Interview with Sofía De Mauro

Sofía De Mauro is the editor of a recent essay collection entitled Degenerate Anthology: A Cartography of “Inclusive” Language. Sofia is a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina and a Lecturer in Social Linguistics at the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of the University of Cordoba, Argentina.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you have come to be interested in inclusive language?

My background and research expertise are both on the history of linguistics as a discipline, and I also investigate the history of linguistics in Argentina related to indigenous languages. My work is also related to the history of linguistic public policies, that is, state policies related to problems arising from different contested language uses. I’m also interested in issues around glotopolitics, that is, how a community behaves around a language and who regulates what can be said and what cannot be said, be these institutional actors or also any language participant of a given community. I have also recently become interested in the uses of inclusive language in Argentina.

Where does inclusive language come from? Can you tell me a bit about the emergence of this phenomenon in Argentina?

In terms of general developments in the field of socio-linguistics, since the 1970s the discipline has been looking into these gendered differences in speech, in a rather optimistic and political way I would say. During that time, post-structuralist linguists started to develop a more actively political stance with regards to language which came hand in hand with a wider interest in studying and conceptualising the different streams of linguistic public and state planning and intervention. So, historically, the academic linguist tradition since the 70s has been concerned with exposing the power relations and tensions that emerge in language as a consequence of androcentrism. This is something that has been brought forward and articulated by academic linguist traditions, but also of course, by queer and feminist movements too.

As much as the current use of “inclusive language” appears as new, and as much as many people nowadays appears worried about how inclusive language might be “ruining” language, language use is constantly on the move and evolving. In Argentina, there has been a longstanding tradition in linguistics and as part of different social movements – quite significantly and prominently within a broad range of feminist movements – to problematise language and its uses in the country. The feminists movements I refer to more specifically are the movement to legalize abortion in Argentina and the feminist movement of NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) against violence towards women.

In the context of Argentina, the appearance of inclusive language comes hand in hand with a longstanding tradition in the country for the advancement of minority right and for which Argentina has been a pioneer in Latin America: the legalisation of equal marriage; the passing of the transgender rights law (one of the most comprehensive in the world); the recognition of non-binary identities as part of legal documents, etc.

The difference between inclusive language and these previous fights for equal rights is that before only minority or segments of the population were implicated, it did not affect everyone. Inclusive language however, implicates and interpellated everyone. There are widespread debates and controversies in the public arena in Argentina about inclusive language. These are very visible because language is something in which everyone in a given community or in this case in a country and culture is implicated. Therefore, controversies around inclusive language are very visible, palpable and heated, and this is also why inclusive language has provoked so many public debates and opposition, as a language engages and traverses the whole population.

Inclusive language is a differential use of language that tries to either mark or unmark – and whether it is a marking or unmarking is of course debatable – gender binarism and androcentrism. It is used quite commonly, particularly amongst younger generations and in educational settings, paradoxically the space where Spanish traditional grammatical rules and norms are taught.

I’m interested in the controversies that inclusive language has generated. In particular the controversy around the Royal Academy of Spanish denying the inclusion of “todes” as part of its official Spanish dictionary. I’m wondering what are the rules around the inclusion of new words as part of Dictionaries. The Royal Spanish Academy denied the entry of “todes” to its dictionary arguing that its use was not widely spread and distributed amongst Spanish speaking populations. Controversially, it approved on the same year an entry for the word ‘bitcoin” for example. The argument assumed that for a language to work it needs to be amplified, agreed and used by “all” members of a given community, country and/or culture. What is your view on this? And what is the point, politically speaking, of advocating for an official, state, institutionalised acceptance of inclusive language? 

The Royal Academy of Spanish role and function in all of this is quite odd. Whilst it promotes a particular linguistic state planning and governance policy in a very concrete way by regulating the addition and subtraction of Spanish words as part of its Dictionary for all Spanish speakers, it has nothing to do with local and hence independent governmental regulations in Argentina. It is quite colonial in its function in this sense and it functions as a merely symbolic institution. That Argentineans care about what the Royal Academy of Spanish has to say about our language says more about Argentinian society than it does of the evolution of Spanish language and its different grammatical forms! It is interesting how as Argentineans we are so worried about whether the Royal Academy of Spanish accepts or does not accept our language uses and whether as a society we want to be outside of “traditional” language norms or not.

On the other hand, the Royal Academy of Spanish says it is not prescriptive and bases its judgements on an objective and somehow quantitatively distributed “use” of language. However, for those of us who study linguistics these decisions are based on ideologies and particular policies around the state’s planning and regulation of language, that can also be historically traced in a myriad of state policies and interventions related to language.

The question remains though, why, if what we are doing with inclusive language is to contest the norm, we would want our inclusive language to be, paradoxically, also included as part of the norm. This raises the question on how and why inclusive language should be normalised and made official beyond its colloquial and evolutionary use, a use which is pointed to as spurious, abnormal or contaminated. It is, however, not surprising that state and colonial institutions are against a use of language that exceeds gender binarism and the heterosexist normative stance of our society. It is puzzling that despite inclusive language being used in a widespread fashion in Argentina (quantitatively more than bitcoin!), it is still not being officially accepted.

The problem with inclusive language, is that it is not a problem of “vocabulary” or lexigrams, but that it proposes to dismantle language structures that are way too sedimented. There is a constant tension between the grammar vs. the use, the legal vs. legitimate in the evolution of any language, however inclusive language is a much more fundamental shift towards dismantling the system and organisation of a whole language.

On the other hand, there is no such a thing as a singular Spanish Argentinean: there are multiple ways of speaking, using, denoting, emphasising Spanish Argentinean. Controversies around language uses have always existed, often in the realm of class differences for example. But inclusive language touches on a very sensitive issue in the sense that it proposes to dismantle how we have traditionally related to each other, how we have been traditionally grouped socially, how we understand what the family is, etc. It advocates for a myriad of grouping possibilities beyond those heteronormative groups, but also at the singular and individual level, that there are multiple women, multiple men, not only cis.

Similarly, controversies around language use took place when the country received hordes of European immigrants at the end of the 19th Century and language use had to be both regulated and expanded by the state. And again, language controversies and state policing of language emerged too when part of the original indigenous population of this country was exterminated. The inclusive language controversy in the country touches upon issues that have not been addressed before and this is why it is so visible at this point in time.

The resistance to the incorporation of inclusive language can be clearly seen, as we pointed out in Degenerate Anthology, in the widespread dissemination in public institutions in the country of Use and Guidance Manuals of inclusive language. For example, in the National University of Cordoba in 2018/19, the use of inclusive language was accepted officially within the Spanish language system of use, for example by recommending and promoting the use of “el estudiantado” (the student body) as opposed to “los estudiantes” (the masculine students) and/or “las estudiantes” (the feminine students). This is usually described as economising language use. This particular regulation however did not promote the use of “e”.

Whereas for example as a Lecturer I can’t formally penalise anyone for the use of inclusive language in the marking of an essays for example, it is highly recommended as part of the official guidance of the Faculty not to use the “e/@/*/x” in any form of academic writing. The controversy and resistance around inclusive language goes to such lengths that it has required the use of legal and formal instruments to regulate its use, particularly in writing.

Many other different faculties and universities have adopted different guidelines and regulated the use of inclusive language in different ways. Some have been quite flexible about its use orally in writing, as they understood that the spirit behind the use of inclusive language was precisely to not be regulated or prescriptive in a normative way, to accept that use is more important than grammar. But there has been on the other hand a proposed law to ban the use of inclusive language in institutional educational settings, across primary, secondary, and higher education. We reached a point in 2022 where in certain settings we cannot de facto talk and express ourselves in the way we want. We are not proposing for inclusive language to be compulsory, but we are advocating for basic freedom of expression rights. People have been fired from their jobs for using inclusive language in classrooms.

If the aim of the inclusive language movement is not to be the language norm or the universal language spoken in Argentinean Spanish at least, then what is the objective

Firstly, I would not say there is not such a thing as an “inclusive language movement” per se. You cannot pinpoint or localize the movement as you can do with NiUnaMenos or other feminist movements for example, where you know who and what organisations are the key referents. The use of inclusive language has been appropriated by a range of different and disparate movements, in particular by a range of feminist movements, understood to be plural. There are, within the feminist movements themselves too, controversies around what should constitute inclusive language. For example, the feminist movement known as terf won’t accept the non-binarism of inclusive language. Terf feminists won’t accept the use of the “e” for example. This shows the complexity not only of the plurality feminist movements bring about but also how they differ in the appropriation of different uses of inclusive language. What we can agree on though is that the use of inclusive language serves as a double mark. It serves not only as a referent, but also as a way of politically expanding what we understand as gender.

I think what it is interesting about inclusive language is that, as opposed to how other lexigrams or uses became somehow “naturally” or evolutionarily established and accepted within a given population or culture, without any political force behind such a move, the use of inclusive language is quite different in that is quite self-referential. It is a use of language that deliberately attempts to provoke and modify the foundational structure of language to support a particular political stance. In the development of other uses of language and speech, this was not made so clear or explicit.

Yes, this is exactly right. Inclusive language addresses at the same time both the androcentric underpinnings of our society and also the grammatical structures of language. This is a substantial morpho-syntactic change and shift. We are uncertain about how this shift will evolve and whether inclusive language will become normative. Some branches of socio-linguistics are able to make projections on how a given language will evolve, you can empirically measure and predict possible linguistic changes, however this is different. Inclusive language is deliberate as opposed to imitative somehow, it is ideologically trying to change how we think ourselves as a society through language. The use of inclusive language entails active deconstruction and denaturalisation of what was socially there before.

What for me is interesting but also confusing about inclusive language is how much it is linked with identity politics movements (gender, disability, race) beyond social class. If the aim of inclusive language is to replace our binary gender language with a universal generic, then this would be somehow the end of identity politics and clustering as we know it, as it includes very much “all” (todes). It is more a turn towards universal rights which undermines somehow the history and trajectory of identity politics as we know it. What is your view on this?

Yes, this is a very interesting a key point that is being discussed now. We think universal types of representation are pretty much impossible. There is an insistence and a desire for language to be able to represent ‘all’ or everyone, but this is obviously problematic. Clearly, whenever you propose to include something into something else, there are always other parts that are left outside or not included. There are always words that are outside of language norms.

My view is that inclusive language’s aspiration should not be to generate a universal or complete neutralisation of Spanish, a neutral that is all and nothing at the same time. From my perspective as a linguistic activist, inclusive language has to do with provoking and destabilising more than universalising or making normative a certain language use. Other people are more concerned with “acceptance” of use (which arguably is also the stance of The Royal Academy of Spanish). I think is more about giving people rights to name and label themselves as they want: I do not want to be named in this particular way because this language that I use is not mine in so many different ways but I also have the right to make it mine by changing it. I can’t see how a language can be universal and neutral, language is always marking, discriminating, and provoking in one way or the other.

What do you think about the critiques coming both from the right and the left that have been made of identity politics? It makes me think of intersectionality for example. We can think of the micro-segmentation of society into more and more minority groups, each with their own right. If you think about intersectionalism, you can keep on adding variables to the constitution and intersection of a given identity to a point at which those identities become singular, no longer part of a group.  What do you think about the displacement of class categories for example? And how does inclusive language engage with these issues? It seems to me that inclusive langue moves in the opposite direction, by proposing “universal generic plurals” somehow, a grouping that includes all: todes, you all.  

I don’t see it as a universal inclusive, but there is clearly in inclusive language an attempt to both mark and un-mark identities. Obviously inclusive language is not a particular Spanish phenomenon, but it is taking place across the globe and in this sense it is clearly universal! It is also true that both left and right movements across Western societies are leaning towards more and more fragmentation. I am slightly pessimistic in this sense, there is so much fragmentation in left and counter-hegemonic movements that it is very difficult to think about a unity that can counterbalance contemporary neo-liberal and neo-fascist movements.

It is very difficult to articulate a sense of unity, even within feminist movements, when you have a segment of the feminist movement for example, that one defined as terf, that will never accept the existence of a neutral or a non-binary. This was however not the case for example in the fight for abortion rights in Argentina, a cause which united not only different feminisms but also other segments of society towards defending the specific rights of bodies with uteruses.

So, in terms of devices for the so-called normalisation of inclusive language and non-binarism you mentioned the Use Guides which are widespread in different public institutions. Argentina has also recently passed a law to introduce “X” gender markers in all official documents, from birth certificates to identity cards and passports. Would you say the Use Guides and the X now form part of the same domestication of inclusive language on the part of the state?

This clearly has to do with how you position yourself with regards to the state. One option is to be recognised by the state and benefit from its citizenship rights. If we think we are all (todes) the state, then you might want the state to take you into account as part of its rights, legal devices and public policies. To be taken into account by the state as non-binary, as todes, as genderless or generic might be important but it also might be contradictory in the sense that inclusive language is meant to be elusive and fluid, to be outside of the norm. In a similar way, the passing of the equal marriage right law generated similar controversial issues, in the sense that it gave non-heterosexual people the same rights as heterosexual people but it also meant that you had to accept the institution of marriage and the traditional family units and all of their problems.

Similarly, in the last Census, several organisations have been fighting to be taken into account, be recorded and become visible to the state, including indigenous communities. These groups have argued that if they have statistical visibility, if they are counted, then fighting certain public and linguistic policies that would benefit them becomes easier. Indigenous communities have been fighting to be recognised in the sense not only at the level of categorising to which indigenous community individuals responding to the Census question belong, but also which language they learn and use on a daily basis.