Latinx Redux

Dr. García Peña has been involved in… the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures’ program in Latinx studies [my bolding]. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American heritage, used commonly in academia.)

(Kate Taylor, “Denying a Professor Tenure, Harvard Sparks a Debate Over Ethnic Studies,” NYTimes, 1-2-20)

Ms. Taylor helpfully clarifies “Latinx” in her parentheses, since it’s not likely to be on everyone’s tongue. I’ve confessed before how the term nettles me; hence “redux” in the title.

Linguistically, the striving for gender freedom in woke English can collide with the ineradicable genderedness of other languages. Ecce “Latinx.”

In assimilating “Latino,” a Spanish word, English inherited the word’s masculine gender marking. Absent that marking we get “Latin,” which is native and has its uses — indeed had considerable currency in the past, along with “Hispanic,” for labeling persons of, or descended from, Spanish-speaking cultures of the Americas and Caribbean. (The proverbial “Latin lover” was not a man who cherished the orations of Cicero. He was Latinx!)

Grammatical gender follows no discernible logic. In Spanish, it ranges from la mujer (woman) and el hombre (man) to la gente (people); el pueblo (town); la sociedad (society); el ambiente (atmosphere); el mapa (map); la luz (light); el tema (theme); la catástrofe (catastrophe); el cutis (skin); la piel (skin, too); el imperio (empire); la soberanía (sovereignty); and so on.

No noun in Spanish lacks gender. Articles, as well as adjectives that are themselves susceptible to gender marking, must agree with the noun’s gender (not to mention its number). “Agree with” in grammar-talk means to adopt appropriate markings: la pared pintada (the painted wall); el vidrio pintado (the painted glass); los dibujos pintados (the painted drawings); las nubes pintadas (the painted clouds).

To import a Spanish word into English is to import its gender baggage in one form or the other: masculine or feminine — “Latino” vs “Latina.” X-ing the gender suffix creates a scratchy neologism. Perhaps “Latinx” will catch on outside ivied precincts; perhaps not.

My pickiest beef with “Latinx” concerns its combination with “studies.” I suggest that the phrase it replaces — “Latino studies” — does not mean the study of Latinx-ers who are male. (It would require the sister discipline: “Latina studies.”) Rather, “Latino” classifies that discipline whose subjects are the peoples and cultures of the Spanish-speaking Americas — just as “Bible studies” are not the study of physical Bibles, but of the biblical canon in all its aspects.

But never mind; the distinction is academic.

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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2 Responses to Latinx Redux

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    Those romance languages and their gendered nouns! Of course French has all that, and when I studied it I had the even more daunting inches-thick book of verb conjugations. When you say there’s no logic behind which gender is assigned to which noun, I agree, unless perhaps there’s logic in the aesthetics of how it sounds.

    For example [I don’t know Spanish, but going from your examples], would it be awkward to say “la ambiente” or “la imperio” because of the ending vowel followed by a starting vowel, as it is in English to say “a avacoda” or “a opera” instead of using “an”?

    Or is it like French, where if “la” precedes a words starting with a vowel, you drop the a, such as “l’auto”?

    Woke culture and grammar don’t mix, and that may be a metaphor for a much larger situation, which is that you can’t use a radical new model of reality, conceived in a generation, to reinterpret all of history. One of my many problems with wokeness is that it throws out the baby with the bathwater, and does so on purpose.

    In my humble opinion, I personally would be more awoken to reality if I were to understand how a language evolved and respect how it actually operates than to impose my own litmus on it and demand it change: significantly the single litmus one applies to absolutely everything.

    I believe it is far more humble, rich, and fascinating to learn from history than it is to fix it, or to be a bit more accurate, shit on it.

    As always this is just my opinion, and I could be wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JMN says:

      Good points. The languages I know something of or about are much more gendered and inflected than English is, as you say rightly of French. German has neuter marking, along with masculine and feminine. Besides masculine and feminine gender, Arabic has singular, plural and DUAL number, with corresponding conjugations for all three.

      Your comment on the analogy with “a/an” for euphony, if that’s the right word, is astute. Spanish does have something like that: a noun that’s grammatically feminine but starts with a stressed ‘a’ receives the masculine article. The example I can think of right now is ‘águila’ (eagle). Grammatically it should be ‘la águila’ (which would sound Gallic — “l’águila”!), but ‘el águila’ is correct usage. It has just triggered my recollection of a title in Mexican literature familiar from my school days — “El águila y la serpiente” (The Eagle and the Snake), which is the symbol on the Mexican flag. I want to say it’s by Martín Luis Guzmán, but I’m pretending for a moment that Google doesn’t exist, so will leave it as a guess.

      Where something like a “woke grammar” is concerned, I still struggle with “they” being used as a third-person singular pronoun. It privileges genderlessness over number, which is a substantial sacrifice, sometimes to clarity. “They shackled themselves to the tree in protest, and said if anyone objected they should call their lawyer.” Whose lawyer should be called is ambiguous. The protesters’ or the objector’s? I think “they” instead of “he” is settled usage now, however; you see and hear it everywhere. The litter of kludges such as “he or she” and “s/he” is strewn along the way to this accommodation for pronominal gender parity.

      Liked by 1 person

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