What’s Inclusive Language?

April 11, 2020
What's inclusive language? Why is it important? Discover it in today's article!

Women suffer from discrimination. That’s a fact, not an opinion. Nevertheless, the use of inclusive language is still a fairly controversial subject, especially for Spanish, which has gendered nouns. The structure of some languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, make even more gender distinctions, while others, such as Basque and German, are more neutral.

The debate with the Spanish language is mostly centered on the fact that the default gender is masculine and excludes women. Some people believe that the use of the generic masculine reinforces patriarchal structures. Consequently, the use of inclusive language could be the first step towards ending gender discrimination.

On the other hand, many people defend the language and its structure. While it might seem like one side is defending feminism and the other isn’t, both positions have their reasons. Today, we’ll explore the debate and the different arguments at play.

Language and sexism

In order to understand the role language plays in society, we need to start by understanding the difference between signified and signifier. The signifier is the word, written or pronounced, while the signified is the idea that we have about that word. Thus, “house” is a signifier but the image you have of a house is the signified. The difference is that the signified of the house could include doors, windows, and a chimney, among other elements.

“The prolonged slavery of women is the darkest page in human history.”

-Elisabeth Cady Stanton-

In terms of inclusive language, in Spanish the signifier “Congreso de los Diputados” (Congress of (Male) Representatives) is masculine, but it’s signified includes both male and female representatives. Consequently, you shouldn’t confuse the absence of the feminine gender in the signifier with an “invisibility” of women in the signified. However, this clarification omits something important. The signified is always given in a particular context. Therefore, the meaning of the phrase or word is the signified, plus the context.

A scene of people talking made with small dolls.

The debate about inclusive language

Some people who advocate for inclusive language argue that our male-dominated society is the origin of the prevalence of the masculine gender in the grammar of certain languages. However, a priori, this argument doesn’t seem quite right. The same language can exist in sexist societies and in societies that have more gender equality. Thus, you can’t argue that a sexist society is the cause of sexist language.

“Now as before, women must refuse to be meek and guileful, for truth cannot be served by dissimulation.”

-Germaine Greer-

The same thing happens with inclusive/neutral language or languages with a feminine generic. These can also exist in patriarchal societies. In short, there’s no proven cause-and-effect relationship between society and language in terms of masculine dominance. Acting like this relationship is a given is like seeing the problem on one plane (real inequality) and seeing the solution on another (grammar).

The problem is in the context. You can only understand a language in its context, in the way people actually use it every day. If you talk about a national soccer team, for example, people around you will undoubtedly think of the men’s team.

Thus, while the solution to discrimination against women lies in changing reality, a change in language also has an impact. In other words, the context will be what changes the signified of the words without having to change its signifier.

A cartoon of a man and a woman using inclusive language.

Linguistic procedures

It would seem that the solution is for women to take over the generics, instead of being excluded by them. There are several ways to do this. One of those is by using inclusive language.

One option for using more inclusive language in Spanish is to use both genders when referring to a mixed group. For example, saying “cuidadanos y ciudadanas” (male citizens and female citizens), “españoles y españolas” (Spanish men and Spanish women), or “todos y todas” (all men and all women). There’s also the option of abbreviating this option when you write. For example, españoles/as. Another solution for written language is to use an “at” symbol representing the masculine (o) and feminine (a) ending of the noun (@) or an X – tod@s or todxs.

Changing language like this can make it easier to integrate women into the meaning of the words. That being said, if we want to build a more just society, we also have to address gender violence, the pay gap, and sexist advertising, among other things. An equality-based education is crucial for making change, and inclusive language can be part of that education.

Thus, when we finally solve these problems and we live in a truly equal society, gender in grammar will lose its meaning. Until then, using inclusive language is a step towards making women feel more visible. Don’t forget that the most important thing is to change the context. That, in turn, will change the meaning.

  • Arias, A. (1995). De feminismo, machismo y género gramatical. Valladolid: Universidad.
  • Calero, M. A. (1999) Sexismo lingüístico. Análisis y propuestas ante la discriminación sexual en el lenguaje. Madrid: Nancea.
  • Grijelmo, A. (2018). ¿Invisibiliza nuestra lengua a la mujer? El País. Recuperado de https://elpais.com/cultura/2018/11/28/actualidad/1543418937_639835.html
  • Marco, A. (1996). Estudios sobre mujer, lengua y literatura. Santiago de Compostela: Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria y Universidad de Santiago.