Spain’s official linguistic institution steps back from gender-neutral pronoun

The facade of the Royal Spanish Academy, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), a cultural institution dedicated to the linguistic regulation of the Spanish-speaking world, inaugurated the “Observatory of Words” portal on October 27. The portal is a provisional collection of terms and expressions that do not appear in the Spanish Language Dictionary (DLE) but have generated public debate or confusion.

Media outlets began writing about the inclusion of gender-neutral pronoun elle in the Observatory collection almost immediately, prompting the RAE to reiterate that it did not officially approve the pronoun's use nor include it in the dictionary.

The pronoun elle can be used as an alternative to el/ella (he/she). The Observatory of Words defined the pronoun elle as follows:

El pronombre elle es un recurso creado y promovido en determinados ámbitos para aludir a quienes puedan no sentirse identificados con ninguno de los dos géneros tradicionalmente existentes. Su uso no está generalizado ni asentado.

The pronoun elle is a solution created and promoted in certain sectors to refer to those who may not feel identified with either of the two traditionally existing genders. Its use is not widespread or well-established.

After the Observatory's launch, academics, journalists, and the public weighed in on the pronoun's inclusion in the RAE's latest initiative.

Many people understood the move as a sign that the RAE was beginning to accept the new third-person pronoun and could potentially warm to other linguistic proposals that seek to neutralize sexism embedded in the language.

Hello, the RAE incorporated the pronoun ELLE. This is a very strong acknowledgement, given their resistance. The RAE is a bit like the Pope: we don't care what they say, but that they say it is half the battle.

You might like: Are Romance languages becoming more gender-neutral?

However, the RAE was quick to refute this suggestion by reiterating that the institution's position on the use of elle had not changed and it was still not being considered for incorporation into the dictionary.

The RAE went one step further and removed the portal entry “to avoid confusion” on October 31.

Thank you for your interest. Due to the confusion generated by the presence of “elle” in the “Observatory of Words,” it has been considered preferable to remove this entry. When the role and functioning of this section is more comprehensive, it will be reassessed.

Reactions to this abrupt shift were swift:

What do you thiiiiink? That @RAEinforma deleted “elle” from its Observatory of Words. Could it be that they are being corrected? Could it be that Pérez Reverte, Vargas Llosa and company had a heart attack?
What do you all think?

[Note: Arturo Pérez-Reverte is a prominent Spanish writer, journalist, and academic at the RAE since 2003, and Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian writer and politician, also with Spanish citizenship, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, among other awards, and academic at the RAE since 1996.]

Since there were people who did not have a clear idea, it was best to stop explaining it? That doesn't make much sense… In any case, since some people are bothered by language evolving, the RAE gives up doing its job, which is to communicate that evolution.

I did a thing, even though I'm a little late for Halloween

Thank you, RAE, for taking care of our language and not letting it deteriorate with this ridiculous invention.

Institutional acceptance of gender-neutral pronouns

In English, the pronoun “they”, which is commonly used to refer to the third person plural, began to be used frequently to refer to a third person singular. Its use became increasingly common on social networks and in the media, and a large number of entertainment figures asked to be referred to with the singular personal pronoun “they/them”. This new usage prompted many studies and inquiries until Merriam-Webster Dictionary included the new meaning in the entry for “they” and named it the Word of the Year in 2019.

In Swedish, the neutral pronoun hen is used as an alternative to han  (he) and hon (she). It was first proposed by feminists during the 1960s and was later incorporated into trans activism circles. Since the language has no gendered endings in other parts of speech, it became easier to incorporate the new pronoun into everyday speech, especially among young people. In late 2015, the Swedish Academy added it to the dictionary.

One of the oldest neutral personal pronouns, the Finnish hän, which can be equivalent to “he” or “she” interchangeably, was the inspiration for Swedish feminists to come up with a neutral pronoun in their own language. This pronoun has been registered in Finnish since 1543.

It should be noted that including a neutral personal pronoun in a Romance language such as Spanish is much more cumbersome than in the cases mentioned above, as the grammatical gender marker is not limited to third-person pronouns, but also manifests itself in nouns, adjectives and determiners, and that makes it very difficult to avoid gender in fluent speech. Consequently, using elle correctly would imply a very profound structural change in the grammar we know — this change has already been proposed.

Every living language undergoes constant and imperceptible evolution, but morphological changes, in particular, take centuries to settle into natural speech, and frequency of use is a key factor in normalizing new forms. This is why feminist and LGTBQ+ groups have sought to promote forms of communication that would break with sexism, traditional binary systems and, especially, the predominance of masculine forms.

For now, the RAE has suspended the assessment of elle in its Observatory of Words, but in light of the recent abrupt changes, it's possible to think that it could be reinstated at a later time.

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