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What is Spain's inclusive language debate and why is it so controversial?

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
What is Spain's inclusive language debate and why is it so controversial?
Spain's former Equality Minister Irene Montero is one of the main proponents of using more inclusive Spanish in the political sphere so that the masculine form isn't favoured. Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Plans to change the name of Spain's Congress of Deputies for it to not just be the masculine form has reopened the debate about whether Spanish is a sexist language.


Plans to make the name of Spain's Congress of Deputies more inclusive has reopened a long-running and controversial debate about where the Spanish language (more specifically, its gendered grammar) fits into it all.

For non-native Spanish speakers or those without a grasp on Spanish grammar, some of this might seem a little strange. This is especially true for English speakers as most English nouns, adjectives and definite articles do not use grammatical gender forms like in Spanish.

The proposal, put forward by governing coalition partners Socialists (PSOE) and far-left Sumar, is to change the name of Spain's Congress of Deputies to make it more inclusive. To do so, they want to change it from El Congreso de los Diputados to simply Congreso, thereby removing the masculine gendered los and -o word ending from the name.

The change would be just one consequence of the wider rewriting of Congressional customs to adapt it to inclusive language. The proposal has been backed by left-wing parties and smaller nationalist groups that support the government, but rejected by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and far-right Vox.

In February, a body within the Spanish Congress issued recommendations on the use of inclusive language in official documents, then also with the support of the PP. In September 2023, official co-languages including Basque, Catalan and Galician were adopted for use for the first time.

READ ALSO: Why Spain has allowed regional languages to be spoken in Congress

The grammar behind it all

The clash seems to be grammar versus inclusivity or political correctness. Much of this is rooted in Spanish grammar rules, namely how the masculine form dominates when including both sexes in collective nouns. What does that mean?

Essentially, that because Spanish is a gendered language and nouns are given a gender - el libro (the book) is masculine, for example, and la casa (the house) is feminine.

It gets complicated with collective nouns, in other words, when a group of something (usually people) contains both males and females, the default collective noun in Spanish is almost always the masculine version.


For example, the word for parents in Spanish is padres, which could be understood to just mean dads, even though Spaniards instinctively understand that it can, in many cases, also be used to signify the plural 'parents' and include both mother (madre) and father (padre). 

In the case of the Congress, the solution seems to be to simply remove the gendered language. However, in other cases the drive for gender inclusivity actually goes and step further and changes the language itself.

If you live in Spain, you might've seen that some people (usually very politically engaged, almost always very left-wing) choose to say, though it is more often written on social media platforms, amigues rather amigos so it isn't masculine and includes both amigas and amigos, the feminine and masculine forms of friends.

This trend is in many ways similar to moves in the United States to use a gender neutral form for Latinos and Latinas, Latinx, something that receives a lukewarm response from most Latinos themselves.


Backlash from Spain's language academy

The steps to make language more inclusive has received backlash from the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) over the years, which, among other things, criticises attempts to do away with the exclusive use of the generic masculine when referring to people of both sexes, claiming it could "increase the distance with the real world" of the language used in institutions. In other words, politicians adopting politically correct language that real Spaniards don't use on the street.

The Royal Spanish Academy suggests that "inclusive language" is a wider strategy that aims to avoid the generic use of the grammatical masculine, something the academy (the body entrusted to safeguard the Spanish language) states to be "a mechanism firmly established in the language and that does not involve any sexist discrimination."

However, it should also be said that the demographic makeup of RAE members is, as one might've guessed, not as representative as it could be.

Yet the argument by RAE and many in Spain, particularly on the political right, is essentially that efforts to make language more inclusive is politicisation of non-political grammar rules.

An academy note from February stated that "artificially forcing" the grammar and lexicon of the Spanish language to fit political correctness does necessarily advance the democratic struggle to achieve equality between men and women.


A far-left policy?

Perhaps the most public proponent of making the Spanish language more inclusive is Irene Montero, the highly divisive former Equalities Minister who was member of Unidas Podemos, a far-left party. For Montero, changing gendered nouns in Spanish is not just about removing the traditional masculine collective noun, but also making language more inclusive for non-binary people.

The Minister stated in an interview in 2021 that the use of "hije" (the 'gender neutral' version of hijo/hija, meaning son or daughter) is to refer to non-binary people who, Montero said, "have every right to exist, even if it is strange and difficult to understand".

For Montero and proponents of more inclusive language, "there is nothing more political than the use of the neutral masculine gender" and changing words serves "to modify habits or prejudices".

"It is no coincidence that the masculine has been used as something neutral and women have reclaimed the language so it speaks for us. If we contribute on an equal footing with men in essential tasks we have every right to be named [properly] and the same happens with the LGTBi collective," she said.



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