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Gender-Neutral Pronouns in Spanish Class

Gender-Neutral Pronouns in Spanish Class


You might have heard about él and ella, but what about elle?

By Kevin Medansky

Ready for a quick grammar lesson? You’ve probably heard of the gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun in English: “they.” While the singular “they” has centuries-old roots in the English language, it has gained tremendous popularity as a gender-inclusive term, and it was even Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019.

For many adults, this likely means adjusting what we learned in grade school, by substituting “his or her” with “they,” when referring to an individual whose gender is unknown.

What’s remarkable here is that the linguistic transformations and adaptations that have made the singular “they” so renowned in English have occurred in other languages, too. Indeed, many speakers of Spanish are now promoting a new word: elle (pronounced “ay-yay”), which combines the Spanish words, él (“he”) and ella (“she”). 

If you studied Spanish even just a few years ago, you might have been taught that él and ella were the only two pronouns available for individuals across the gender spectrum. However, that is no longer the case. Now, Upper School Spanish teacher Gillian Diffenderfer teaches her students this gender-inclusive pronoun after learning about it in her own research and graduate coursework.

“I think that gender in Spanish goes way beyond the concept of pronouns,” Diffenderfer said, “because the romance languages are inherently gendered.” This explains why inanimate objects in Spanish and many other romance languages take on a gender. The table becomes la mesa, as the object is feminine, and the makeup is el maquillaje, which is masculine.

This leads to some pretty interesting conversations in class with Diffenderfer. As she explained, “We try to talk about the fact that there are people who don’t use gendered pronouns to describe themselves,” which bucks the typical Spanish-language trend of applying one of two genders to everything and everyone. 

“Language is a living, breathing organism that’s constantly changing and constantly adapting,” Diffenderfer said. “That’s why there are so many versions and dialects and accents of Spanish.” Thus, the addition of elle is only one of many linguistic adaptations that have helped Spanish speakers adequately describe their lived experience.

Thanks to Diffenderfer’s extensive research, her students are now more aptly prepared to engage with Spanish speakers of all genders and her classes are becoming all the more inclusive.

“I just want my students to be exposed to [the word elle], no matter what they believe,” she said. “I think it’s important that they know that it’s being talked about, and that there are people who are pushing for more recognition. That way, if and when, hopefully, they are exposed to that in the real world, they will already be familiar with it.”

Read more about gender-neutral third person pronouns in SpanishFrench-language gender-neutral pronouns, and gender neutrality in other languages.

To learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion work happening at Penn Charter, visit our Gender Equity, Sexuality and Consent Blog.

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