Last week in Bogota, Judge Luis Octavio Mora Bejarano, ordered mayor Enrique Peñalosa to change the city’s slogan from “Bogotá mejor para todos” (Bogota better for all)…to “Bogotá mejor para todos y todas” (Bogota better for all (masculine) and all (feminine)).” The decision, widely mocked on social media, was propelled by representative Alirio Uribe of the Polo Democratico party, who heralded it as a new step forward in the city’s use of so-called “inclusive language.”
There’s just one problem. Even a three year old knows that in Spanish “todos” already implicitly means “todos” and “todas.”
How, exactly, is it some giant step forward for womens’ rights to change the Spanish language to an awkward, wordy, and unwieldy artificial construction that just sounds foolish?
I was 13 years old, in a middle school in the Boston suburbs when I was first exposed to the Spanish language. As I moved on to the high school level, I was fortunate enough to study under the guidance of an enthusiastic, passionate, and brilliant teacher who was actually fluent in the language (something that many Spanish teachers in America are not). She guided us through the complicated grammar, while building up our vocabulary, and fostering ample opportunities for lengthy conversation in the classroom.
It was something of a magical experience for me, opening my eyes to a new way to see the world. In the curious mind of a teenager, studying a new language raises a plethora of questions. Why, for example, does Spanish view a whale (la ballena) as feminine, but a shark (el tiburón), as masculine? Why do you use one verb to say “I am in America” (Estoy en America) and another to say “I am from America” (Soy de America)?
Why are there so many different ways to say “you” in Spanish, when there’s only one in English?: from “tú” (informal) to “Usted” (formal singular) to “vosotros” (plural you in Spain) to “Ustedes” (plural you in Latin America). Why is there a whole new verb structure used when you are uncertain as to whether an event will happen? For example, “You are coming to the party” (Vienes a la fiesta) uses the regular verb…but “I hope you come to the party” (Espero que vengas a la fiesta), requires a completely different construction called the subjunctive, a concept that simply does not exist in English.
One of the very first things we learned about the Spanish language is that pronouns are used differently in Spanish. For example, in English, many pronouns are gender neutral: all, they, we, you. That is to say, it is impossible to determine whether they are referring to males, females, or a mixed gender group. They are used for all three situations.
In Spanish, pronouns are treated differently. When addressing males, or a mixed gender group, the masculine pronoun is used. For example: “Nosotros estamos en la tienda.” (We are in the store). It doesn’t matter whether it is all males in the store, or one male and ten females. Mixed groups are referred to with masculine pronouns.
This is something that is abundantly obvious to even a toddler. For example, if the teacher at a daycare center says “Vamos todos para almorzar!” (Let’s all go eat lunch), it is entirely clear to both the boys and girls that she is addressing the entire group, regardless of gender. It is inconceivable that a three year old girl is going to sit there and think: “Well, the teacher just said “todos” are going to eat, so that must just mean the boys.”
“Mom…they call me an idiot in school.”
“All (masculine) and all (feminine). My male classmates and my female classmates”
This phenomenon of politically correct language policing has become rather fashionable in the United States, particularly in the wake of Trump and the highly polarized environment in which we live, but it is troubling to see such foolishness take root in South America, which has generally been immune to the more ridiculous elements of political correctness.
When I come across an issue of a political, or social, or economic nature and I find that I profoundly disagree with someone, I try to consider the best arguments that they, the other side, could make. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Theoretically, I can understand why “gender neutral language” would be a good idea in general.
For example, using the term “Congressman” could perpetuate the sentiment that it is a role encouraged only for males. Using the term “policeman”, could discourage women from applying for the police force, even if they could be just as qualified as men for a particular post. That at least makes some sense. There are easy fixes for this: Use the term “Representative” instead of “Congressman”…or use the term “police officer” instead of “police man.”
While I don’t feel this is one of the most pressing issues facing America today, it sounds reasonable enough, right?
So what is so dangerous about changing the Spanish language to subsitute “todos y todas” for “todos”, then?
Let’s consider where the language police might take us in the future. Let’s imagine, for a moment, where the logical conclusions of trying to make Spanish a strictly “gender inclusive” or “gender neutral” language might lead. The results would be equally hysterical and troubling.
What if we were to flip around the equation and look at feminine pronouns? For example, the word “authorities” in Spanish is feminine. As in, “the authorities are looking for the man who robbed the store.” In Spanish this would be “las autoridades están buscando al hombre que robó la tienda.”
But wait! This type of language could be extremely unjust and traumatizing to men!
How is possibly fair as a society to suggest that authority, in and of itself, and the authority wielded by the power of the state, is feminine in nature? This could lead men to think that they are biologically, socially, or linguistically less-inclined to be in positions of authority. So…let’s change that, and make a new law that says, from now on, the term “las autoridades” will be illegal. From now on it will be “los y las autoridades.”
A teacher in a highschool classroom in Bogota announces the day’s task: “Hoy nosotros vamos a leer el primer capítulo de El General en su Laberinto.” (Today we are going to read the first chapter of The General in His Labyrinth). In swarm the language police! From now on, they tell the teacher, it is illegal to say “nosotros” or “ellos” or “todos” unless you are referring to a group of only males. If it is a mixed gender group, you must use the term “nosotros y nosotras” “ellos y ellas” “todos y todas.”
But why stop there, say the thought police. Is it not also extremely offensive, that the term “general” the highest echelon in our military, uses a masculine pronoun…as well as “coronel” “capitan” “teniente” “sargento”? What is to be done about this? Well, we could just call a female general “la general” of course, but that isn’t enough! Let’s change the language to come up with a new gender neutral pronoun that won’t be inherently discriminatory against women!
Yes! Let’s invent a new pronoun that will help us to discard the shameless misogynistic bias that has existed for so long in the Spanish language. Now, unless we are referring to a specifically male or female general (“el general” or “la general”), we will use the new pronoun “lael” as a general term.
As in, “lael general es el rango mas alto en el ejército.” (The general is the highest rank in the military).
This is progress as a society right? This is gender neutral! This is gender inclusive! It puts men and women on an equal footing in the linguistic world that we have constructed for ourselves! It dispels the sexist notion that only men are destined for positions of authority!
It is also totally ridiculous. But it could very well be an example of where we are headed with language policing if this trend continues: changing the very nature of language for reasons of political correctness, not practicality.
Lately, amongst the politically correct American vanguard we have seen further language policing…replacing the term “Latino” with “Latinx”, as if this is somehow some incredible step forward for womens’ rights and equality. Again, the term “Latino” in the Spanish language refers to both male and female Latin Americans. Inventing a new word “Latinx” to replace the term “Latinos” is hardly the culmination of some urgent and righteous crusade against injustice.
I have spent a considerable amount of time in our southern neighbor Ecuador recently. Even though Ecuador is ruled by a hardcore socialist regime, it appears that on this issue, they have more common sense than Colombia. The widely used slogan in Rafael Correa’s decade-long administration was “La patria ya es de todos” (The homeland now belongs to all); it seems that women in Ecuador are smart enough to realize that the term “todos” does not exclude them! In fact, “todos” means “todos y todas.”
And we have not even considered yet the issues of freedom of speech and practicality.
We live in an age in which cultural, political, economic, academic, and media elites are taking us down a dangerous path of censorship and thought policing: but they are doing it in an ingenious way, shrouding it in supposed protection of minority rights and sensitivity. A common refrain of the social justice warriors is “Free speech does not mean hate speech!” Thus, on college campus after college campus, a loud, shrill, obnoxious minority is shutting down freedom of speech and academic and journalistic freedom for any group that it doesn’t agree with.
And consider the impracticality of all this. The Spanish language, the world’s second largest, is not inherently biased against women. Consider the inconvenience, the unwieldiness alone, of changing the very nature of a language to replace a two syllable phrase “todos” with a five syllable phrase “todos y todas”, all in the name of political correctness.
Dios nos libre!
This is not about male or female. This is not about left or right. This is not about whether you support the Republicans or Democrats, or the Centro Democratico or the Polo Democratico. This is about freedom of speech, and above all common sense.
Don’t allow the dangerous phenomena of politically correct language policing to take root in Colombia. It is a foolish, petty, and obnoxious trend that will make our language more inconvenient and unwieldy, while doing nothing to advance the causes it supposedly attempts to further.
Between a fifth and a quarter of Colombians still live in extreme poverty; many of them are women. How does replacing “todos” with “todos y todas” do a damn thing to improve their lives?