How’s that for a loaded title?? Because it’s always a good time to talk about language and gender!
I was reading about the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year (which, btw, is post-truth, an extremely good choice, I think) and, at the end of the article, the other short-listed contenders were mentioned, including latinx. I’d seen the -x ending in several different murals/tags/general graffiti here in Argentina and my curiosity was piqued. So I googled it.
The Huffington Post does a nice job of summing up the word (for those who are lazy as well as unsure, latinx is one of the (two?) most common ways to render the word latino gender neutral – the other being latin@, which I honestly have no idea how to pronounce). Their article includes links to various others, including ones which disagree with the term, such as this absurdity.
From what I can tell, naysayers seem to have the usual laundry list of language purity complaints, namely, that Latinx is an affront to Spanish (though, just so we’re all clear, as an inanimate object, the Spanish language cannot actually take offense) and is degrading this beautiful language. Now, while I think my opinions on language “degredation” have been made sufficiently clear elsewhere, just in case, let me restate:
1) A language is not a taxidermied museum piece. They, like people and cultures, evolve. Deal with it.
2) Change is not a synonym of impoverishment. Change just means change. Again, deal with it.
Latinx has also been accused of being a form of “American” (another contentious term in Spanish as, technically, anyone from the Americas is an American, thankyouverymuch) linguistic imperialism/colonialism. The argument is that the term is only used in the English-speaking U.S. and not in the Spanish-speaking world. I can tell you from personal experience that that is simply not true. There is no piece of the Spanish-speaking world further from the U.S. than Argentina and the -x ending is well loved down here, particularly by graffiti artists.
Moreover, as the HuffPost also points out, getting upset at the linguistic colonisation of Spanish is pretty ridiculous as Spanish itself is the foremost language of colonialism and imperialism in the Americas. So, really, what could be more anti-colonial than to reconstruct and adapt the language of the coloniser?
Finally, there is the argument that Spanish already has a gender neutral term for people from Latin America, namely latino. However, the term latino is very clearly is not gender neutral. And, by stating that the male is representative of the entire race, you are very clearly showing why gender neutral/non binary language is necessary.
Obviously grammar is not the only place where man (and here I use that to mean male) is used to represent the entirety of humanity. However, while the idea that a man may stand as an example for all of human kind is not confined to the use of gendered nouns, it does begin there. After all, if our very language presumes a man’s universality, what tools do we have to identify and explain that this is not the case? Moreover, by taking the male gender (in whatever language) as the neutral, as the base, the universal, you de-value all other points of view and ways of being. Unlike the male, everything, and every one, else is minoritised, only applicable to a certain few.
A short metaphorical and illustrative aside: I have a distinct memory of being in grade two, learning about French pronouns, and being indignant at the discovery that if you’re talking about a group of people – no matter if it’s 1000 women and 1 man – you would use the plural male pronoun ils. How, I thought, was that fair? How can one man render the existence of countless women unimportant? I continue to agree with my 7 year old self.
For those of you who argue, well, it’s just a bit of grammar, I have this to say: language is the yard stick of culture. If we are racist, it is racist. If we are homophobic, it is homophobic. If we are mysoginistic, violent, and cruel, so is it. By changing the way we speak, we can, so the story goes*, change the way we think about the world.
It is only becoming more and more obvious that men (and here I use the word to mean older, white, middle-class, able-bodied males) are not representative of the whole of humanity. Their needs are not our needs. Their desires are not our desires. Their beliefs are not our beliefs. And their privileges are certainly not our privileges**. If there is any hope of making that distinction a reality, and to validate the needs, desires, and beliefs of those who are not “man”, language must be put to use. It must be made to fight for us, not against us.
Language is our primary tool for expressing beauty, love, and support. Above all else, language should always, always, liberate us.
*Of course not everyone buys into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I like it.
**Luckily, as someone who is all those things except male, I share most of those privileges and this is written with as full an awareness of that as I can.