In one of the most discussed moments of the first Democratic debates, U.S. senator and former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren made a major linguistic gaffe — probably. Railing against an economy that she and Tucker Carlson think is stacked against the common people, Warren charged, “It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African Americans and Latin-X whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed and whose communities are ruined.”
The gaffe is, apparently, the pronunciation of “Latinx” as “Latin-X.” I say “apparently” because, despite the widespread mockery that Warren faced, people don’t actually agree on the word’s pronunciation. They don’t agree about its use either, in part because of its sociopolitical implications and in part because of its history — i.e., the word was just made up.
The immediate rejoinder to the latter objection is “But all words are made up.” In the obvious sense this might be true, but creation and change in language tend to be organic — created in response to an existing need, and largely unconscious. Deliberate language evolution is unusual, and when it does occur, it tends to be more for literary flair than anything else (think Shakespeare or Mark Twain). Deliberate language change to serve a political end, however, is rare and — at risk of sounding cliché — Orwellian.
The word’s defenders will then go on to claim that “Latinx” did come about as a result of a genuine need: a gap in our lexicon created by the evolution of decent society beyond the so-called gender binary, or at least our desire for gender-neutral language. There’s a whole syllabus of errors that feeds into this interpretation.
Most fundamental is the basic misunderstanding of what gender means as a grammatical concept. (Of course, until the 1950s, gender was never seriously considered as anything other than a grammatical concept.) It isn’t fundamentally dependent on biological sex or sociocultural expressions of sexual differences; it’s just one of the many types of inflections used to clarify the relationships between words in synthetic languages. That a word is grammatically masculine or feminine is not necessarily to say that the thing it signifies is substantively masculine or feminine. Incidentally, the very word “masculinity” is feminine in more than a few gendered languages, and I doubt any German would feel emasculated if you commented on his Männlichkeit — quite the opposite, in fact. Likewise the fact that, say, the word for “poet” in Latin is masculine does not mean that Sulpicia was not properly a poeta; it simply means she was a poeta bonus rather than a poeta bona. It is, at its base, just a grammatical tool meant to identify modifiers with nouns.
With words that refer specifically to people (and other animate, sexually distinct things), however, gender does have something of a correlation to substance — and some Spanish words change depending on the sex of the thing they refer to. Hence niña and niño, tía and tío, etc. That correlation is not absolute, though, as the masculine grammatical gender is used to refer to mixed groups (e.g., niños for any gender-mixed group of children).
As for using the masculine form to refer to mixed groups, it would be ridiculous to think that this principle somehow imposes masculine substantive gender on the non-male members of the group. There’s no reason that “Latinos” cannot include people who are female — or novigender or greygender or what have you. To say otherwise would be to attack the entire gendered framework of nouns (a practical impossibility that people don’t tend to attempt; they always target politically charged points) and to seriously overestimate the correlation between grammatical and substantive gender.
The remaining problem, such as it is, stems from singular words that refer to people and have only two gender options: One must be a Latino or a Latina, a niño or a niña, with no special third option for the nonbinary. This is true as far as it goes; if one sees the fact that there are two sexes as so offensive that it is worth rewriting a language to avoid any suggestion of it, I suppose Spanish is problematic. But the fact that this is the best argument for “Latinx” is the reason it is used almost exclusively by radical progressives and professional activists, and has gained little traction in common usage despite its 15-year lifespan. America, its Hispanics included, is far from accepting the kind of theory wrapped up in this argument. To try to push that extreme position on the general public is a fool’s errand.
There are a few other reasons for the word’s failure to take hold as well. One is that people are just tired of being presented new words to use for the particular group of people that “Latinx” is meant to represent. An argument to this effect was made on Gabriel Iglesias’s otherwise insufferable propaganda/comedy Netflix show, Mr. Iglesias. Confronted by a student outraged at the use of “Latino” over “Latinx” in a pamphlet, Iglesias’s character recounts the endless litany of new words that have been used to indicate his racial and ethnic characterization over his lifetime. The constant change causes inevitable confusion, and the lack of a common word makes it difficult, just as a practical matter, for a broad community of people to come together in the way “Latinx” activists surely want them to.
There’s also a question of priorities: When many Hispanic Americans are struggling with poverty, school dropout, and numerous other woes, is it really wise for some of the most justice-inclined and politically passionate members of that community to be so focused on the grammatical gender of a single word? This question has led some to argue that “Latinx” is an elitist fad, since most Latinos have both real lives and real problems to worry about before getting bothered by what letter caps off the current acceptable ethnonym. It’s relevant only to people like Elizabeth Warren and the progressive activist class she’s pandering to — not to everyday Americans, Latino or otherwise.
And the imposition of a “nonbinary” term isn’t just politically radical. It’s linguistically radical, too. It does away with organically developed, age-old inflections and substitutes a letter that, put simply, just doesn’t fit. It’s a silly word. If anything, that X is an offense against the natural beauty of the Spanish language. It mangles a lovely word (from a lovely language) that rolls off the tongue into an ugly linguistic bastard, any of whose possible pronunciations sounds clunky as hell. Who can really blame Senator Warren for her (probable) mispronunciation? The way she said it may have been a wrong one, but is there really a right one?
It’s likely that a consensus will never be reached on Latin–X vs. Latinks vs. La-teen-x among the people who see the need for the word. Maybe sensible people, though, could all come together and agree to just call it “bullsh**.”