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The truth about ‘Latinx’

Editor’s Note: An updated version of this article addresses the error where the author incorrectly states that the plural neuter term in Latin is “Latinae.” Please read the updated article here. We regret the error.

In recent years, the term Latinx has become popular in academic settings in English to designate a group of people without reference to gender, which is designated by -o and -a endings in some Romance languages. While academics and Twitter users have begun to use the term, only 2% of the U.S. population actually identifies with this word.  Latinx has become so widely used that Elizabeth Warren has taken to using it on the campaign trail.  This has led to a reflection on its political implications in a recent Ross Douthat piece in the New York Times The interesting question is why a term that is thought to help unify a large group of people would fail to gain wider traction.

Since Spanish is my mother tongue, I can understand why this term would befuddle Spanish speakers.  From a linguistic perspective, it makes no sense to create a genderless word in a gender-marked language. Yes, the -o and -a endings signal the grammatical gender, such as in the terms niño and niña. But the endings for the adult form are not always straightforward, such as in el hombre and la mujer. In fact, all nouns carry grammatical gender and some of these end in -o/a (i.e. la tierra) and others do not (i.e. el arbol). Finally, even within categories that have similar meanings there can be variation. In Spanish, it’s el puma and la pantera. But in Italian, one would say la tigre. Confused yet? Grammatical gender is confusing, especially with regard to animals.

With all this confusion, Spanish speakers lose a connection between sex and gender. No one would be insulted if they are considered part of el pueblo Latino or la gente Latina. Just because someone says I am part of la gente Latina doesn’t make me feel that they are referring only to women. For a speaker of this class of Romance languages, the notion that gender and sex are the same thing makes little sense. Yes, gender originates in sex but it is not the same thing when it comes to non-sexed nouns.

The problem arises when we use a gender-marked Romance language term in English contexts. For example, one day I ran across a cover for Newsweek that characterizes Selena as “Tejano’s Queen.” I was confused by this. Did they mean Tejano’s (i.e. people from Texas) music?  The word music was never used so I kept on reading.  I found that the special issue was “proud to present Selena, a 100-page tribute to the most beloved Tejano singer of all time.” Oh, so she was a Tejano singer and the reference was to music.  But, in fact, she would be una cantante de musicaTejana or una cantante Tejana. Either way, the gender would be feminine not masculine. Tejana and Tejano had been masculinized to the latter. This is not unusual for Anglophones. You might remember the once Terminator, and now ex-Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger stating “No problemo.” The problem (no pun intended) is that it should be No hay problema. Again, an Anglophone (probably the scriptwriters) masculinizes a Spanish noun. Spanish has two genders but for some reason Anglophones think there is only one. Thus, what grammatical gender is and is not becomes entirely lost when moving to a language where gender and sex are the same thing.

But let’s leave my linguistic perch for a second and think about the implications of the term is. The term X is sought as one that would be all inclusive. The term reminds me of algebra where X represents a variable that has no defined meaning.  As such it is perfectly suited for equations where a term is unknown.  In this case, it can take on any value and in human terms would represent a more inclusive term.

The problem with creating a new genderless word, is that it already exists in gender-marked languages that have a true neuter. There are two languages that come to mind when thinking about the lexical origins of English. One is German and the other is Latin. Of these two languages, Latin has the perfect solution. Not only does it contain a neuter but it also has a plural neuter, Latinae. Rather than using a synthetically and anglophonically derived ending such as X, we could opt for a more organic one that has its roots in the language that has influenced speakers across the planet. In that sense, Latinae is all-inclusive and derives from a language that sought to create a genderless ending system. Latin is the natural language of science and the one used to represent complex concepts in English. Latinae gets rid of a sex and gender bias, it is inclusive, and was actually used for that reason. Let’s go with a genderless solution from a gender-marked language.

If you miss the X, you could tune in for reruns of The X-Files. Here, you would be presented with the motto “The truth is out there,” which also applies to our search for a genderless all-inclusive term Latinae to replace Latino/a/x.Verum illic, the truth is out there.

Editor’s Note: An updated version of this article addresses the error where the author incorrectly states that the plural neuter term in Latin is “Latinae.” Please read the updated article here. We regret the error.

Feature image credit:”Spanish dictionary” by Abigail Luke via Flickr 

Recent Comments

  1. Marlin E. Blaine

    “Latinae” is not a neuter plural in Latin. The termination “-ae” has several functions in the grammar of Latin adjectives. It can mark the genitive and dative singular feminine forms, for instance; when it is part of a plural adjective, it indicates the nominative feminine. The neuter plural form in the nominative case (which the author is presumably seeking) is actually “Latina.” Recurring to that form obviously would not be a solution to the problem that the author is trying to solve.

  2. Carlos Alonso Vargas

    Excellent article, except that the author ought to have learned just the next lesson in Latin. The word “Latinae” that he proposes is not neuter plural but feminine plural. In Latin, for the singular, “Latinus” is masculine, “Latina” is feminine, and “Latinum” is neuter. For the plural, “Latini” is masculine, “Latinae” is feminine, and “Latina” is neuter (yes, the same as the feminine singular).

  3. Gregory

    But, of course, the Latin neuter plural would be ‘Latina’…

  4. Thomas O. Mitchell

    No, the neuter plural is NOT “Latinae” as Prof. Hernandez says. It is “Latina.”

    All neuter nominative plurals in Latin end in “a.”

    “Latinae” is always feminine of the 1st declension. It can be genitive singular, dative singular, or nominative plural.

    The “ae” ending is not a neuter ending in any declension.

    The article should be corrected before Professor Hernandez’s error is propagated
    online and his false statement is accepted as fact by hundreds of thousands of people who know no Latin.

  5. Charlie

    Interesting read. Problema, though, is masculine in gender. Tejano, also, was not created by anglophones, so I’m not sure why it’s masculine in gender.

  6. NBodill

    Hi there, definitely a decent approach to a solution, but Latinae is feminine plural in Latin, not neuter. The neuter singular is Latinum (a toponym) and the neuter plural would be Latina (identical to the feminine, likely extant as an adjective, but perhaps not as a substantive).

    As the neuter plural and the feminine singular are identical in form, this approach will this not work.

  7. Dre

    Kinda weird how they’d jump on a new letter instead of using @ because I’ve seen so many Latinos use that one in Spanish. That x feels pushed in by non natives who are worrying about problems that aren’t theirs, much like the whole SJW politically correct movement. They could’ve even used Latins, I mean Latin also refers to Latinos. If they want to bring in someone who panders to Latinos, it shouldn’t be AOC, it should be El Bananero, porque el bananero saaaapppeeeee

  8. Schneifer Tamas

    Latin (and Greek) neuter plurals universally end in A, and the singular “Latin-” adjective would break down Latinus/Latina/Latinum. I can see mistaking the feminine singular for the neuter plural — both being “Latina” — and misapplying the feminine plural form “-ae”. But the neuter plural, being the same as the feminine singular, is no bueno.

    Further, neuter adjectives-acting-as-nouns usually indicate a thing or an object, with people being their appropriate gender. (The notion of its being non-gender-based — especially that it would have been by design — is kind of bunk.) Why not just call them “Latins” if this is such a big deal?

  9. Will K

    Dr. Hernandez, thank you for the account of how you and other native Spanish speakers receive the term Latinx. As a teacher and speaker of the Latin language, I especially like your proposal of drawing from Latin’s neuter ending to create a term that more readily fits into the gender-marking of Spanish. However, I’d like to point out that the ending -ae is actually a feminine plural ending. The neuter plural ending is -a, which may defeat it’s point, as it would be indistinguishable from the Spanish feminine singular “Latina.” The neuter singular ending -um may be another option, but I have a hunch that Anglophones would add an s to Latinum to pluralize it. Something similar has happened with a Latin term “alumnus” and “alumna” (and their respective plurals) in the creation of the inclusive and gender-neutral forms “alum” and “alums.” Although “alum” looks like it has Latin’s neuter singular ending -um, it is actually a truncated form of the stem “alumn-“. All this is to say that an English speaker who is already accustomed to using “alums,” would likely have the impulse to pluralize “Latinum” as “Latinums.” In any event, I like your thought to draw from another gender-marked language in favor of the obtrusive -x!

  10. Simon

    I was really satisfied to see a topic like this discussed rationally from a linguistics perspective. I’d like to see more discussions in this vein in the public sphere.

  11. Stephen Matthews

    Latinx is ugly and barely pronounceable, but the proposed alternative Latinae is feminine plural, so doesn’t serve the intended purpose.

  12. Re

    I have in fact seen the kids of Mexico claim that this is how Latinx is pronounced, more like “Latineh” because non-anglophone Mexicans pronounce the x with an h sound.

  13. Luis J Rivas

    Most interesting article! However, isn’t “Latinae” plural feminine and you are suggesting plural neuter to refer to “Latinos?” Should it be then “Latina?” Of course that’s also singular feminine both in Latin and Spanish!

  14. […] continue reading . . . […]

  15. Emily

    Unfortunately, latinae is actually the plural feminine in Latin. The plural neuter is latina, which is, yes, the same as the singular feminine, so that won’t be very helpful. Though I’m a bit confused as to why you went with the plural in the first place? Isn’t Latino/a singular in form (if plural in meaning)? Perhaps the neuter singular, latinum, could serve your purpose. Though I’ve also seen latine floating around as another alternative.

  16. Veritas

    English is Germanic in origin, Latin was brought by the Romans, then displaced and brought back by the Catholic church with a huge influence from French, which is a Romance language to be sure but many English words are connected to French influence not Latin even though there exists a common Latin root word.

  17. Fernando

    The Latin neuter is actually -um in the singular and -a in the plural. So Latinum/Latina. The neuter plural is the same as the feminine singular (Latina), and the feminine plural ends in -ae, Latinae. The masculine endings are -us/-i.

  18. Andres Altamirano

    Hello. Have you considered the Spanish (Spain) origins of the ‘x’ and the way the Moorish conquestual legacy may be detracting from the anglophonic intent? It may be the phonetics of the ‘x’ (tchsh-sounding) render the word nonsensical in its own right, especially if Spanish is one’s first language and is used when thinking.

  19. Thomas Bushnell

    Latinae is not a neuter Latin plural. Can’t OUP do better?

  20. Fred Welden

    Like you, I am troubled by the form (rather than the intent) of the invented designation “Latinx,” in large part because it contains a terminal sequence that could never occur or easily be pronounced in the language of the very people it is intended to indicate respect for.

    However, the correct neuter form from Latin would be “Latinum,” plural “Latina,” which would be confusing.

    Since we are looking for a term to use *in English,* to impress on English speakers that we are not expressing gender bias, why not just use “Latin?”

  21. Marcus Aurelius

    Latinae is the Latin FEMININE plural of Latina.

    The word you seek is Latinum.

  22. Alexander Brady

    The neuter plural in Latin is “-a”, not “-æ”. As in quantum/quanta or referendum/referenda. So, I’m sorry, but this article is super unhelpful.

    How about we just use the English word “Latin”? Or ask people whose mother tongue is Spanish what they would prefer us to say?

  23. Nilka

    Excelente!

  24. Pat C

    I speak some Spanish. lots of English

    I don’t like latinx. I think it doesn’t just remove gender it removes personhood.
    Latinae is better but still lacks something.. When we find a way to make English pronouns non-gendered, then we can look at changing someone ELSES language. Words/languages change the brain

  25. Richard Manns

    Just something little, as I have not studied Latin for a long time, but…

    I think you’d make ‘latinum’ a 2nd-declension neuter, in which case the plural nominative seems to be ‘latina’. This wouldn’t help!

    My Spanish family use ‘@’ to imply ‘a/o’ but that would be quite clunky in a paper. But I’d be surprised if people hadn’t used that in the Americas.

  26. Samuel

    In French, when referring to a group of mixed gender people, the grammatical gender is automatically male. If the group is entirely female, we use the female form, if the group is 1,000 women, and 1 male, we use the male form.

    How does this work for Spanish and Portuguese? If it’s the same, then surely that’s the simplest solution.

  27. Alvie

    Latinx is the whim of young online tribes of “heritage speakers” (hijos de latinos en Estados Unidos) looking for attention and separating themselves from what has been known as Latinos, Latinoamericanos, Hispanos, etc. Remedial morphology is urgently needed.

  28. Karen Martin

    The music itself is known as “Tejano” music. As a Spanish-speaker, fan of Selena, Tejano music and a Texan myself, I find nothing confusing about that headline.

  29. Sebastian

    Neuter plural in Latin has suffix -a in nominative and accusative. -ae is feminine plural nominative (and others but post seems to target nominative).

  30. Brian

    Oh—and PS: the Latin neuter plural is Latina; Latinae is feminine plural. Okay, I’m done.

  31. Bill Fairchild

    Latinae is feminine plural, not neuter plural, which is Latina. The neuter singular is Latinum. Latinus, -a, -um are masculine, feminine, and neuter respectively of nominative singular. The nominative plural equivalents are Latini, -ae, -a. Check Wiktionary for full declension of any 1st/2nd declension adjective; e.g., bonus, and past participles, e.g., rogatus.

  32. Pamela

    I’m not sure the goal of the article was well presented. Is it only to dismiss the use of the X? Was it written simply in relation to the word “latinae”? What kind of change does it hint to in the root of the language? Perhaps the use of the “-e”? I don’t get it.

  33. Jennifer

    Another potential alternative to latinx would be to use the term [email protected] This is the preferred term used in Spain to reduce gender bias in words.

  34. Brian

    Some errata:

    1. ‘Problema’ is a masculine noun in Spanish. Changing it to ‘problemo’ doesn’t masculinize it, since it’s already masculine, including that masculine ‘a’ at the end.

    2. The nominative plurals of neuter nouns in Latin always end in ‘a.’ Always. That’s the form English always inherits from so you’d still just have ‘Latina’ in English neuter plural or ‘Latinum’ in singular. ‘Latinae’ would be a plural feminine.

  35. Ranjeet Tate

    Haha, Americans as a rule don’t know the plurals of “focus” or “thesus”, so good luck with trying to get buy in for a Latin derived word.

    Can you give some examples of the intended use of “Latinae”, your proposed plural term?

    And your proposed replacement is incomplete, what do people who are not gender binary identifying use when they are referring to themselves in the singular? In English or in Spanish?
    I’m Latino. Soy Latino.
    I’m Latina. Soy Latina.
    I’m LatinX. Soy LatinX. That sounds good to me.
    We are Latinae sounds unfamiliar, but I can get used to it.
    And you know the problem with “somos Latinos”, the masculine plural default except when the group is all women identifying. I prefer “somos LatinX”.

    But I’m not, so not my preference to have ;-)

  36. William M. Klimon

    Except that there is no Latin declension where -ae is the neuter plural ending.

  37. Solanum

    “Latīnae” is the feminine plural, not the neuter plural. The neuter in Latin would be “Latīnum” in the singular and “latīna” in the plural, and for obvious reasons “latina” doesn’t really work as a new neuter plural in Spanish.

    A far better solution which is actually seeing quite a bit of use in the hispanosphere is to extend the neutral -e/-es ending of words like “grande”, so you could have “latine”/”latines”. Takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s pronouncible and straight forward.

  38. Espanhol

    Wow. Incredibley stupid too think too in depth about this

  39. Franco mannu

    Latinae is not neuter plural. It is feminine plural.
    Neuter ural is Latina.

  40. Marcello

    Um, but this wrong.

    As an adjectuve latinus, latina and latinum would be the masculine, feminine and neuter nominative singular respectively.

    Latini, latinae and latina would be their respective nominative plural endings.

    Even in the accusative singular/plural the neuter stays the same: latinum/latina

    Where you got latinae from is beyond me

  41. Jose Sanchez

    I was told as a kid, I am Latino, I am Latina, I am Latin American. So if the A makes is a feminine noun and the o makes it masculine wouldn’t the root be neutral?

  42. Nicole

    The neuter plural would actually be Latina…

  43. Keith Nightenhelser

    Latinae is not a neuter.

  44. Patricia Llamas

    With all due respect, professor, I’m a bit confused, since I don’t understand your suggestion. “Latinae” is not a plural neuter form, but a plural feminine form (singular: Latinus (masculine)-Latina (feminine)-Latinum (neuter); plural: Latini-Latinae-Latina). So the plural neuter form is “Latina” (this form applies also to the Nominative, Vocative and Ablative of the singular feminine, which, in my humble opinion, also adds to the confusion). On the other hand, the neuter nouns and adjectives in Latin have the same form in the Nominative, Vocative and Accusative, this happens both in the singular and in the plural. To be honest, I find this extremely confusing, to say the least. I teach Latin and Ancient Greek, and I usually see that students have difficulty with declension and with the neuter gender, every language has its peculiarities. Kind regards from Argentina.

  45. Matt D

    This is a befuddling about of rubbish. Rubbx, I mean.

    I can’t believe I took the time to read that. It’s surprising what trash a university would put out.

  46. EA

    Thank you for this article. Latinx is the oddest forced word I’ve ever seen. Fixing problems that aren’t problems, leads to problems that need fixing. This article is the right direction to fix this new invented problem.

  47. Hendrik Boom

    Someone mentioned that Americans don’t know the plural of thesus. Isn’t the singular thesis?

  48. Daniel

    Good article. Addressing the problems of “Latinx” is probably unpopular in many areas of academia. Here are my 2 cents.

    We could use the existing Spanish word “Latinos” which is used to refer to a group of unspecified gender. Or we could use the existing English term “Latin American.”

    Trying to add a new Spanish word (really a whole gender, which would, if successful, create a new language that is no longer Spanish) to fix a perceived problem implies that English speakers think that Spanish is broken or incomplete, which is not the case at all.

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