Talking Translation #8 – The non binary and gender neutral in Portuguese

On Inclusive Language and “Grammaticality”

Gender neutral language, and how it’s perceived and accepted by society is a particular topic of interest for me. It’s not just that my gender can be described as “that thing that takes weird shapes and is hard to define” or that it’s something that affects me on a personal level. No, instead the gender neutral, or “the use of inclusive language” is a topic that has relevance to the topic of translation and how it should be approached. In the past I have treated this blog as…well a blog. A place to share my feelings, opinions and writing and although I have written (extensively) about translation theory, an area I absolutely adore and which I can spend hours talking about never has a topic been so near and dear to my heart.

It’s a topic that I feel compelled to write about, but it’s also a topic on which I can be called the “kind of the go to gal when it comes to Portuguese” on it. As someone who has published academical research on the topic, and as someone who has participated or otherwise contributed to several studies on it I approach the topic knowing and feeling that I know it. Not that academical research is the all end method of defining who is an expert on the topic but as someone who interacts with, and is part of the LGBTI+ community and so uses the language every day I hope that you will provide me with the benefit of doubt when it comes to it. Neo-pronouns are a topic I find fascinating and although it is a controversial topic it’s one I hope to make accessible even if you don’t speak Portuguese. So let’s start with a very controversial question.

What is a word anyway?

It sounds like a very stupid question, doesn’t it? A word is a word, it’s just something that means something. Perhaps you might have even said that a word is a “series of letters that form a meaning separated by spaces”. That’s the most common interpretation and response to what a word is, when I ask.

It makes sense doesn’t it? That’s how Word (the software) defines a word, any letter or group of letters separated from others by an empty space. In fact that’s how most word processors count words! There are some inconsistent rules on their part, and sometimes Microsoft Word will say you have 3000 words and Google Docs will say you have 2993 but it seems like a sensible way to explain it.

It rarely is that simple in linguistics…

The easiest way to shed doubt on what a “word” is is to pick up a word that’s made of two separate concepts. If this were Portuguese I’d use the term umbrella, which in Portuguese is Chapeu de Chuva (Rain hat) but luckily there are a few English words that follow a similar set of rules. One quite relevant to this blog would be videogame (often seen as video game). Is it still one word even with the space? How about Jack-of-all-trades? If we go by representation, then yes. So is supermarket, but not grocery store, or toy shop or meat deli. Or if you want to put an adjective before a noun, big warehouse is two words and you can see how this could easily get confusing.

The truth is there are two big ways to define what a word is and what counts as a single word or doesn’t. Meaning and orthography. Grammar books would refer to what I call meaning by semantical unit and meaning might indeed be a poor word for it but whatever the word used what it refers to is the same. Does it only represent one thing. And that thing doesn’t have to be an object, it can be a concept, it can be an emotion, it can be an organization or an action. – It doesn’t even have to be something tangible or that we know but it must point to something. There’s actually a very interesting discussion to have on what is or isn’t represented by a word, whether when you call something an apple and thinking of the big and juicy red ones you gave your teacher if the small bitter green ones are still counted but that’s a topic of no relevance today. No, if we define a word by how it refers to something, rather than whether there’s spaces then we can say that words like first officer as a rank or Coffee Shop are a single word.

Take An Umbrella - Let's Play Undertale #9 - YouTube

Even in the undergroud the question stands…

And your mind probably revolts at the idea. Seeing a space in between the two segments of it and saying “it’s only one thing so it’s one word” feels wrong. I know it does, and you can totally define a word as, like I said beforehand a graphical unit separated by spaces. What a word is is a very heated topic and every area of linguistics defines it or otherwise demands something for it to be a “word”. While syntax (the studies of sentences) would ask if it can be moved as one unit around the sentence, morphology (the study of words) would ask if it can be divided into smaller parts, morphemes and so forth. We don’t need to define what a word is, just agree on a vague idea of what it is but it’s interesting to note how a new word is formed.

Ok, so how is a new  word formed?

There are actually several processes by which you can form a new word. You can borrow it from another language and just assign it a meaning, like how hors d’oeuvre is now recognised as an English word or how penalti, a corruption of penalty the English term for a foul in football that results in a penalty kick for example now exists in Portuguese.

But the one that is of particular relevance to us today is the method of prefixation and suffixation A prefix and a suffix are additions to a pre-existing word or morpheme (you don’t need to know what it is don’t worry) to make up an entirely different word. Think of for example microchip, a new word formed out of the micro prefix attached to the world chip. Or think of a word like Rearrange, which takes the prefix re- (which signifies repetition ) and connects to a word that already has meaning to form an entirely new one. Prefixation and Suffixation allow you to add elements to a word to create an entirely new word with a separate meaning.

Another important concept to keep in mind is that of flection. Now flexing also occurs through suffixation and it modifies a word but it doesn’t form a new word. Sounds confusing? Seeing it in action might make it easier. Houses is a flection/derivate of the word house in number (that is it’s plural, more than one) through the +s . Gendered languages, such as Portuguese can also have their gender modified, usually by a suffix -o or -a. This is also used in comparison, for example  small + er or small+ish.

You can probably see where this is headed already…

So you can form a new word or assign it a gender by adding or modifying a suffix and Portuguese doesn’t have a gender neutral way to refer to someone, at least formally. How do you think non-binary folks created the gender neutral? Yup. They changed the ending of words.

Inclusive language – the rejection of “He as default”

There’s an expectation, in Portuguese that “he” works as default. You might have the entirety of the Portuguese Women’s football team and their (male) manager in a room, perhaps waiting on some award or recognition and it is expected, and in fact considered “correct” that when addressing them as a group you would use the “masculine form”. He is the default, and he is the neutral form and as you can imagine that’s something that causes problems and isn’t seen with the best of eyes by many.

There’s a movement in contract law, and legal translation as a whole to replace the assumption of “him” a default. It’s something that makes sense if you think about it. After al contracts prime themselves on how clear they are on their terms. A poorly worded, or explained thing can lead to loopholes something which is highly undesirable. Using “him” or a male form to refer to someone who might identify as female (and this is before we enter the realm of non-binary identity) is considered old school, antiquated, a sign of someone stuck in their ways. It paints, without even having to talk to the person who came up with the contract and wrote it an image of a conservative lawyer. The “respectable kind”,  the sort you’d see in movies as having taken classes in the most prestigious universities and having a British accent despite being played by an American.

The Cast of "Legally Blonde" Then and Now

Think professor Calahan from Legally BLonde (Image source: Legally Blonde,, MGM)

Fairly or not the mental image that forms comes from the fact that the change in legal writing is becoming increasingly prevalent. And it might seem like an appeal to authority that I am talking about contract law, and legal translation but it serves merely to illustrate a point.

I have previously written about how the term “accuracy” presents one hell of a conundrum to a professional translator. Indeed just thinking about that term shivers run down my spine and I run into a cold sweat. It’s not something easy to define, if it’s at all possible and it’s something I do NOT want to attempt. But if getting a meaning correct according to the spirit of a text is important in creative translation, commonly referred to as “literary translation” it is even more important to get it right on legal documents.

There was a famous case in Portugal several years back where an estranged woman, a daughter of a wealthy man learned that her father had died and she was in the inheritance. But was she? The inheritance didn’t mention her by name, but instead called for the money to be split between the descendants. Now you can see where this is going right? The word used, filhos can refer to all children – as it’s the default plural when there’s even one male, or it can refer to only the male sons of the man who had just passed.

It was messy, it was unclear and lawyers had to get involved. Precision is a vital skill in treating legal documents (or scientific ones) where even a single missing period can be the difference between receiving ten thousand dollars or ten dollars. 10. 000 is very much different from 10 000 and to make matters worse the rules change between English and Portuguese so you can’t even keep the numbers in some cases.

Gender Neutral Pronouns in Portuguese and how to apply it.

As Portuguese is a gendered language it’s particularly difficult to avoid referring to oneself or others as one of the two binary genders. Simply describing how you’re feeling often leads you to use a gender.

So as Portuguese doesn’t have an official gender neutral pronoun or term people devised several solutions. The two most popular however are probably Eli and Elu. As they approach themselves the closest to he/she in Portuguese (ele/ela). Pronouns however are a very personal and complicated topics and can be highly individualized. I’ve seen people use Ilu (from the latin gender neutral pronoun Illud) or el (read as “L”).  In case of doubt it’s probably better to ask but in the case of a non-binary character in fiction those are available.

More than pronouns however this affects how you refer to someone. If saying someone is thankful (grato for a male) or sleepy (dorminhoca for a girl) the standard is to drop the identifying mark of gender +O or +A and replace it with an E.

Of note you also have prepositions to identify and mark the gender of a word. Again those are o and a but those are usually removed when it comes to non-binary folks. The easiest way to do it is to just use the person’s name instead of saying a pronoun or using a preposition.

The last problem refers to words that are inherently gendered not because of their ending but because of what they represent. See “sister” or “brother”. In that case you should go for a gender neutral term. Sibiling would work in this case.

So for example:

O meu primo João é muito esperto. Gosta de ler até ficar cansado.

(My cousin João is very smart. He enjoys reading until he’s tired.)

Would become something like:

Meu prime João é muito esperte. Gosta de ler até se cansar.

(My cousin João is very smart. He enjoys reading until they get tired).

Note that I changed “cansado” to “se cansar”, a compound structure that means “becoming tired” thus avoiding a gendered form.

Given the recent explosions of non-binary characters in tv and movies knowing how to properly gender them is of vital importance. And though some would claim this to be a perversion of language it’s something that seems to be here to stay. And personally? I am glad for it. I think respecting people is the correct thing to do and it literally costs nothing to be kind. So hopefully this helps.

Further Reading

Nova Gramática do Português Contemporaneo (chapter 7 – Formação de palavras, with particular importance to sufixação nominal and adjetival (in Portuguese) by Celso Cunha and Lindley Cintra

Introducing Linguistic Morphology, 2nd edition, Baue, Lauirie

The Linguistic Structure of Modern English by Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton




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