Rosa Montero is a highly respected Spanish journalist and author. She writes a regular column in the newspaper El País and has published 29 books.
Rosa Montero, El País – 25 Feb 2018
Language is like the skin of a society. The two are intricately linked, in the sense that if society changes, language changes too.
I will say from the outset that I don’t really like Irene Montero, and that her invention of ‘portavozas’, (a feminised version of the Spanish portavoces, a gender-neutral word for spokespeople) is a whole lot of nonsense. It sounds jarring, and it’s a slap in the face for both common sense and feminism, as trivial non-issues like these only serve to undermine the real, serious concerns at hand. But don’t try to tell me that it hasn’t been excessive, this level of shock and outrage at such inconsequential nonsense. There’s so many self-righteous individuals eager to have their say, so much gleeful, testosterone-fuelled uproar at Montero’s blunder – the right-wing newspaper ABC even ran a front page about the issue! An entire front page, with everything else that’s going on!
Ah. It’s because it’s not an insignificant matter, of course. Because the underlying cause of all the outcry is not simply a senseless word, but rather a victory for social equality. Consciously or unconsciously, the majority of those getting really riled up about this are, in reality, raging against the deconstruction of sexism - that is to say, the advancement of women and forward-thinking men. Well, once again, it seems we’re balls-deep in patriarchal nonsense (excuse the pun).
Over the course of barely a century, men and women have come a long way, there’s no doubt about that. For example, let’s remember that something as basic as female suffrage wasn’t obtained until fairly recently. In France, it wasn’t achieved until 1944; in Monaco, refined as they are, it wasn’t until 1962; in wealthy Switzerland, not until 1971; in Liechtenstein, in the heart of Europe, only in 1984. And in Saudi Arabia, women could not vote until 2015 and even then, only in local elections. So yes, we have improved, but sexism still exists in the world. And this sexism is reflected clearly in the way in which we speak.
Language is like the skin of a society. The two are intricately linked, flesh with flesh, blood with blood, in the sense that if society changes, language changes too, like the skin on a body that moves, grows and shrinks. The comparison goes further in that language is also something organic, a living tissue that you can’t change simply by ordering it to do so - it has to change as society changes. This is why I don’t believe that initiatives like the tiresome duplication of nouns will ever catch on, saying ‘amigos and amigas’, ‘doctores and doctoras’ instead of using one word to encompass both genders. It’s a superficial and clumsy solution to the problem of finding gender-inclusive ways of speaking. All languages intuitively seek to be elegant, concise and precise, and this insufferable repetition ends up being exhausting.
Nevertheless, there's a real necessity in our society to adapt gendered language to the context of modern times, and although that linguistic skin can only change organically, we can contribute to this process, in the same way that someone who wants to lose weight can put themselves on a diet. In fact, language is already changing. For example, the term ‘señorita’ is disappearing, as it’s a relic of an outdated social system – why should women be treated differently depending on their marital status? Many of us are also no longer using the word ‘men’ as a generic term, opting for ‘human beings’ instead.
A clear example of this is the word ‘presidenta’ (a feminisation of the Spanish presidente, meaning president). There are people who maintain that you cannot say ‘presidenta’ because ‘presidente’ is a present participle – the noun refers to an ongoing action being performed by that person - in the same way that you don’t say ‘estudianta’ rather than ‘estudiante’ to refer to a female student. It’s curious, actually. The word ‘presidenta’ makes people feel uncomfortable, but the more commonly used ‘asistenta’ instead of ‘asistente’ (meaning assistant) doesn’t bother them, which shows that it’s a question of habit. It’s true, in fact, that when the word is used as a noun it can be feminised, and the authorities on Spanish language at the Real Academia Española have adopted this practice.
Another example is that in the early days of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, many people found it strange that both parties would be referred to as husbands or wives, and now it seems completely normal. A word becomes legitimate through its use and the need for its creation in the first place. In terms of the dilemma about how to address an audience, I would propose that when the people present are mostly women, we should use the feminine as a generic term to refer to everyone, and vice versa. And you don’t need to do a head count before you speak - when in doubt, we’ll end up using the masculine through force of habit. But in those situations that we’re all too familiar with, where there are dozens of women and only one man, and we still use the masculine? Well, for me personally, it’s really starting to grate.
Translated by Molly Shevlin