Language is one of the institutions most frequently deployed by social changes. It is so because it is in language and through language that we can materialize our struggles as the linguistic representation of a more just society.
We can define socially minority groups as groups facing a number of obstacles and the many forms of erasing and silencing their existence. When we think of socially minoritized groups, language has more than the role of naming them to play. Language enacts the function of materializing their struggles, their (re)existence and their rights. This is the case of the popular dissenting proposals of Gender-Neutral Language and Gender-Inclusive Language.
A part of the LGBTQIAPN+ (Lesbian, Gays Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Agender, Pansexual, Non-binary) community, specifically non-binary people (people who do not identify as men or women), seeks out in language forms of representation of their existence and resistance. This is the root of the need for creating new neutral forms of gender marking that go beyond masculine and feminine in language. These new forms are called Gender-Neutral Language.
Some women, who are also socially affected by sexism, began to push for Gender-Inclusive Language. That is, instead of new neutral forms in the language to mark their existence, they advocated for the use of terms that already exist and are more inclusive; terms that consider all people as marks of plurality or as a collective.
Gender-Neutral Language was given rise by proposals that aim at inserting new forms of gender marking in the language when refering to non-binary people. (In Brazilian Portuguese, gender marking can occur not only by explicitly citing pronouns he/she, but also by gender morphology in the end of nouns. Usually, “-a” is used to mark the femine gender and “-o” to mark the masculine gender).
The most common forms in Portuguese to replace “-a” and “-o” are “[email protected]”, “-x” and “-e”. However, other proposals also existed, such as the use of the asterisk “-*”. Popular dissenting proposals for linguistic gender neutrality in Brazil date, at least, back to 2016, that is, people started to produce more inclusive proposals from 2016 onwards. However, it is possible that these linguistic dissidences started much earlier. Other languages, with no gender morpheme, also have their dissident linguistic proposals, such as American English with the use of the pronouns “they” and “them” and French with the use of the pronoun “-iel”.
Gender-Neutral Language is frequently called “Gender-Neutral Pronouns”. However, it is important to point out that there are other classes of words that also mark gender in Portuguese, such as:
- nouns: “professor” (masculine gender), “professora” (feminine gender), “professore” (introducing -e for marking the neuter gender);
- adjectives (words that qualify): “esforçado” (masculine gender), “esforçada” (feminine gender) and “esforçade” (introducing -e for marking the neuter gender);
- numerals: “um” (masculine gender), “uma” (feminine gender) “ume” (with -e marking the neuter gender);
- personal pronouns: “ele” (masculine gender), “ela” (feminine gender) and “elu”/”ile” (introducing -u or i- for marking the neutral gender);
- possessive pronouns: “dele” (masculine gender), “dela” (feminine gender) and “delu”/“dile” (introducing -u or -i for marking the neuter gender);
While proposals of neutral language bring a new configuration to the language, Gender-Inclusive Language proposes the use of linguistic forms that already exist in Portuguese as a way of including all people. Accordingly, instead of greeting a group of people with “Olá a todos”, (“Hello everybody”, with “todos” ending with -o, which indicates the masculine gender and -s, which marks plural), they are greeted with “Olá a todas as pessoas” (“Hello to all people”).
This is because “todos”, even if taken as generic, that is, marking plural regardless of whether they are men, women or non-binary people, reinforces the masculine as a unmarked form and, consequently, the privileged position that men have in society (this form, even if refers to plural in a neutral tone, is written similarly to the masculine gender marking form).
That happens because over the centuries, when Latin was still in use, the termination “-us” marked masculine gender in nouns and “-um” was used to mark plural. Through time, because these two forms were extremely similar, people often used one over the other, thus the neuter gender form was absorbed by the masculine gender form). Thus, Inclusive Language also considers the social issues of sexism and patriarchy – in which men occupy prominent places as a protagonist, of privilege and control in/of society, which also manifests in language by using masculine words as words of collectivity.
Both Gender-Neutral and Gender-Inclusive Language proposals can be seen as dissident linguistic proposals. They are made by people who aim to make language more inclusive and representative of its (re)existences by seeing themselves as important in the struggle against social inequality that also materializes in language. They are dissidents because they propose changes and configuration alterations based on their knowledge of their own language in a way that reiterates that the Portuguese language is also of and for non-binary people and women. Language is for all people and of all people.
It does not matter whether language has been designed to exclude or materialize inequalities; what matters is that it is well known that it is used to maintain privileges and inequalities today. Dissident linguists – popular linguists (people who, regardless of training, rethink their language) or linguists by training – want a more just society also through their language. This is also why we fight and propose changes in language: for inclusion and respect.