Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Is Spanish Sexist?

Not long after you start learning Spanish do you learn that a huge difference with English is that Spanish has genders, as is the case with other Romance languages such as French.  All words are either masculine or feminine in other words.  For example “el hombre” (man) is obviously masculine and “la mujer” (woman) is feminine, but other words such as “map” (el mapa) are masculine and “rain” (la lluvia) are feminine, words that have no explicit gender reference.

Point 2: The masculine gender dominates the language.  For example, if you have “brothers” and “sisters” together, instead of being forced to use both words as you would in English (unless you say siblings), in Spanish you say but one word to mean both—“hermanos.”  ”Hermanos” could also mean more than one brother, however, so despite being confusing at times the masculine dominance is clear.

Point 3: A common stereotype in Latin countries, some more than others, is that ‘machismo’ is ever present among the men, and some say among women too.  Machismo is synonymous with excessive masculinity, both apparent in attitudes and actions.  For a more academic analysis of machismo, go here… Now. 🙂

A BBC article entitled  ¿Es sexista el idioma español?  (Is the Spanish language sexist?) threw out the question if language is a reflection of the culture or vice versa?   One journalist and magazine director, June Fernández from Píkara Magazine, was quoted at saying that the masculine factor in the language is both a bias and a view of reality for how women are treated.  It seems that Fernández supports the theory that language is a reflection of culture.

Gender is a language trait that politicians take full advantage of in Spanish.  Cristina Kirschner, the current Argentine president, directs both “Argentinos” and “Argentinas” in her speeches, instead of the standard Spanish way which would be “Argentinos.”  Another example is the Venezuelan constitution which includes a long list of positions, including “presidente” (male president) and “presidenta” (female president), ministros y ministras (male and female government ministers), y viceministros y viceministras (you have the idea by this point.)

I see aspects of machismo in the culture, and even in my own culture I saw it.  It is close to what some North Americans would call being a “chauvinist.”  It also struck me when several Latin men told me that they considered women to be the actual machistas in society, as women either demand (or allow) men to treat them a certain way and as mothers, “they taught us to be this way,” one said.

So, gender dominance exists on both a grammatical and a societal level.  The sexism debate isn’t a new one, but what never gets old are the examples of it in language and culture.  One that stood out to me is the translation for handcuffs—a symbol of dominance in itself—“las esposas”, which means “wives” in English.

Need I say more? (Hehehe)

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14 thoughts on “Is Spanish Sexist?

  1. Pingback: Machismo, or how to decide how much to put up with. | Separated Cities

  2. Very interesting viewpoint! Hadn’t really considered this. Don’t think that it’ll lessen my opinion of Spanish-speakers though. Seems as though that study had most every age bracket that answered in agreeance with the statement in the 10-30% range.


    • HI there, thanks for your comment. Of course this would not change your opinion of a Spanish speaker and I hope I didn´t imply that in the post. The point was that the language has aspects of the culture in it and “machismo” is common in the culture, and in some countries more than others. It´s not that it´s good or bad, but just a reality.

      • I hope it wouldn’t affect anyone’s opinion of a Spanish speaker either! Definitely didn’t mean to imply that your post was leading people to have prejudices or judgement. Sorry for the misunderstanding!

      • No problem at all. I understand what you meant. Thanks a lot for the comments, really!

  3. I just think you should study the etymology of word before saying the languge is sexist. I think you’re merely judging it but you haven’t studied it deeply. There was a third gender in Latin, neuter, as the language developed, masculine and neuter nouns mostly collapsed into a single masculine gender so Romance languages only have masculine and feminine and the functions of neuter now fall on the masculine. It was all a phonological process. People didn’t decide masculine was better, it was just that masculine and neuter endings were similar and merged at the end.

    And just a comment the word “presidenta” does not exist in the Spanish language. All nouns ended in ente are genderless. We say “el presidente” and “la presidente”.

    • HI Daniel, thanks for your comments. Although the term “sexist” may seem strong, it was stemming from the article I used as the main source from the BBC – Es sexista el idioma español? Check out the article if you didn´t already as it is from a very reliable source. The post is intended to be some “food for thought” about something very fundamental to the grammar of Spanish, the fact that it has genders–something very different from English. Whether it´s good or bad was not the question nor my debate. You are absolutely right that the subject is very deep and requires more study. There are experts who have done that. And as for the term “presidenta,” although the term may be technically wrong, it is being used in the press. You can see an example here ( from El País newspaper and also on the Twitter page of Argentine President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner:

  4. Blue on said:

    As far as the sexism goes, what seems more obvious is how people use the language – for example, misogynistic slurs to express anger or annoyance instead of misandrist ones. This exists in English too but it’s a lot more common, and overt, in Spanish. And after living in Spain for some time, I can see it reflected in the way women and men treat women.

    • Hi there, thx for the comnebt. It exists everywhere this issue, and in some cultures stronger than others. I find it fascinating to see aspects reflected in language. I’m in Spain now in fact on holiday, where did you live?

  5. Pingback: The Power of Language – Mrs. Braun's Classroom

  6. Pingback: All-Girls School to Ban Word "Girl" Because Not Inclusive | The Federalist Papers

    • Pretty crazy and ridiculous, in my opinion. The post is thought provoking, not promoting feminism or anything of the sort. Sorry I didn’t see this until now, and thx for your comment.

  7. TeltheTerrible on said:

    I know I’m late, but I’d just like to point out handcuffs and spouse aren’t supposed to imply what we’re imagining. The root of “esposas” is a latin word meaning “to promise”. In spanish, to promise became handcuffs, while in english, to promise because spouse. It’s very different, and suggests whoever pointed that out didn’t research the roots. That’s to be expected from someone who might not know much about learning foreign languages, I don’t know if they do or not, but I would hope that since the ending emphasis of this post implies this false correlation, this would be addressed.

    • Thx for your comments. The final comment about the correlation between handcuffs and spouse in Spanish was meant to be comical. It’s not the focus of the post; the focus is on gender and article use in Spanish, which is male dominant.

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