Gender in Portuguese

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To avoid discrimination through language, not distinction, it is urgent to identify what humiliates and demeans the female gender and remove such terms from our vocabulary.

There are some themes that always attract the attention of the general public, especially when they permeate taboos present within society. Language is one of them. I'm not talking about the one that's in our mouths and, depending on how it's exposed, it denotes explicit sexuality or insinuates the voluptuousness that almost everyone desires at good times in their lives.

The subject of this text is about linguistic prejudice in its morphological aspect, with an almost literary bias. It can also be understood in the opposite way, depending on the readers’ background and desires. And here already begins a strong sexual problem. Why do we historically use the masculine plural and not the feminine (all readers)? Would it be viable to use neutral language and greet all illustrious readers without any gender prominence?

However, when studying gender in the Portuguese language, it is essential to bring a study of stylistics in a consecrated work (or prestigious book) by M. Rodrigues Lapa: when discussing the theme, he states without hesitation the existence of “constant sexual preoccupation that is verified in the vocabulary ”[I] when it comes to gender. We do not care about the sexual distinction between animals, such as ox and cow, although some appear only in female form, such as snakes and hyenas.

It turns out that at this point the use of these terms, when referring to people, often has the power to exalt the masculine and offend the feminine. Just analyze the term snake: man has the idea that he is very good at something; directed at women is pejorative, sometimes replaced by snake. Since Adam and Eve, it appears as a venomous animal aimed at women's weakness. It has been used as a form of oppression for a long time.

One can cite countless other examples that perpetuate discrimination in the simplicity of vocabulary, whether in the representation of animals or not: bull / cow; puto / whore; rooster chicken; “public man” / “public woman” etc. It is evident here that language can both be used to reinforce culturally imposed stereotypes and contribute to gender discrimination. By the way, one of its forms of perpetuation is the subtlety of the language, which reflects the way of thinking of a certain society, often transmitting certain ways of understanding women that place them in subordinate roles or stereotype them within society, minimizing their ailments and/or diminishing its strength. It is true that the language itself is not sexist, however the use that is made of it often makes discrimination against women persist.

Returning to the morphological question, still quoting M. Rodrigues Lapa,[ii] one of the characteristics of the Portuguese language, when we study gender, is the constant sexual preoccupation that is verified in the vocabulary. The author emphasizes the naturalness of the division of animals according to sex, in the distinction between male and female, but draws attention to the fact that the same often occurs when dealing with objects, sexless beings, such as bag / bag, well / puddle, boat/barge, shack/tent, basket/basket etc. The language here is in fact sexual, as it transfers to words the imagery forms of the representation of men and women in society, in which the former are larger in length and the latter in width, the latter taller and the female shorter, etc.

To avoid discrimination through language, not distinction, it is urgent to identify what humiliates and demeans the female gender and remove such terms from our vocabulary. In the quest to give visibility to the feminine and promote the necessary gender equality, it is essential to always think of language as an inclusive element.

Ladies and gentlemen, one of the ways is exactly to use the masculine and the feminine when we address mixed groups. This simple attitude makes it possible to increase the visibility of women in the spaces they occupy, recognizing their importance in the historical process of formation of our Nation, which unfortunately has always been little highlighted.

This view that places man as the navel of the world, this androcentrism, really needs to stop being the center of attention and share spaces with everyone. Considering that machismo oppresses and feminism liberates, understanding the sexuality of language allows us to use it with the aim of including and not discriminating, respecting differences and not reproducing historical injustices against women. We must make essential equality between people possible, and the sooner the better! And that goes through overcoming linguistic prejudice.

*José Fabio Rodrigues Maciel holds a master's degree in law from PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of Handbook of the History of Law (Saraiva Jur).


[I] LAPA, M. Rodrigues. Stylistics of the Portuguese language. 9. ed. Coimbra: Coimbra Editora, 1977, p. 129.

[ii] LAPA, M. Rodrigues. Stylistics of the Portuguese language. 9. ed. Coimbra: Coimbra Editora, 1977, p. 129.

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