Posted in English

Sir Isaac Neuter

I wrote this weeks ago but it’s been sitting in my drafts folder for ages

I had quite a response to the post a few days weeks ago about fringe issues of grammatical gender, It’s been helpful and interesting. It’s always interesting when I get corrections from Portuguese speakers of course, but these ones were even more interesting because it seemed like there were so many different takes on the subject so it was more like a debate and not just people telling me I’ve used the wrong tense or whatever. I must admit though that I wish I’d toned down my sense of humour. I think some of the tone came across as being a douchey anglophone who was criticising someone else’s grammar for being structurally sexist. Not my intention of course. I know english is weird in its own way (the spelling! Oh my god!) but this is a blog about learning portuguese so I’ll let someone else write about that.

Most languages have gender as a way of dividing nouns into different types of course. Portuguese inherited its system from Latin. We used to have it in english too but it faded hundreds of years ago. I pay a lot of attention to gender in portuguese, mostly because I find it so hard to remember the rules (see my post on gender & noun endings for example!). And, as a result of that attention, I often notice some of the more unusual aspects, and they grab my attention much more than the standard day-to-day words. That’s why I wrote the last article: It was as if I’d been looking for ladybirds and suddenly came across some weird, 24-legged purple creature with six wings hiding under a leaf. Suddenly, I’m emptying out my bug-jar to make room for it.

I’ve also had a lot of people replying specifically to the issue of gender as it relates to people (what the cool kids refer to as “gender identity”). I hadn’t really seen this as a key part of the post but again I didn’t really do myself with the choice of jokes. First of all, calling the piece “Neuter Kids on the Block” seemed like quite a good pun. Neuter is the name of a third gender in Latin that is neither masculine nor feminine so it seemed to fit with the story about the teacher. I’m not suggesting kids can be “neuter” of course. Mixing up grammatical gender and a person’s sex and/or the way they describe their gender is usually going to cause confusion. They’re not completely unrelated of course: some words will change the ending according to the person’s sex like médico/médica, professor/professora, but it’s best to keep them as two separate things in your head. Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.

I think the best way is to do this as a series of headings because the objections and corrections don’t really form a coherent whole.

What kinds of non-gender-specific pronouns are there?

Addressing mixed groups

In standard portuguese, if you are referring to any group of people using a pronoun then it needs to be “eles” (subject) or “os” (direct object) unless they are all women, in which case it’s “elas” and “as”. Indirect objects are the same for both: “-lhes”. When it comes to adjective endings, if they change at all, the rule is straightforward: if they are all female then you use “-as” but if there is one or more male it defaults to the masculine plural “-os”. That holds true even if the women outnumber the men by a million to one.

This is what I was referring to in the original post: it seems as though the tutor in my lesson was not satisfied with this situation and had changed it to an “e” ending in order to create a non-gender-specific (neuter) ending that isn’t part of standard portuguese because, I guess, she thinks masculine shouldn’t be the default. Nobody has suggested any alternative explanation so I am still pretty sure that’s what her intention was. A few people were quite skeptical of her approach though. For example, Reddit user Butt_Roidholds pointed out that in a lot of accents you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an -e ending and an -o ending anyway. You can see this on some meme accounts like bilbiamtengarsada on Instagram, where they’ll write dialect spelling that sometimes has an e on place of the o, but they aren’t being woke, just mimicking an accent.

Addressing mixed sets of individuals.

This one is slightly different because you’re addressing individual readers, not treating them as a group. For example, sending out an email to multiple people. Again, in theory you should be able to treat them all as masculine endings, as if the masculine gender in Portuguese was applicable to everyone. I don’t think most people think this way though and you’ll usually see something like “caro/a leitor(a)” to take account of the fact that the person reading it might be male or female. It’s a bit like in English when you write “Dear sir/madam”

On the Internet, you might see this written using an @ sign. Like today a few weeks ago on Instagram, someone (I think it was Literacidades) posted a poll about people’s covid vaccination status and one of the options was “vacinad@” because the individual user could be vacinado or vacinada. I like this. It’s neat. You obviously can’t pronounce it in speech, and that makes it a problem for people with impaired vision who are browsing the internet using text-to-speech software, and that’s a shame because it seems like a tidy way to do it.

Addressing People Who Self-Describe as Non-Binary

OK, we’re into the controversial bit now. Don’t panic, we’re going to get through this. Probably. The focus of the post is meant to be language and how some speakers of portuguese are trying to change the way it’s used. I’m not setting out to talk about the underlying question of how the idea of gender is changing in society generally. Although I very definitely do have an opinion on that, this is a language blog so I’m not here to evaluate the truth claims of the various competing versions of gender theory or the various arguments for or against. If you want that, go on twitter and you’ll find someone who’ll be happy to fight you to the death in a cage. Just don’t tell them I sent you.

That said, it is just possible that you haven’t heard the term non-binary before, so I’ll need to give a little bit of background.

There’s been a trend in the last few years for people to identify as “non-binary”. In other words, they do not think of themselves as relating to traditional notions of masculine or feminine and therefore they don’t want to be described as a man or a woman. This is part of a wider trend towards people believing that what makes you a man or a woman (or neither) is not the body but some internal sense of yourself. This is explained in a variety of different ways, and people who want it to be normalised are trying to effect change, mainly to pronouns, in their own languages around the world through social media campaigns, the school curriculum, changes to the law and so on.

Zir Isaac Newton

Of course that process is much, much more complicated in romance langauges than it is in english. In english, people who identify as not having a gender often prefer to be referred to either by a “neo-pronoun” like “zi” or “zer” (full list here) or using plural pronouns “they” and “them” instead of the usual he/she/him/her. People may differ about whether they regard this as politeness or attention-seeking and to what extent they are willing to comply with it, but at least for us english speakers that’s really the extent of the change and you don’t need to worry about adjective endings or any of that malarkey.

Assuming you are interested in finding out how this works in portuguese (and I guess if you weren’t you would have rolled your eyes and skipped ahead to the next section by now) here’s the state of play as of July September 2021, but obviously if you’re reading this in 2025 it will probably all seem laughably outdated and you will be cancelled if you repeat any of it.

Basically…

  • There are four completely different sets of candidate pronouns that can be applied to non-binary individuals in portuguese. The most popular is “the Elu system”. It uses Elu/Elus for its third person subject pronouns and so on through “delu” and “aquelus” and so on. But there are also systems based on Ile, Ilu and El. The last one seems like one to avoid if you’re a foreigner since the last thing you want is for someone to think you’re trying to talk to them in spanish!
  • The equivalent definite articles are either ê/ês or le/les, depending on the system. Adjective endings go to either e or u, so you get sentences like “ê carlos é muito esperte“. Possessives change too of course: Tue or Tu instead of Teu and Tua for example.
  • I think it’s correct to say these neo-pronouns are neuter pronouns, grammatically speaking, even though people are not neuter. Neuter exists in grammar, not in human biology.
  • It’s possible to avoid the issue entirely by means of circumlocations like “aquela pessoa é muito bonita” because pessoa is a feminine word you can use a feminine adjective while avoiding a social faux-pas no matter who you are referring to. Similarly, “trabalha numa biblioteca” instead of “é bibliotecário/a” and “molhaste-te por causa da chuva” instead of “estás todo molhado/a”.
  • Avoid the “-x” ending popular among americans or the @ ending that I mentioned above. They’re impossible to pronounce and don’t work with screen readers.
  • Non-binary and inclusive language applies only to humans, not animals or things. As I mentioned in the last post, this obviously strikes us as odd since we think of all inanimate objects and even some animals as basically having no gender because no biological sex, but portuguese has genders for all nouns and (if these changes becaome accepted by a majority of people) humans would be the only nouns that can be referred to without gender!

This is all set out with a lot more detail in a manual of inlusive language here which will presumably be updated from time to time. The guy says right in the intro that the language is “unfortunately still very binary and sexist” which I think is not something I’d agree with, but it’s not my language so I’ll leave it to others to comment. The manual is brazilian, I think, but as with america and britain, it tends to be the larger, more noisy transatlantic country that sets the agenda for the smaller, quieter one.

Summary

All of the above sections are pretty controversial of course and different people had different takes on it. AndreMartins5979 said that a better way of looking at this is to think of the masculine gender in portuguese as being neuter. It’s only called “masculine” because the feminine exists. So, he argues, Portuguese should stop using feminine and be more like english and just use one ending for all adjectives. I think this is the only time I have seen a portuguese speaker express this opinion. I can see the attraction obviously, because I speak english and it’s a lot easier, but it runs up against the same problem all the other suggested changes have: how do you implement a change this drastic across all printed materials, all websites, all schools, all conversations in all portuguese speaking countries in a way that everyone can agree with?

Taking the Acordo Ortográfico as an example, it would be pretty difficult, to say the least!

Other users described these sorts of changes, even when they are less extreme than the one Andre suggested, as “ugly” and “inelegant” and an imposition from the anglosphere onto the lusosphere.

Paxona, who is brazilian, mentioned that in her state, gender neutral language had been banned in schools. I don’t know quite how to feel about this: the current brazilian president is… well, let’s just say “a divisive figure”. I can think of shorter ways to describe him, but that’ll do. It’s a state ruling though, not a federal law. Anyway, I’m not really sure what the motivation is behind this law. Generally, I’m not a fan of banning language. Language changes when people start using it differently, not when some central authority decrees it, but she pointed out that education is the duty of the state – and hence, schools are a form of central authority in their own communities. So, in a world where there are several conflicting theories of how pronouns should be used, it’s all in flux and it’s all very controversial, it’s probably right that the legislature attempt to exert some sort of stabilising influence, at least for the time being. Otherwise you have a lot of well-meaning teachers, all trying to impose their own preferred systems and their own pet theories on a bunch of kids whose parents all speak standard portuguese.

Why is Masculinity not Masculine?

My daughter has just looked over my shoulder and seen this headline and now thinks I am writing something very, very woke.

Part of the original post was about a book called “O Feminino e o Moderno” by Ana Luísa Vilela, Fábio Maria da Silva and Maria Lúcia Dal Farra. And I said “O Feminino” meant “Femininity”. As Paxona pointed out, that isn’t quite right though. It’s more like “the feminine”. It’s a noun that tends only to be used in academic or abstract settings. According to Priberam:

Conjunto de qualidades ou atributos considerados como pertencentes às mulheres (ex.: representações do feminino na pintura)”
“feminino”, in Dicionário Priberam da Língua Portuguesa [em linha], 2008-2021, https://dicionario.priberam.org/feminino [consultado em 03-07-2021].

So “O Masculino” and “O Feminino” are both masculine, and “A Masculinidade” and “A Feminilidade” are both feminine. So that’s er… totally clear then!

Why are Feminine Things Masculine?

I still find it really confusing when I need to describe something as masculine but the noun is a feminine noun.

So here’s a page about “Roupas Masculinas“. “Roupa” is a feminine word, so even though these specific clothes are designed for men, the adjective ends up being masculina, not masculino. It’s a masculine feminine thing. Thinking about this gives me a headache.

Likewise, here are some Acessorios Femininos.

The plot really thickens when you get to word like “Grávido” which means pregnant. As I said in the last post, the default form of the adjective is masculine even though males can never get pregnant. Now, I still think if I were a portuguese woman this would enrage me more than words can express but I seem to be alone in that view.

Reddit user Xavieryes points out three possible situations where you could legitimately use grávido in its masculine form:

  • A male seahorse can get pregnant. Like all male animals, daddy seahorses (seastallions???) produce small gametes that fertilise the larger female ones, but unlike most species, female seahorses pass their eggs over to the male and he carries the fertilised eggs until they are seafoals ready for their first seadressage.
  • There are also trans-men, ie biologically female humans who identify as socially masculine and often prefer to be known by male pronouns. They can become pregnant and could then also be said to be “grávido”.
  • Finally, a guy whose wife/girlfreind is pregnant might be said to be grávido, in a jokey way, either because he is very uxorious – like when english-speaking couples say “we’re pregnant”, or it might just be because he has a big beer belly

So that’s three exceptions that justify the word grávido as being default in the dictionary over grávida. and again, I know its just the rules of how the language works but… I still think if I were a portuguese woman I would be burning the world down because of this.

Well, I think that’s the best I can do. It’s not the easiest of subjects to write about clearly and I expect there will be people who disagree so feel free to tell me about it in the comments 👇

I have asked on the portuguese subreddit if it’s OK to quote the people named, but if anyone would rather I deleted their username, drop me a line and I’ll do that.