Inclusive Language: State of the Discussion


With the current surge in demands from women and people of minority gender identities, there is a new focus on the role of language in reproducing ideas, customs, and value judgments that centre men whilst consigning women and those who experience their sexuality outside of the male-female binary (non-binary gender identities) to invisibility.

In this context, inclusive language or, more specifically, the inclusive use of language is seen as responding to the need to reveal inequalities and propose forms of expression, both oral and written, that demonstrate the desire to create social conditions that are more just, more equitable, tolerant, and understanding.

As with any proposal for change, it has garnered both enthusiastic supporters and detractors, and the debate continues. In Argentina, several universities have already approved inclusive usage for academic work, whilst other institutions continue to resist change on the grounds that it does not meet the standards of the Real Academia Española (RAE). In fact, in a 2012 article and in the RAE’s recently published style guide Libro de estilo de la lengua española según la norma panhispánica, the RAE state that they consider the adoption of the alternative inclusive forms already in existence (such as the use of @, x, or e), in addition to the known (limited) ‘dual’ forms, to be neither necessary nor valid. However, by even mentioning these forms in those materials, the RAE has merely acknowledged their existence.

Indeed, regardless of the arguments ‘for’ or ‘against’ inclusive usage, the subject has secured its place on the agenda; thus, both adopting inclusive language and rejecting it constitutes a political stance.

One interesting aspect to take into account is the fact that this period of debate is taking place in various segments of society and linguistic milieus, including: Academia, understood as the institutions that make up the community of knowledge (universities, institutions of higher education, schools), groups of women and people of other sexualities or gender identities seeking to break with heteronormativity and the gender binary in order to bring an end to prejudice (and the associated forms of violence), to raise consciousness and achieve visibility, respect, and equality of opportunity; and lastly, linguists, translators, and other professions, such as journalism, those employed in public authorities and other civil and commercial activities involving speaking and writing for broad segments of the population and that, either as a result of an active, conscious position in favour of inclusivity or the need to comply with the standards of certain organizations or clients, feel the need to seek information and documentation, follow standards, and reflect on the resources available for adapting the use of language in order to put an end to discriminatory practices.

The uneven way in which this issue is addressed gives rise to conflicts of various types, such as instructors being disciplined, students receiving failing marks, ridicule in social media, and other discrediting outcomes. Many of these reactions arise from the fear that inclusive usage will become established, and rely on notions of linguistic purity. The problem with rejecting inclusion on this basis is that it deprives linguistic communities of the agency to propose changes in language that will allow them to act in a manner consistent with their activism or simply with the positions with which they identify. This situation also shows that academic knowledge of grammar not only seeks to describe and explain, but also acts as a highly normative, prescriptivist body.

Other hostile reactions are based on the immediate association of demands for inclusive language with other demands, such as the legalization of abortion, and reduce the visibility issue to that of the feminist struggle. In any case, this is not happening in every country; in some countries, like France, abortion has long been legal, but the use of inclusive language in official documents was banned in late 2017. In this respect, the RAE’s arguments are based on a partial comprehension of the problem of sexism in language, reducing the issue to the male-female binary without making any mention of other identities. Their arguments, in turn, are limited to matters of linguistics, usage, and professional competency. It should also be noted that, in Spain, abortion legislation recognises the right to abortion in more cases than French law.

Lastly, there is another form of opposition that claims that the use of inclusive language is hypocritical because it is used in social spaces, but not in more closely-knit family contexts. In any case, there are many examples of formal usage and expressions that are only used in certain institutional contexts, and would be neither appropriate nor natural in family or colloquial situations. This is true of greetings commonly used in formal or commercial communications or the linguistic instruments specific to the ‘objectivity’ of scientific discourse.

For those who work with discourse and writing, inclusive language calls for a sort of linguistic reflection that is highly attractive, because it involves pulling back the veil of the ‘natural’, commonplace, and ‘normal’ aspects of how we inhabit language.

Some of these reflections, related to the field of translation and editing, will be discussed in other posts.

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