Just words

‘Could feminism transform language? And could a transformed language transform reality in turn?’ Alia Trabucco Zerán reports on recent changes in Spanish-language feminism.

 

This year, amid alarming reports on the rise of fascism in Brazil, the extreme right’s in Europe, and the catastrophic extent of global warming, one news story went almost unnoticed. In the United States, a twenty-year-old woman, Michelle Carter, was convicted of manslaughter of her boyfriend. The strange thing about it? He was alone when he died. From her house, phone in hand, Michelle sent messages goading him to commit suicide. No more thinking, she told him. You just need to do it.

These words eventually led to her conviction. It was an unprecedented sentence. The Massachusetts jury determined that Carter was guilty of the suicide of Conrad Roy; that her messages and several phone calls had been the cause, albeit indirectly, of his death. For the jury there was no reasonable doubt: words can kill.

Beyond the questionable logic that put Michelle Carter behind bars, this case is representative of a wider, fascinating and recently resurgent debate about the relationship between language and power. Words and their corrosive power have been at the heart of several controversies around Donald Trump’s racism and Jair Bolsonaro’s homophobia. The violent reverberations of certain words have been brought up again and again by the #metoo movement. And it is words and their transformative power, their utopian potential that have played a central role in a particularly heated politico-linguistic dispute in the Spanish-speaking world.

On the 8th March 2018, thousands of women in Spain participated in a general strike against gender violence and austerity; in Argentina, millions of protesters waving green handkerchiefs rallied in the streets demanding the legalisation of abortion; and in Chile, my home country, dozens of universities suspended classes calling for the end of an inherently sexist education system and of sexual harassment in the classroom. In all three cases, a critical, organized feminist movement used a rotation of different spokespeople when communicating with the press. Eschewing hierarchical and ‘personality-driven’ leadership, the women chose to present themselves to the public as a collective body; and from that body came words nobody had heard before: ‘nosotres’, instead of ‘nosotros’ or ‘nosotras’; ‘todes’ instead of ‘todos’ or ‘todas’; ‘chiques’ instead of ‘chicos’ or ‘chicas’. An ‘e’ that displaced the round and equivocal masculine ‘o’ and the exclusive and excluding ‘a’ which are the basis of Castilian’s strict binary grammatical gender; an ‘e’ which elicited both bafflement and resounding laughter.

These reactions were met in turn with questions from the movements’ various spokespeople: Why should we use ‘nosotros’ or ‘nosotras’ if what feminism opposed was precisely the male/female dichotomy that had generated so much violence and inequality? Was Castilian in some way reinforcing these hierarchies? And what about those who refuse to be defined as either men or women – grammatically speaking, where do they stand? The questions asked by the movement were uncomfortable and prompted intense debates around the power of language and the language of power.

Was Castilian an inherently macho language? Could feminism transform the language? And could a transformed language transform reality in turn?

No one expected quite the virulent response that this so-called ‘inclusive language’ provoked. In Spain, the writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte declared that ‘necessary feminism was one thing, but radical Talibanism which bases itself on twisting words is quite another’. The Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a diatribe drawing curious comparisons between feminism and authoritarianism, calling certain currents ‘anti-literary’ and ‘anti-cultural’. And at The Royal Spanish Academy the long-suffering guardians of linguistic purism are still sticking to their story: ‘The masculine grammatical form functions as an inclusive term to refer to mixed collectives.’ And yet, the months pass and this ‘e’ continues to make itself heard over the din, as do more questions prompted by this genuine metamorphosis of language: Was the use of the generic masculine form ever appropriate? Why did human rights declarations add ‘niñas’ alongside ‘niños’ and replace ‘men’ with ‘people’? Has the ‘o’ ever represented the whole of humanity?

Over a hundred years ago, a now forgotten revolt against the feminine noun ending ‘a’ caused similar shockwaves. For decades, ingenieraabogada and doctora had been nouns that described the engineer’s wife, the lawyer’s wife, and the doctor’s wife. When the first women joined these professions, many scoffed that it was petty and confusing to adapt the trade names to the feminine form. Those women could simply call themselves an abogado, ingeniero or doctor – without changing from the masculine form – if they didn’t want to be confused with ‘the wife of’. And, for many women, calling themselves abogado, ingeniero or doctor felt like a real victory. Men and women alike resisted the letter ‘a’, and this opposition went on for more than a century. But what is one century in the long history of a language? Indeed, what is the history of language if not a history of transformation? Today, abogada, ingeniera and doctora form part of not only the Spanish language, but also our imaginations as Spanish speakers. And the capacity to imagine has always been the driving force behind feminism; a radical, stubborn, luminous imagination which has allowed women, again and again, to move beyond the narrow confines of the possible: imagining ourselves in schools and universities, in libraries and factories, in parliaments, laboratories, and even in spacecrafts.

All of feminism’s triumphs have called for imagination; some have required women to utter words that do not even exist.

I don’t know if, a hundred years from now, the vilified ‘e’ will form part of the Castilian language. I don’t know if, in the future, I will be able to utter that letter without it feeling somehow imported and scandalous. But if words can kill, if they can generate hate and violence, and if they are capable of conveying love, then they are never just words. And perhaps that it precisely what we need: new words to imagine a new reality.

 


Alia Trabucco Zerán is the author of The Remainder, translated into English by Sophie Hughes, and published by And Other Stories and Coffee House Press. It was awarded an English PEN award, won the prize for Best Unpublished Literary Work awarded by the Chilean Council for the Arts in 2014, and was chosen by El País as one of its top ten debuts of 2015.

Translated by Sophie Hughes.