Latino, Latinx, Latine

The grammatical gender neutral in Spanish

Image: “Latinx” written in white over red.

Non-Latinxs, especially those who don’t speak Romance languages, are often confused by our languages’ gendering systems and the gender-neutral alternatives that we’ve come up with. Here I aim to explain the Spanish language’s grammatical gender.

( I only speak very little Portuguese, French and Italian so, though their grammatical gender systems are very similar and a bit can be extrapolated from my explanation, I can’t delve into their specifics.)

First of all, to understand how our gender-neutral works, you have to understand the basic grammatical gender.

  • Most gendered words in Spanish are finished with “-o” for male and “-a” for female. For example, “cute boy” would be “chico bonito”, “cute girl” would be “chica bonita”). The “-a” and “-o” are always pronounced as /a/ and /o/ respectively.
  • Words finished in “-or” are masculine, and you have to add the “-a” to make them feminine. This works for both nouns and adjectives, like “contador/contadora” or “encantador/encantadora”.
  • Words finished in “-ista” are gender neutral, despite the -a at the end. They are gendered by pronouns or articles (“el/la ciclista”, ”el/la periodista”).
  • Nouns finishing in “-ente” are supposed to be gender neutral, and adjectives with this termination always are (”presente”, “decente”). These words are gendered by the accompanying pronouns or articles. In certain dialects, some of the nouns finished in “-ente” are interpreted as male, and have to be turned into “-enta” to become female. For example, the male and female for “president” used to be “presidente”, but certain dialects now refer to a female president as “la presidenta”.
  • There are some words that don’t really adhere to these rules. For example, a spy is always an “espía”, and a witness is always a “testigo”, regardless of gender. These words are also gendered by the pronouns or articles accompanying them.

If some words are gendered by pronouns that means that pronouns and articles are also gendered. Indeed, they tend to follow the same “-o”/”-a” rule, but there is quite a handful of them.

  • The singular for “I” is “yo” and it’s always gender neutral. Meanwhile, the plural “us” is gendered, either “nosotros” or “nosotras”.
  • You” has a handful of forms (“”, “vos”, “usted”) that are always gender-neutral. The plural form “ustedes” is also gender neutral, but the plural form “vosotros/vosotras” is gendered.
  • He” and “she” are “él” and “ella” respectively. The plural of the third person is gendered, and it can be either “ellos” (male they) or “ellas” (female they).
  • The article “the” is also gendered. Male nouns go with “el” (without the accent, unlike the pronoun “él”). Female nouns go with “la”. So, a male dog would be “el perro”, and a female doctor would be “la doctora”.
  • The article “the” also has a plural form in Spanish. So the male plural form would be “los” (“los perros”) and the female plural form would be “las” (“las doctoras”).
  • The Spanish for “a/an” is gendered too. Because “uno” is the number one, we have “un” as the male form of “a/an”, and “una” as the female form. This has a plural form too (which would be similar to the English “some”) and they’re “unos” and “unas” respectively.

In Spanish as it is accepted now, when a group of two or more people (or other gendered beings) are not all of the same gender, the generalization is always the male (“-o”) form.

Because of the many variations that occur in Spanish gendering, “-x” sticks out as an obvious, impossible to confuse alternative. The issue is that “x” is not a common sound in most Spanish dialects.

So, while pronouncing “latinx/latineks/ or “chicx/tʃikeks/ or “bonitx/boniteks/ might come naturally for an US-raised Latinxs or even for Puerto-Riqueñxs and Mexicanxs (due to the heavy use of English/Spanglish there, and the fact that a lot of the Indigenous languages in the Northern Latin America use the /eks/ sound often), using this sound in habitual speech isn’t such a natural alternative for a lot of Latinxs. It works great in the written form, but when translated to daily speech, Spanish-only speakers might find it foreign and even hard to pronounce. Some people choose to still use the written “-x”, but rather than pronounce it as “latin-ex/latineks/, they use “lah-ti-ness/latines/. When speaking English, both of these forms work great: you just add /ɪz/ for the plural form and you’re done. Again, Spanish-speakers might not find this option easy to pronounce.

Since it’s already an existent gender-neutral form in Spanish, and a sound that we use quite often, the “-e” termination is the next logical solution. It’s pretty popular in Spain, and slowly spreading through some South-American queer circles.

The “-x” ending system works as follows: It swaps all “-a”, “-o”, and “-e” for “-x”, or adds an “-x” when the consonant ending is male:

  • bonita/bonito” become “bonitx
  • presidente” becomes “presidentx
  • contador/contadora” become “contadorx

And the articles would look like this:

  • un/una” would be “unx
  • unos/unas” would be “unxs
  • él/ella” could be “elx” or “ellx
  • el/la” could be “elx” or “lx
  • los/las” would be “lxs

In the “-e” ending system, the “-e” works similarly.

  • In “-a”/”-o” words, swap these for “-e”. (“bonito”, “bonita”, “bonite”)
  • In “-or”/”-ora” words, use “-ore”. (”encantador”, “encantadora”, “encantadore”)
  • In “-e” words, just leave it. They’re meant to be neutral anyway.

The articles would look like this:

  • un/una” would be “une
  • unos/unas” would be “unes
  • él/ella” could be “ele” or “elle
  • el/la” could be “ele” or “le
  • los/las” would be “les

But these are not the only options. You have the “-i”, the “-u”, the “-ao” and the “-oa” alternatives(*), all of them as valid as “-e”. The “-e” might be more popular because it’s a sound that comes more naturally (“-u” is the less used vowel in Spanish, and the “ao”/”oa” alternatives might be more popular in languages with more diphthongs ), but these options work in just the same way the “-x” termination does.

(*) If you see something like “bonit@”, that could be read as “bonitoa” or “bonitao”. The “-@” ending is another popular alternative, though it can be regarded as too informal or only appropriate for the written language. This was the first gender-neutral ending in Spanish, but many people criticize it (and the “ao”/”oa) on the basis that in reinforces the “a/o” binary instead of stepping outside of it.

Though “-x” and “-e” are generally perceived as the “go-to” gender-neutral terminations in Spanish, just like “they/them” is the go-to gender-neutral pronoun in English, all the other forms are as valid and they could easily coexist without detriment to the language. Just like English speakers might express their gender identity by choosing pronouns other than “they” (like “ne/nes”, “xe/xeir”, etc.), the way Spanish speakers choose to alter the traditional gendering of their native language might be tied to their gender expression, so it’d be cool of you to ask how they prefer to be referred to when using Spanish words.

Translator, (aspiring) writer. Often described as “opinionated”, even more often as “annoying”.

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