January 30, 2016
By Andrew S. Vargas
As the Spanish language adapts to a rapidly changing global cultural landscape, perhaps no institution has been as gleefully derided by the woke en Español as the Real Academia Española (RAE). Indeed, at first glance the RAE appears to be little more than a collection of elderly white folks making authoritative linguistic decisions for hundreds of millions of Spanish speakers across the world. To make matters worse, the notoriously conservative academy also bears the name of the Spanish monarchy, with its tainted legacy of colonialism and fascism weighing upon the RAE’s air of pedigree.
So when it comes to the brewing debate on gender inclusion in the Spanish language, it’s not surprising that the RAE has taken a stance against a flurry of anti-sexist language guides and official practices being patched together across Spain and Latin America.
The concern of those behind this emerging movement is that the use of the masculine universal (“todos,” “nosotros,” etc.) in an otherwise gendered language is exclusionary and patriarchal. This has brought us new formulations like “tod@s,” “nosotr@s” – and their non-binary cousins “todxs” and “nosotrxs” – that are working their way into popular usage. But, in a 2012 report authored by academy member Ignacio Bosque, the RAE argued that the newly emerging gender-inclusive movement was inconsistent and rendered the language unspeakable.
To be sure, in the same report the RAE did recognize and condemn more egregious examples of linguistic sexism, and their overall point was well reasoned and thoroughly cited. But still, a statement on sexism authored by a cis-male named Ignacio and signed by a couple dozen Juans, Pedros, and Franciscos is inherently suspect. So with the Academia’s newest female member Paz Battaner officially joining seven female colleagues this weekend, you would think that the balance was tipping in favor of feminine inclusion.
You would, however, be wrong. In an interview with El País just days before her swearing in, the 79-year-old Battaner – who is a lexicographer and philologist by trade – dismissed the controversy. “It’s not the most important topic, in my view,” she insisted before referencing Bosque’s report. “I believe that the masculine inclusive should be used in the majority of cases because otherwise it causes grave inconsistencies and reiterative discourses that don’t help the presence of women in society.”
It’s an increasingly controversial position, to be sure, but one that for better or for worse is in line with the Academia’s mission of reflecting language rather than shaping it. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of male and female Spanish-speakers still opt uncritically for the masculine universal, even if well-meaning institutions have updated their official language in a nod to inclusion. Whichever position you take, it’s clear that there is still a long way to go before all this is finally worked out to the satisfaction of all sides.
But then again, maybe in 40 years the academy will be swearing in its newest black trans woman member, and this whole debate will be moot.