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Latinx—A Rant

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

I never thought I would agree with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, formerly Trump’s press secretary and now governor of Arkansas, on anything. But when she banned the word Latinx from the state’s official documents, I cheered. You go, girl/woman/person/ma’am!!!

Her objection to the term was political—she accused the word of being wokebut mine is linguistic. Spanish, like other Romance tongues such as French, Catalan, Italian, and Portuguese, is a descendant of the language, known as Vulgar Latin, spoken by the mostly illiterate Roman soldiers who conquered Western Europe.

Roman soldiers were anything but woke, and the languages that evolved from Vulgar Latin are so strongly gendered that not only words referring to men and women but even inanimate objects are masculine or feminine. Most animals, regardless of their biological sex, are assigned a categorical gender—all butterflies  are grammatically feminine in Spanish (mariposas) and Catalan (papallones), but masculine in French (papillons). Even worse: if a thousand women are gathered together, they are referred to by the feminine pronoun ellas. But if a single male contaminates the group, his lone Y chromosome trumps the women’s two-thousand X chromosomes, and they are all designated by the masculine ellos. You can’t get much more unwoke than that.

The world has changed since the bad Latin of the Roman soldiers morphed into the Romance languages, but in many ways those languages have not. We may easily accept new words for things that hadn’t existed until recently—google, blog, woke, etc.—but for all of human history biological gender has been considered anything but fluid. Hence the difficulty in bringing language in synch with our philosophical and political evolution.

So when someone decided that referring to a thousand women and one man of Latin American origin as Latinos was disrespectful to the female majority and to those who don’t wish to be identified by gender, he/she/they invented Latinx. But how do you even say the word? If you’re speaking English you can make it rhyme with pharynx, but it doesn’t exactly roll gracefully off the tongue.

There are, to my knowledge, no Spanish words ending in x, and if I insert the word Latinx into a Spanish sentence, I have to do unnatural things with my, um, pharynx in order to pronounce it. Not surprisingly, the Real Academia Española, which stands guard over the language of Cervantes, banned it from its dictionary.

Soon other concerned souls came up with an alternative to Latinx, one which ranks several steps higher on the absurdity scale: Latine. This verbal confection was supposedly chosen because it looks like other common Spanish words like carne (meat) and leche (milk). We’re not talking about food here, however, but about nationalities and ethnic groups. And I can’t come up with a single nationality in Spanish that ends in e.  That is because these are all words that refer to human beings, and thus have been assigned grammatical gender: alemán/alemana, chino/china, ruso/rusa, etc.

Here is a sentence that reduces me to giggles: tengo una amiga latine (I have a Latine friend). Not only does it sound bizarre, but latine fails in its attempt to erase gender, because the words una amiga have already given away the friend as female. So far nobody has managed to perform a successful neutering surgery on the Spanish language.

Fortunately, in English there is a perfectly good, gender-neutral term, Latin American, that was used for many years. Why was it replaced by Latino/Latina? I assume that it was because persons from Central and South America residing in the US wanted to affirm their ethnic pride by describing themselves with a word from their own language—sort of as if Italian immigrants had decided to call themselves italiani. But if the word that does honor to your background also disrespects (at least in the minds of some) your gender or lack of it, why not take advantage of what English has to offer, and reclaim Latin American?

With luck, this term, Latin American, might mark a truce in the language wars between left and right. That would make me muy contenta—or should that be contentix?

(In case you’re wondering about Latino/latino, Latinx/latinx, etc.: in English, words referring to ethnic origin or nationality are capitalized, but in Spanish they are not.)



4 Responses

  1. Profe. Muy bien dicho! Me da risa que lex wokex americanex dicten la nomenclatura de nosotros los demás.

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