Gender Identity at a Morphosyntactic Level: English and Spanish


By Alex Anderson


While we like to think that our own feelings dictate how we express our identities, the language we speak may play a larger role than we realise. Gender identity has come into the limelight recently due to the attempted introduction of new, queer-specific pronouns in English.


There are a few reasons why the proposed pronouns never really caught on. Besides perhaps the more obvious social reasons, one explanation is that in English, personal pronouns belong to a closed class group of words. This is to say that adding or taking away from this group of words is a long, slow process. It may even be impossible to change a pronoun in only a single generation of English speakers. The classes of words that are closed are more or less arbitrary, and vary from language to language. The reason why the pronoun “they” (for use in the singular) got more traction than “xe”, for example, is because it already belonged to the personal pronoun pool, and was easier for English speakers to adapt and appropriate.


But this isn’t to say that linguistic gender expression is hard, or futile. Language is infinitely creative, and you can always think of a new way to say something. The English-speaking LGBTI+ community alone is full of slang, but let’s take a look at Spanish.


A common way for gay people to express gender identity in Spanish (albeit, mostly jokingly) is the reversal of the grammatical gender. Spanish has male and female grammatical gender, which is arbitrary most of the time. For example, ”la pared” (the wall) will be feminine, while ”el piso” (the floor) will be masculine. However, in the LGBTI+ community in Mexico and many other Spanish-speaking countries, grammatical gender has a more productive use. Apart from applying to inanimate objects, it can also apply to the human sexes, gender identity and sexual orientation. Gay men will often replace words ending with ”o” with an “a”, ironically changing it from masculine to feminine. Examine the headline:

“El youtuber español @jonanwiergo comparte fotas de infarta en Instagram”


as compared to the standard:


“El youtuber español @jonanwiergo comparte fotos de infarto en Instagram”


[The Spanish YouTuber @jonanwiergo shares heart attack-provoking photos on Instagram] (Escándala, 2017)


The reverse is also applicable, with the popular fictional Internet personality, Señora Católica (Catholic Lady) irreverently captioning photos with any reference to lesbians with:




as opposed to the standard:


[SIN, SCISSERISM and BLASPHEMY] (Señora Católica, 2017)


So why can Spanish speakers have gay slang “within” words, while English speakers are, for the most part, stuck with creating new gay words? You’d be hard pressed to find any word in English that was morphologically altered to account for its “gayness”. This is, of course, a result of the contrast in typology between English and Spanish. English is more or less an analytic language, which means that it has fewer units of meaning in each word. For example, where you would have to use six words to explain in English, “He used to play the piano”, you could say this in three words in Spanish: “Tocaba el piano”. Or, of course, if he were a gay man, you could say, “Tocaba la piana”.


This isn’t to say that English misses out. The analytic nature of the language opens the door to other unique forms of expression, for example the use of “Polari” in 20th century Britain. Polari was a secret LGBTI+ language that worked by replacing English open class words with a Polari equivalent. Due to the relatively low morpheme-to-word ratio in English, these words (mainly verbs and common nouns) can be replaced in their entirety. The Polari words easily fit into the English word order without affecting syntax or morphology.


As seen above, the language we speak can greatly affect our own expression of gender and identity. Could we go even further to say that our language, apart from altering our linguistic expression of identity, alters gender identity itself? This is still an issue hotly contested in psycholinguistics, and it is most famously brought to light by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which contends that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview or cognition. For fear of reprisal from any linguistics professor, I’ll abstain from providing a definite answer.


Language is weird and wonderful, which makes it a perfect fit for gender identity. It’ll be fascinating to see how this develops cross-linguistically in the future.