Does Feminine Equal Weak? Look it up in the Spanish Dictionary

This October, the Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española, or RAE) will publish the 23rd edition of its dictionary, the standard among Spanish speakers. Although the kind of authority the RAE holds reminds me of the king in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince who claimed to be able to order the sun to set (but only when “conditions are favorable,” at sunset).

Language and Gender

One of the outcomes of the RAE’s work on this edition has been the amendment of definitions deemed sexist. The move is certainly a reflection of the twilight of sexism in Spain, but the disagreement comes when deciding whether the RAE is making the change in a timely way, or if it’s lagging behind society at large.

As gender in language is often a sensitive issue, the controversy should be a matter of interest for translation companies and professionals working blogs, news portals or website translation and localization for Spanish-speaking audiences.

“Ah! Here is a subject,” exclaimed the king, when he saw the little prince coming.

Updated Entries

Some of the more questionable entries, which were still printed in the 22nd edition in 2001, will be updated in the 23rd. “Feminine” was defined as weak and feeble, whereas “masculine” encapsulated all the virtues of virility and strength. An orphan was curiously less of an orphan if they had only lost their mother. There was a word, cocinillas, for “those men who meddle in affairs, especially domestic, in which they have no business.” To top it all off, the boys had all the fun, since “to enjoy” was “to know woman by lying with her.”

Masculine, Feminine, or Both?

The debate over the use of “inclusive masculine,”or the masculine form of terms with sexual differentiation, to include women and men, as in traductores covering both male (traductores) and female (traductoras) translators, and the use of feminine terms for some women’s professional occupations (like ingeniera (female engineer) is generating plenty of attention.

The dictionary’s new edition will also add a second entry for the feminine form of some occupations, like potter (alfarero/alfarera), locksmith (cerrajero/cerrajera), stonecutter (picapedrero/picapiedra), and welder (soldador/soldadora). According to Professor Eulàlia Lledó, who headed a report in the eighties aimed at reducing sexism in the dictionary, and is also one of the most outspoken critics of the RAE, said: “It is easier for the RAE to accept modifications related to professions than those associated with moral and sex.”

Question: “Does it seem right to you to use todos and todas (all-masc and all-fem) instead of the “inclusive masculine” todos in political speeches? Published Online March 2014 in SciRes

Question: “Does it seem right to you to use todos and todas (all-masc and all-fem) instead of the “inclusive masculine” todos in political speeches? Published Online March 2014 in SciRes

The Language of a Culture

Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, director of the 23rd edition, believes that when society evolves, the RAE echoes that evolution: “We have to improve the dictionary by making it more truthful, not fighting sexism through the way we define words; if a society is sexist, the dictionary will show just that.”

In reference to dual gender, the RAE points out that the transformation of syntax or morphology do not depend on the decisions of the speaker, or the linguistic policies of the institution. Scottish linguist Deborah Cameron, commenting on the persistence of prejudice in English, admits that institutions may legislate about language, but people “do not consult the authorities before they open their mouths.”

For critics of the RAE like Eulàlia Lledó, a Catalan professor of romance philology and a researcher on sexist language in society, it is out of the question to remove definitions because we simply don’t like them, but still insist that some are purely inaccurate. If women are the only ones who “give birth” and men are the only ones who “engender,” there’s a mistake from a scientific point of view. In the critics’ opinion, the problem lies in the outdated perception that members of the Royal Spanish Academy have of the society they serve. Both the RAE and its critics seem to agree on the fact that the dictionary should reflect what happens in the real world, although for Lledó “sexism is a cliché that contravenes reality.”

It should be an easy thing to do but, like in The Little Prince, there seems to be a lot to discuss about how to synchronize the decrees of the king and the movement of the planet.