Abstract: Descriptions of grammatical gender as an arbitrary feature of language are challenged by the innovation of nonbinary pronominal and morphological forms in Spanish (e.g. latinx ¹, elle ‘they [sg.]’), French (e.g. iel ‘they [sg.]’), and Italian (e.g. tutt* ‘everyone’) which work outside the prescriptive constraints of the language to create true gender neutrality and/or to express specifically nonbinary gender identities. First explored by feminist linguists in the 1970s (e.g. Lakoff, 1973), the idea that gender-marked features of language mirror a naturalization of binary social gender motivated anti-sexist language reforms which sought to rectify male-biased linguistic traits through the equal frequency and significance of masculine and feminine forms (e.g. Bengoechea, 2008). Challenging the notion that gendered linguistic features must be binary, recent gender-neutral/nonbinary language reforms instead point to the very existence of gender in the grammar as the issue, proposing to subvert binary gender distinctions in personal reference by innovating nonbinary forms in speech and in writing (e.g. Gómez, 2016). Both types of language reform proposals have been directed at prescriptive institutions like the Real Academia Española [RAE], l'Académie Française [AF], and the Accademia della Crusca [AC], authorities which reject them as unnatural and a threat to the purity of the language, and which continue to uphold androcentric prescriptive grammatical rules. This paper analyzes these academies' rejections of anti-sexist and gender-neutral/nonbinary reforms and characterizes their language planning policies as emblematic of structural linguicism targeted at gender minorities (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1988). Our analysis is based on a data corpus of official academy statements issued in interviews and on their respective websites and social media accounts, which serve to guide the public on the appropriate use of standard language. In these statements, the academies reveal standard language ideologies fueled by language panic (Hill, 2001) and language subordination (Lippi-Green, 2012), influencing oppressive language policies that discriminate against speakers on the basis of gender identity. We find that these academies reject nonbinary linguistic representations by citing constraints which are not linguistic, as their claims do not follow from empirical evidence or sociolinguistic theories of language variation and change. Given that these institutions have historically imposed standardized languages as instruments of settler colonialism and global capitalism, the academies are embedded in a larger structure of hegemonic power that works to marginalize social groups through the disenfranchisement of their forms of self-expression. This paper contextualizes structural linguicism against gender-fair and gender-neutral language, calling attention to the androcentrism that currently underpins gendered language, and asserting the validity of speakers’ forms of self-expression.
¹ The closest English translation of latinx is 'Latino', the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural self-identification, not 'Latin' as in the language. ‘Latino’ and ‘Latinx’ are not equivalent because whereas the former retains masculine gender marking, the latter does not.
In LSA Media Release: Queer and nonbinary speakers around the world have created nonbinary forms of personal reference in masculine-feminine gendered languages in order to escape the violent cycle of being misgendered and misgendering others. However, Romance language academies, largely viewed as the “authorities” of the languages they govern, continue to passionately reject gender-inclusive language. As an example, l’Académie Française frames gender-inclusive forms as ''aberrations'' that threaten French cultural heritage and place the language in “mortal danger.” While these academies justify their discriminatory practices by claiming the arbitrariness of masculine-feminine grammatical gender (a belief that many linguists continue to uphold), they themselves state that words with personal reference are grammatically gendered based on “biological sex” or “natural gender,” thereby promoting transphobia and other forms of gender discrimination. In highlighting the discriminatory practices of the academies, we reveal the colonial and patriarchal structures of hegemonic power that underpin globally standardized language and the academies’ ideologically-charged devaluations of speakers’ access to adequate self-expression. Moreover, we refute the justifications present in their rejections by demonstrating how they are unsubstantiated by empirically-grounded sociolinguistic principles (see Lippi-Green, 2012 for a discussion on language subordination). We avidly call for Romance language academies to formally accept community-innovated gender-inclusive language given the societal influence they wield, and to recognize the importance of access to nonbinary forms of personal reference as a humanitarian issue.
Date: January 9, 2021
Location: Presented virtually