprisingly, negative attitudes towards the topic arose regardless of demographic, contrary to our hypothesis that individuals with political ideologies that are more left-leaning would be more likely to gravitate towards gender-inclusive language which would seemingly aid in neutralizing harmful gender stereotypes. It seems that other concerns were voiced by survey participants that justified moving away from changing the language in its entirety, from concerns that terms like “Latinx” could be viewed as a form of linguistic imperialism and thoughts that for the language to change the culture must change first. Our research done in social media reflects similar perspectives with gender-neutral Spanish suffixes being utilized by only three of the social media accounts we studied. So although the world seems to be progressing towards being more gender-inclusive, feelings towards language change are passionate and as of now, at least in the Spanish language, the majority of speakers are not inclined to change the language, especially if they aren’t the ones deciding the changes.
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