Words of Change

By María Ramírez for Bowdoin Magazine
IN HER ADVANCED FRENCH THROUGH FILM class this spring, Katherine Dauge-Roth had seven students who identified as women and one who identified as a man. She started using the feminine plural étudiantes to refer to her students as a group.

That means using the feminine plural form instead of the masculine étudiants, the default generic in French, as is the case in Spanish, Italian, German, and other so-called gendered languages, which assign grammatical gender to most nouns and adjectives. In French, that extra feminine “e” as default is a transgression. “Probably years ago, I would have just referred to them using the masculine neutral,” Professor Dauge-Roth says. “The words we use matter, and discourse is where power gets exercised.”

The current conversation about gender around the world is reaching academic practices, while the underlying debate on how grammatical gender influences social behavior is still ongoing. The underlying issues are the subject of much study and research in academia. To what extent do gender markers have an impact on the way we think? Is grammatical gender a meaningless convention? Is language a reflection of society or the other way around? To what degree does language relate to gender equality? What’s the impact of the internet and globalization? Speakers are the ultimate determiners of their language, and the internet has accelerated the pace of change.

“The experiments of today are the grammar of tomorrow.”

—Dauge-Roth, chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

Some institutions are still not ready. The Académie française, the 385-year-old institution that safeguards French language rules, rejected for a long time feminine forms of professions (it finally adopted a new policy on this in March, though it still won’t budge on other questions). and it has attacked the efforts of the French government to avoid “gender stereotypes.” French conservatives have brandished gender-inclusive language as an example of American imperialism, but the debate is local too. After the last critical statement from the Académie on this issue in 2017, hundreds of teachers signed a petition rejecting a classic rule of French grammar: “The masculine always takes preference over the feminine.”

Charlotte Daniels, an associate professor who teaches French and French Culture at Bowdoin, knows the rule well. “That expression is just so problematic, but one tends to use it automatically,” she says. The petition was made on the basis that the rule “did create an internalized sense of inferiority among girls.”

Daniels talks about this debate in her language classes but hasn’t systematically adopted newly invented gender-neutral pronouns (like iel or ille).

“It’s something that we’re talking about rather than using, and the students are really interested in it. They like to see the table with all of the different possibilities. But we’re not there yet,” she explains.

The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Bowdoin has made nods to inclusive language within the norms. It is not an isolated case.

Blase Provitola, who teaches at Columbia University in the Department of French and at Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, includes in emails to students certain inclusive practices to show them that “there are baby steps that they can take to vary their own use of gender if they so desire.” For instance, they can use adjectives whose forms are constant regardless of gender, and they can use hyphens or periods to modify nouns and adjectives to make them more gender neutral. Sometimes Provitola will ask classes how they. would like to collectively refer to themselves, especially when there is a significant gender imbalance. In a class with just one male student, would students still want to use the masculine ils to refer to the class, or would they rather use the feminine form? “Students do not always have answers to such questions, but it makes them aware of how gender functions in French regardless of whether they are ready to immediately make such modifications in their own speaking practices,” Provitola explains.

The debate is particularly intense in Romance languages. English is a so-called natural gender language, where the gender distinction is done mostly by pronouns. There is also another main group of languages, the “genderless,” like Finnish, Turkish, and Persian, which practically have no grammatical gender markers.


A person with pink hair, unmarked by gender, is staring forward. There is a man at one side of said person and a woman on the other side. They appear to be in an argument. Quote boxes filled with newspaper clippings in various languages are floating in front of their mouth (completely covering it). Quote boxes are also floating above their head.

The issues around gendered languages have posed new challenges for teachers and students.

In fall 2015, Maya Morduch-Toubman ’18 wrote an essay for her Intermediate Spanish class at Bowdoin. The assignment was to write a profile, and she chose to do it about a friend. She referred to her friend as her amigue, a variation of “friend” that is not recorded in the Spanish dictionary. Morduch-Toubman also made up adjectives ending in “e” to make them agree with amigue. In Spanish, there is a feminine version of “friend” (amiga) and a masculine one (amigo). Morduch-Toubman’s friend didn’t want to identify always as male or female though.

In Spain and Latin America—and among US Hispanics—some activists and politicians have devised words using “e,” “x,” or @ as a symbol of inclusion, as Morduch- Toubman did.

But back in 2015, Morduch-Toubman’s instructor Genie Wheelwright hadn’t seen this usage before and explained this wasn’t the way Spanish works. “It has to be one way or the other,” she said. Unsure about how to handle the issue, Wheelwright consulted with the native Spanish speakers in her department, as she felt the question was going to come up again. The response from her colleagues was that students had “to stick to the masculine and feminine.” Wheelwright talked to Morduch-Toubman and suggested she write the essay in alternating paragraphs, using the feminine form in one and the masculine form in the next one. “But she really had to conform to what was recognized Spanish. We couldn’t be inventing a foreign language that wasn’t even ours,” explains Wheelwright, who retired last summer from Bowdoin. Wheelwright had been teaching Spanish since 1979. Until that essay, she says, she had not encountered the debate on gender and Spanish in her classroom, so she wanted to know more. She obtained information from an LGBTQIA community association in Madrid and talked to the gender, sexuality, and women’s studies department at Bowdoin.

She felt her primary responsibility was to teach according to the standards set by the Real Academia Española (RAE), the institution that safeguards the Spanish language worldwide. Wheelwright defines herself as a “traditionalist,” but her immediate issue with her student felt closer than the Spanish institution of linguists. “I always picture a group of men quite busy running and debating whether they should have an accent in a demonstrative pronoun. Old white men with boinas [a traditional beret],” she jokes. The picture in Wheelwright’s mind about the Real Academia Española is quite accurate (minus the boinas).

RAE is headquartered in a three-story, nineteenth-century palace next to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Four Doric columns adorn the façade. A stained-glass ceiling covers a marble-arched patio with a carpeted staircase. A wooden filing cabinet contains ancient hand-written definitions of words. The so-called room of directors is furnished with golden quills and a dozen portraits of the heads of the institution during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. RAE was founded in 1713 “to fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance, and purity,” following the example of the Accademia della Crusca in Italy and the Académie française in France. It is supported partly by public funding, and it still plays a role that has no equivalency in the US and other English-speaking countries. RAE issues recommendations for language usage and publishes every year the most-used Spanish dictionary in the world. It has lost some influence in the age of the internet, but its advice still matters.

It’s not all men, as Wheelwright pictures, but almost all. The key decisions are made by forty-six académicos, a governing body of writers, linguists, journalists, and historians who are appointed for life. Just eight out of the forty-six are women.

The current president, Santiago Muñoz Machado, is a seventy-year-old lawyer and historian who believes there should be more women in the institution and supports “alternatives” in the grammar to avoid the default masculine, “without ruining the language from the point of view of its efficiency and beauty.”

Cognitive scientists go beyond pragmatic and aesthetic issues though.

Lera Boroditsky, who studies language and cognition at the University of California–San Diego, thinks grammatical gender could condition speakers to attribute stereotypical connotations associated with men and women to those objects.

Boroditsky explains how speakers of German and Spanish differ when asked to describe a bridge. In German, it is a feminine word, and in Spanish, a masculine one. German speakers were shown to be more likely to use adjectives like “fragile” and “elegant” to describe a brücke, while Spanish speakers talked about a puente as “strong” and “dangerous.” “People speaking different languages pay attention to different things,” she said during a TED talk in 2017.

In another study, Boroditsky examined an art database from speakers of gendered languages. She mentioned the image of sin, which is often depicted by German artists as a woman and by Russian artists as a man. The word is feminine in German and masculine in Russian. After analyzing more than 1,700 artworks from Italy, France, Germany, and Spain, Boroditsky concluded that “grammatical gender predicted personified gender in 78 percent of the cases.” Art can strengthen perceptions.

In the case of German, for instance, some linguists argue that the gendered male proto-type in language use is actually a rather recent change, one that solidified in the nineteenth- century, when literature played a key role.

“The Brothers Grimm, famous for their fairy tales, were, among others, instrumental here. In the 1830s, they differentiated grammatical gender accordingly: Masculine is bigger, older, robust, resistant, active, creative; feminine is smaller, younger, softer, quieter, receptive, suffering.”

—Jens Klenner, assistant professor of German at Bowdoin

A second, more complex, question discussed often in academia is the relation between gender markers in grammar and gender equality.

A comprehensive paper published in 2011 suggests a correlation. Its authors are psychology professors Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino, from Rhode Island School of Design; T. Andrew Caswell, of Gannon University; and Emmi Laakso, a researcher from Turku School of Economics in Finland.

After analyzing 111 countries, they found that “countries where gendered languages are spoken evidence less gender equality compared to countries with other grammatical gender systems,” especially with countries where natural gender languages are spoken. There are other factors that have a more obvious impact on equality, such as political systems, religious traditions, economic development, and location. But even after taking those issues into account, researchers found a pattern related to language.

Furthermore, countries with natural gender languages, like English, are usually more equal than countries where genderless languages— like Turkish, Persian, and Finnish—are spoken. “Despite the assumption that genderless languages are gender-fair or neutral,” Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, and Laakso’s research has shown that a seemingly gender-neutral term, such as “they,” “can be interpreted in a gender-biased way.” Gender-neutral terms “can continue to connote a male bias in the mind of the audience.

”Male biases in gender-neutral terms are often a result of historical and cultural factors, not grammar. Some linguists, in fact, do not believe grammatical gender is as important as other biases in the connotation, choice, or even intonation of words spoken by women or about women.

Grammatical gender “does not preclude masculine/ist bias in language,” says Janet Shibamoto-Smith, professor emerita of the anthropology department of the University of California–Davis, and an expert in Japanese, a genderless language. “Focus in Japanese has been largely on the elimination of overtly discriminatory language,” she told me. For example, the word kangofu (“nurse”), whose last character means woman, has been replaced by kangoshi, which means “specialist,” in acknowledgment that nurses are not always women.

Grammatical gender is just a convention, explains Robin Lakoff, a sociolinguist from Stanford and author of the seminal paper Language and Woman’s Place in 1973. Grammatical language “has nothing to do with gender,” Lakoff still believes. “In my mind, it isn’t that interesting,” she said.

Lakoff argues that the grammatical masculine in pronouns and default generics are conventions hard to perceive and hard to change for the speaker. She believes that gender markers in grammar aren’t particularly demeaning for women and it’s not realistic to expect speakers to change. She has always been more concerned about semantics, she says—for instance, the way women talk. “In appropriate women’s speech, strong expression of feeling is avoided, expression of uncertainty is favored, and means of expression in regard to subject-matter deemed ‘trivial’ to the ‘real’ world are elaborated,” she wrote in 1973.

Some of the issues Lakoff mentioned have already changed over time, such as the long-ago introduction of “Ms.” as an alternative to “Mrs.” and “Miss.”

In 1974, protesters gathered outside The New York Times headquarters to defend the use of “Ms.” A few years later, Paula Kassell, an activist for women’s rights, bought shares of the paper so she could go to the shareholder meetings to complain. In 1986, more than eight decades after the first recorded use in print of “Ms.,” the Times accepted it.

“Until now ‘Ms.’ had not been used because of the belief that it had not passed sufficiently into the language to be accepted as common usage. The Times now believes that ‘Ms.’ has become a part of the language and it’s changing its policy,” wrote Editor-in-Chief A.M. Rosenthal.

The internet and social media now have a faster, broader effect than any single newspaper.

“There is more noise, more debate, more show. Today we are constantly connected, and that makes all these issues go around the world very quickly.”

—Joaquín Muller-Thyssen, the head of an advisory council connected to the Spanish news wire agency EFE, Fundéu, which publishes up-to-the-minute recommendations on language usage.

The linguistic debates some-times seem “passing anecdotes, but all of them slowly lay the ground for change... even when there is a backlash,” he says.

Curtis Bauer, translator, and director of creative writing at Texas Tech University, finds “fascinating” the debates on languages in Europe. Currently focused on translating female poets from Spanish into English, he defends the value of being careful with words against some cur-rent backlash. “We are suffering now a moment of linguistic laziness just to be politically incorrect,” Bauer says from Seville, where he is based for a few months.

He supports using “the proper word in the right moment” and being sensitive about the nuances of gender. “The issues about gender in Spain are similar to the ones about race and racism in the US,” he says.

Through poetry, Bauer encourages his students to think about the sound of words and their multiple meanings. “That’s very powerful.... I can lose my home and my money, but nobody can take away from me how I use words, how I understand and make others understand me. Nobody can take that away from me."

María Ramírez is a Spanish reporter based in Madrid. She is currently the director of strategy at eldiario.es. She worked as a correspondent in the US and Europe for El Mundo and as a national political reporter for Univision. She was a Nieman fellow at Harvard and a Pritzker fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

Illustrations by Keith Negley

A close look at a bee.

This story first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories here.