We've got some web applications that are setup for internationalisation and the next language that we're moving to is going to be Spanish. As Spanish is a masculine/feminine language - I've of course encountered our very first hurdle on "which word do I use?"

We have a dropdown to select language and we need to display the text in English and their native language, so Spanish will be in the list - but are there any rules on a "Default" when it comes to not knowing a gender?

For example Spanish is Español (Masc.) and Española (Fem.), so which should we be using in a context of not knowing a gender? Are there some kind of "rules" when it comes to this?

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    Are you asking whether to put Español or Española in the list of languages to select from? If so, the name of the language is Español. Generally, if you know a word, you will know its gender. In translating application text you'll likely only have issues of unknown gender when referring to the user themselves. – brazofuerte Mar 4 at 11:30

This depends on what the word you're using refers to. The specific example you picked is quite good in that it illustrates three different cases:

1. Noun referring to abstract/genderless object

For the vast majority of words in Spanish, the gender is essentially arbitrary and intrinsic to the word. You wouldn't usually be talking about the gender of a potato or a hat, and yet in Spanish Patata (potato) is feminine and Sombrero (hat) is masculine. In this case, there can be no such thing as unknown gender, as the word can only ever have that specific gender, and this will be given in the dictionary.

The word Español in the context you describe should fall in this category, as the language itself has no gender, but the word is masculine by convention. Thus in this case you use the masculine Español, and any articles/pronouns will be masculine.

2. Noun referring to an "animated being"

When we are talking about a person, animal or any other "animated being" that does (or is usually considered to have) a gender in itself, then the noun will usually (but not always!) change depending on whether you are referring to a male or a female. Most times this is done simply by adding an -a to the end of the word or replacing its ending vowel with an -a:

Gato (masc) => Gata (fem) (Cat)

Pintor (masc) => Pintora (fem) (Painter)

In your example: Español as a noun can also mean Spaniard, a.k.a. "a person from Spain". In this context, it can have different genders, so you would say "español" for a man or "española" for a woman.

In general, you would default to the masculine if you do not know the gender of an "animated being", as the masculine form can also refer to the generic "kind" of being (similar to how the English word man is sometimes used to refer to all humans regardless of gender). When referring to a person, this can sometimes be seen as sexist or impolite, so some people choose to use an "@" symbol in place of o/a when this is indicative of gender, or to always use both forms. These are generally considered incorrect by the RAE (Royal Spanish Academy, main language authority in Spain), however it seems like double mention using a slash is acceptable in the singular.

So, if you are referring to a person whose gender you don't know (such as the user), I would suggest you use this "double mention", which consists of either form, followed by a slash, followed by the gender morpheme, such as in the following examples:

  • Hijo/a = Son/daughter [this is a real life example from Spanish national IDs]
  • Escultor/a = Scupltor [m/f]
  • Actor/triz = Actor/Actress

Note that the RAE does not approve of this in the case of plural nouns. For those, the masculine is considered to also include the feminine. Feminine plural forms are only correct when referring to a group that does not include even a single masculine member.

3. Adjectives

In Spanish, many adjectives have masculine and feminine forms. For these, the rule is to agree with whatever the gender is of the word they are describing:

  • Gato blanco = White cat
  • Casa blanca = White house
  • Hijo/a predilecto/a = Favourite son/daughter

Back to your example. Español (just like the English word Spanish) can be an adjective as well as a noun. In that case, it follows the gender of whatever word it is describing:

  • La gripe española = The Spanish Flu
  • El equipo español = The spanish team
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  • This issue still applies to gendered objects (they are not genderless, they have only one valid gender). If we want to refer to a set of 2 objects in plural, we are forced to use a gender. "En la mesa hay una papa y un sombrero. Los agarre a ambos." – Tomas Zubiri Mar 5 at 4:01

As a simple rule, in case of doubt use the masculine. In Spanish if there is a group of people, both males and females, you use the masculine to address them all, so masculine will work in most cases. On your particular example of a dropdown menu with the names of languages, you don't have to worry because there is only one name for (the language) Spanish: español, masculine. The female form española means a Spanish woman, but not the language. There is also the adjective español/española which changes depending on the gender of the corresponding noun, but again, the Spanish language is simply "español".

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    FWIW, in Hebrew, the names of languages are typically feminine (e.g. "ספרדית היא שפה אירופאית", literally "Spanish she language European (f.)", but masculine is used by default for people you don't know the gender of. – Robert Columbia Mar 4 at 13:05

if you don't know the gender, use 'neutro', it is usually the masculine. I will give you a few examples:

  • El perro rojo => the dog, it is a male or I don't know. It could be a female.
  • Español => if I am referring to a male person, a person that I don't know the gender (it would sound weird, but possible in a few cases), or the Spanish language.

So, summarizing:

if we are talking about the gender of an adjective, follow the noun, that is something that you should know. If we are talking about the gender of an noun, then it can be masculine, femenine, or neutro. Animals and people can be both, if unknown use the neutro, which is usually masculine.

Exceptions: if the noun is femenine and it starts with a stressed a, use the masculine. Example: el agua, las aguas. Agua is femenine, but because of phonetic reasons we use el agua.

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    "La acción, la ameba". The rule is "use el instead of la before feminine nouns that start with stressed a- or ha-" . – wimi Mar 4 at 17:58
  • @Iria, it is not for phonectic reasons – Jdamian Mar 4 at 21:31
  • Anaya, Lengua, 1995, 7EGB, that's what that book says – Iria Mar 5 at 8:28

In the specific case you ask about, español, if you are referring to the language itself, only español is valid, since you are referring to the spanish language, and language in spanish is masculine,("el idioma" or "el lenguaje").

If you are referring to the speaker, then you have unknowingly stumbled into a debate involving speakers of multiple languages with particular involvement of feminist and trans communities.

Why genders

Gendered constructs arise naturally as a practical tool to narrow the possible set of denoted objects to half, halving the specificity of a sentence, examples:

"Jack and Jill met at the concert, she greeted him."

"La mesa me vino con un vaso. Lo tuve que tirar."

We can see in both of these examples that, since both subjects have different genders, the speaker can succintly refer to them with just one pronoun.

Gender trouble

The issue arises when the speaker wishes to refer to a group of possible subjects that include both genders, and they can only use gendered constructs to do so. In the previous cases, referring to both of the subjects in english is easy because the plural is gender neutral, they. But in spanish, one cannot refer to both objects without specifying a gender. However, as we'll see, English still faces this issue in other situations.

I will be using the following examples as a study case:

"Engineer wanted, he or she should have experience in the automotive industry."

"Se busca ingeniero o ingeniera"

In english this debate takes form of gender neutral pronouns. As with spanish, when the speaker wants to express an ambiguity in gender, but the syntactic rules require the use of a gendered construct, the masculine is traditionally used to denote both genders. The disadvantages are both practical and ethical, practically this creates an ambiguity, are we referring only to masculine things or both masculine and femenine things? The political implication is much more important and it concerns with the introduction or expression of a gender bias when it might be detrimental.

If one does not wish to introduce a gender bias, either for practical or ethical reasons, there are a number of alternatives they could use, each comes with their own tradeoff:

Language agnostic solutions

These solutions exist both in English and Spanish, and probably many other languages:


It is usually possible to alter the redaction of the sentence so that meaning is minimally impacted and the gender construct is avoided:

"Engineer with experience in the car industry wanted."

"Se buscan profesionales de ingeniería con experiencia en la industria de autos."

Gender neutral masculine ###

This is the traditional solution to gender ambiguous words. If introducing a gender bias is not a concern due to practical or ethical reasons, the masculine

"We are looking for an engineer, he should have experience in the automotive industry."

"Se busca ingeniero"

The ambiguity in gender will generally be understood, the major tradeoff is that it can be disrpespectful towards female audiences.

Note that using the female gender will convey an equivalent meaning, and will give the impression that exclusively females are being referred to.

Spanish specific solutions

Languages evolve, several competing language constructs have emerged in the recent era, notably championed by trans-inclusive movements in English and feminism in Spanish. In english the gender neutral plural pronoun they has gained adoption as a singular gender neutral plural ( and has been in this answer,) other more experimental and unambiguous variants include per, xir, etc.. Spanish has a few of these constructs with varying levels of acceptance:

Gender neutral 'e' conjugation ###

The 'e' conjugation has been quickly gaining adoption in cases where both 'o' masculine and 'a' femenine suffixes are legitimate:

"Se busca ingeniere"

The legitimacy of this construct is hotly debated, but the fact that there is a hot debate usually means that there is widespread use and, at the very least, you will be understood. The major tradeoffs of this approach are intelligibility amongst non-users of the construct, risk of annoying politically conservative audiences, the major benefits are increased expressiveness among users of the construct.

at symbol '@' as gender neutral suffix

The at symbol has accquired many meanings since the advent of the internet, due to it's similarity to both the o and a letter, it is widely used in written media as a gender neutral suffix:

"Se busca ingenier@"

The major tradeoff of this approach is that it only works in digital text media. One advantage is that it avoids feminist connotations and might be more widely accepted in audiences where feminism carries a negative register.

Gender neutral x suffix

Finally, similarly to the @ symbol, the x suffix can be used in analog text media, this carries a feminist connotation, and is either not possible or hard to pronounce.

"Se busca ingenierx"

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    Why does "x" carry a feminist connotation while "@" does not? – wimi Mar 5 at 7:44
  • Because, like "e", it is used heavily by feminist speakers and in feminist contexts. – Tomas Zubiri Mar 6 at 2:52
  • Wouldn't it be simpler to just pluralize it? "Se busca ingenieros." – aris Mar 8 at 15:56
  • "Se buscan ingenieros" . You would be using the masculine gender, which we are trying to avoid. – Tomas Zubiri Mar 8 at 20:24

There is an alternative view which I put forward here for completeness. Various suggestions have been made over the years to provide gender neutral forms in Spanish. This question and answers from nearly a decade ago provides references and discussion Is the use of @ instead of 'a' or 'o' in order to refer to both masculine and feminine accepted?

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  • Would you ever say "español@"? – OnlyThenDidIReckonMyCurse Mar 4 at 17:49
  • I am not advocating for or against this usage, just recording it. As I understand the usage discussed there it is not intended as a suffix in the way you suggest @OnlyThenDidIReckonMyCurse – mdewey Mar 4 at 18:25
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    What I mean is that it isn't a general way to obtain "gender neutral" forms, as it only works when one of the forms can be derived from the other by substituting "a" for "o" or vice versa. – OnlyThenDidIReckonMyCurse Mar 4 at 18:36
  • No, because españolo is not a word. @ makes the most sense when both an a or o in that position would be a valid word. – Tomas Zubiri Mar 5 at 1:41

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