These linguistic rebels want to change how to say ‘they’ in Spanish

A feminist encampment in Santa Fe, Argentina, in 2019. (Photo credit: Gabriela Carvalho PH/Wikimedia Commons)
A feminist encampment in Santa Fe, Argentina, in 2019. (Photo credit: Gabriela Carvalho PH/Wikimedia Commons)

There are around 1,000 members of an Argentinean translators and interpreters guild, and 90 percent of them are not men. 

Yet, they say, they have to refer to themselves collectively as male — when using traditional, gendered Spanish pronouns. 

So the group, called TEIFEM — Feminist Translators and Interpreters of Argentina — has a few modest proposals for making Spanish pronouns more gender-inclusive. 

Yet there’s an obstacle in their path — the Madrid-based Royal Spanish Academy

Spanish lessons

Sponsored by the Spanish crown, the Academy’s mission is to set Spanish-language standards through its influential network of affiliated schools in 22 countries. 

The problem is that the Academy’s traditionalist approach to Spanish pronouns — the third person, in particular — is, says TEIFEM, inherently sexist. 

In English this isn’t really an issue: “He,” “she” and “they” cover the bases pretty inclusively. 

In Spanish, singular masculine and feminine pronouns are also clear enough — el for “he,” ella for “she. 

It’s when you’re referring to mixed groups of men and women that things get confusing. 

When referring to a group of women, ellas is equivalent to the English-language “they.”

But when referring to both a group of men and a group of men and women, the word is masculine — ellos

In the same way, “everyone” translates as todas for a group of women, but todos as all men or a mix of men and women. 

Photo credit: Brocco Lee/Flickr Creative Commons

TEIFEM’s solution is a new plural third-person pronoun that works for men and women — elles

As a singular pronoun, the new word elle can also accommodate individuals without referring to their gender. 

The new pronoun is also an elegant solution to the awkwardness of unpronounceable and aggressively avant-garde usages such as ell@s or ellxs

Similarly, todes stands in for tod@s and todxs, as well as the traditional binaries todos and todas.  

“We” — nosotros and nosotras — also gets a new usage as nosotres.

Pushback and politics

For their trouble, the members of TEIFEM have gotten pushback online, including a variety of verbal attacks and critiques. 

Yet the organization, which emerged out of a failed campaign to legalize abortion in Argentina in 2018, is undaunted in its effort to change the translation and interpreting business. 

The group describes itself as encompassing “women and gender-nonconforming translation and interpreting professionals, students and teachers,” with a mission to “speak up in favor of gender equality.” 

This includes a vision of feminism that doesn’t just advocate for equal rights for individuals, but also for broader social-justice goals. 

Although TEIFEM says that the way language is used can make a person feel socially included or excluded, they insist they are not trying to force change on anyone who doesn’t want it.

All they really want is for institutions such as the Royal Academy to recognize that “language is living, it moves by itself, advances and there are changes,” according to  Gabriela Ortiz, a medical and legal interpreter, as quoted by the Argentinean newspaper La Nacion. 

Rather than define how people should use Spanish, she says, “they should document how people talk.”

Sources: Global Voices, Diario Feminino (activist website), La Nacion (Argentina — 1, 2)

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