Editor at Large

No, Really, My Friends are Men AND Women

Yesterday I wrote about the English pronoun inclusivity problem—is it really okay to say that your brother and sister each has his own personality? Many, including Jane Austen, prefer to use the singular they in unisex instances such as these.

Countries like Spain and Germany have a bigger problem, though, and they don’t have to go looking for hypothetical brother-sister sentences to come up with an example: because of the use of gender in their word endings, Spanish and German generate non-inclusive language practically all the time.

In a nutshell, nouns in both the Spanish and German language have a male plural and a female plural:
those (female) scientists, those (male) nannies.

Just as in English, where one male pronoun is expected to naturally include the unspoken female members as well, the plural noun friends – amigos – refers to any group of comrades with at least one male. A gaggle with 99 women? Amigas. A crush of 99 men? Amigos. How about 99 women and 1 man? Amigos, again.

That means that if you put out a job advertisement in either language seeking mathematicians (matemáticos in Spanish and Mathematiker in German), you run the risk of professional, qualified women thinking that the position could be open to men only. But because these languages have more grammatical inflexibility, you see different solutions than in English.

How can you have it both ways in Spanish, when the very vowel is different? How can you make sure that German mathematicians who are female understand that your Mathematiker includes Mathematikerinnen?

Linguistic explorers in both countries have hit upon a similar solution: use graphics to make the word exist in two different forms at the same time.

Sylvia, a translator colleague of mine and a woman, has some great examples on her Castilian-language blog of how the Spanish are welcoming women and men into their plural nouns: with the @ sign! The @ looks like an “o” and an “a” coexisting, a grafting of the universal amigos onto the exclusively female amigas. When you write to your amig@s, you’re sending the message that you speak to the women and men in your group of friends equally.

The Germans, who often use the ending -er for their plural nouns and make them female by adding -innen, use a capital I to blend the two plural forms: Mathematiker + Mathematikerinnen becomes the inclusive MathematikerInnen. See for yourself here.

Even the German Foreign Office is getting into the act: I caught a job notice on their web site just the other day for translators (singular Übersetzer, plural Übersetzerin) using the more inclusive solution. The URL? That’s ÜbersetzerIn, to you.

3 replies on “No, Really, My Friends are Men AND Women”

Thanks for the link (!) And well, what can I say? Yep, I am a proud advocate of non-sexist language 😉 but let me tell you that the @ symbol seems to be only allowed in colloquial contexts (e.g. sms messaging, blogs, emails…) sooo…we still have a problem in formal language (newspapers…).

Yes, I think that the Germans might be using their version of the @ symbol in more formal contexts than the Spaniards. I was surprised to see the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office) getting into the act! Have there been discussions about the @ symbol in public forums in Spain? Do you know if it’s being used colloquially in Latin America too?

I for one think it’s fantastic that you use it so often. Keep it up!

Uhmmm…I can’t remember the name of a book right now but I know this issue has been discussed on an academic level. This book I mentioned was about ‘ciberlingüística’ or ‘ciberlenguaje’, a new term coined to include this sort of new variations regarding the Spanish language… I haven’t read it so I cannot give you an opinion but I am sure the @ symbol must have been discussed there… And yes, it is used in LA Sp too (if you run a search in Google you’ll find it)… Thanks, I’ll use it whenever I can 😉

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