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A New Effort In Argentina Seeks To Make Spanish Nouns Gender Neutral

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to spend a few minutes now talking about language and gender. You might have followed the debate in this country over whether people can use the pronoun they instead of he or she if they want to. In the Spanish language, all nouns have a gender. Most masculine ones end in O, and most feminine nouns end in A. But in recent years, some Spanish speakers have been pushing for ways to make nouns gender-neutral. In Argentina, teenagers are leading the effort to rewrite some of the rules. They're changing the way they speak and write, replacing the masculine O, the feminine A with a gender-neutral E. So, for example, amigos becomes amiges (ph). Samantha Schmidt reported on this for The Washington Post, and she's with us now to tell us more. Samantha, thanks so much for joining us.

SAMANTHA SCHMIDT: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So here in the U.S., the push for more gender-neutral language is often linked with efforts to end discrimination and violence against LGBTQ individuals. So what about in Argentina? Any idea of how this movement started?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, so there's actually been a number of efforts to create a gender-neutral Spanish for years now. Some in the U.S. might recognize the word Latinx. The X has been used for many years as a way to replace vowels to make them gender-neutral. They've also used the symbol for the @ sign, which, in Spanish, they call arroba (ph). But those forms were - they were difficult to pronounce. So in recent years, it's really grown out of the feminist movement, predominantly.

There have been a number of young people - particularly, in Argentina but also in other parts of Latin America - that have started, as you said, replacing the vowels with the E. And it's really come from both the desire to acknowledge and represent nonbinary identities, people who don't identify as either male or female. But it's also used as a way to sort of protest the entire language. And that way, it really resonates with feminists who feel that Spanish in particular is extremely gendered and is inherently patriarchal.

MARTIN: Can you just give me an example of why the people behind this movement say that they need to kind of intervene in - that language basically kind of reinforces patriarchy? Give me an example of that.

SCHMIDT: Yeah. Well, the most common example that people use is when you acknowledge a group of people, for example, If there's a hundred people in the room and 99 of them are women, if there's one man, then you have to address the group with the default plural which is masculine. So, for example, you could say companeros (ph), classmates. There'd be a whole group of mostly female classmates and you have - and there's one male classmate, you have to say companeros instead of companeras (ph).

MARTIN: Has there been any pushback? Has there been any sort of counter move against that? And if so, from whom?

SCHMIDT: Oh, yes. It's still definitely new, and it's still definitely associated with the kind of liberal feminist young people in the country. And, you know, the Spanish language is also extremely tied to this academy called the Royal Spanish Academy in Spain. And they have said, blatantly, that they do not accept this, that this is not how you speak Spanish, that the Spanish language already offers options that are inclusive of both genders, that when you use the masculine plural, it does include female people as well. And so you see a real pushback from people who are, you know, more closely tied to tradition and to the purity of the language.

MARTIN: OK. I'm just going to let that go, the idea that women are absorbed into males. In fact, well, from a biological standpoint, I hate to tell you it's actually the other way. But that's another issue for another day. So before we let you go, Samantha, Spanish is spoken by more than 500 million people worldwide. I heard you say that the - sort of the academic bodies that have tasked themselves with determining what is normative have a certain view of this. But just say on the ground, just in usage, any sense that this is catching on beyond Argentina.

SCHMIDT: So beyond Argentina, I've heard of people in other - you know, in Mexico have started using it, like, very kind of small pockets here and there. It seems to really just barely be reaching other parts of Latin America. But, actually, here in the U.S., I talked to some professors who said that within their Spanish programs at universities, they've had students say - how can we speak Spanish in a gender-neutral way? I think, well, you know, only time will tell whether this will actually take off beyond these kind of liberal younger pockets of Argentine teenagers.

MARTIN: That is Samantha Schmidt of The Washington Post telling us about her reporting in Argentina on a movement there to make the Spanish language more gender-neutral. Samantha Schmidt, thank you so much for talking to us.

SCHMIDT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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