“Latinx”: What does it mean, and how is it pronounced?

Posted on February 21, 2022

You may have recently read this term, or heard people saying “Latin-ex” out loud and been confused. Spanish is my second language, and while I was familiar with the writing convention, I was confused when I started hearing Anglophones in social activism and in news media pronouncing the letter “x,” and using its name rather than its phonetic value. I’ve never heard any word written with an “x” pronounced this way in Spanish, so what’s going on here?

Latino” and “Latina

Latino is short for latinoamericano and refers to the culture and people of Latin America, which comprises the countries in the Americas where the official language is Spanish or Portuguese. As a borrowed word with grammatical gender, it’s unique in English because it isn’t anglicized and maintains its masculine and feminine forms, “Latino” and “Latina,” respectively.

Binary grammatical gender

Like French, Spanish has a grammatical gender system, which is binary. There are two categories—masculine and feminine—for all things, and these categories are most often represented by a final “o” or “a.” Words that modify or refer to one another must agree in gender. Grammatical gender also corresponds to human gender, and when it comes to talking about mixed-gender groups or a generic person, the masculine gender is the default. Therefore, los latinos or los latinoamericanos (masculine, plural) is the standard way to refer to Latin American people as a group.

Gender neutrality

Other posts on the Our Languages blog have been about gender-neutral writing in English and French: “Making letters and emails gender-inclusive (opens in new tab),” “Embracing the singular ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun (opens in new tab)” and “Respecter la non-binarité de genre en français (opens in new tab)” (available in French only). As with French, some see the default use of the masculine gender in Spanish as inherently exclusionary when applied to people. Additionally, non-binary people are left without any options. Several solutions for more inclusive writing in Spanish have been used, such as “o/a” or the at symbol (@) because it looks like both an “a” and an “o.” Replacing the gender-marking vowel with an “x” has also become popular.

“X” equals the unknown

This comes from a feminist Spanish writing convention wherein all vowels that mark the gender of a generic person, or group of people, are replaced with the letter “x,” the symbol for the unknown in mathematics. Los latinos becomes lxs latinxsspell l-x-s l-a-t-i-n-x-s.

However, even Spanish speakers who write this way don’t pronounce the “x,” because as a consonant replacing a vowel, it doesn’t follow the rules of Spanish pronunciation. The letter is being used for its symbolic value, rather than its phonetic value. Sometimes in a speech or announcement to a group of people, a speaker will say both standard gender variants of a noun, a phenomenon we’re familiar with in French in Canada. But in everyday speech, most people still follow standard grammar and pronounce the at symbols or x’s as o’s. In Spanish, los latinos and lxs latinxsspell l-x-s l-a-t-i-n-x-s are pronounced identically.

There is a movement to create a neutral, pronounceable, grammatical gender marker, to be used for mixed gender groups and non-binary individuals. The most popular option is to replace gender-marking vowels with e’s, as in les latines.

These new options are very controversial. They are debated heavily and are not accepted by the Real Academia Española. It’s interesting, then, that the term “Latinx” has caught on in English and is being pronounced “Latin-ex.” The pronunciation of the letter “x” as “ex” is strange to me, but I think I understand why it happens.

“Latinx” as an English term

From an Anglophone perspective, there’s an instinct to neutralize terms that vary based on gender, especially after decades of purging gender variance from English professional terms, promoting acceptance of non-binary people, and moving toward gender-neutral writingNote 1 overall. “Latin” is a gender-neutral word in English, but it has been replaced by “Latino” and “Latina” when they refer to people. Because these words describe an ethnic identity partly based on shared language, it’s meaningful that they be borrowed directly, rather than translated, from Spanish. And now the term “Latinx” is emerging as a non-binary replacement for “Latino” and “Latina.”

“Latinx” was first used in English in social activism, so from the moment it entered English, the meaning of the “x” made the vocalization of this letter seem important and obvious to English speakers. They may have asked themselves, “Why change the spelling for a specific goal if it can’t be articulated in speech?” But looking at a single word obscures the rest of the Spanish grammatical gender system, and therefore the pronunciation problem—how would the “x” be pronounced between consonants in plural Spanish words such as lxs empleadxsspell l-x-s e-m-p-l-e-a-d-x-s or unxs amigxsspell u-n-x-s a-m-i-g-x-s?

Perhaps the “e” in place of the “x” will catch on more in the Spanish-speaking world and will then make its way into borrowed words in English. No matter the direction, it will be interesting to see how things progress simultaneously in both linguistic spheres.

Do similar pronunciation phenomena occur in borrowings between English and French in Canada? As a closely related language, French has a similar story to Spanish when it comes to gender-neutral writing,Note 2 but are there any differences? Does the Canadian linguistic or cultural context play a unique role in this movement in French in Canada?


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Zachary Currie

Zachary Currie

Zachary Currie

Zachary Currie studies French-Spanish-English translation at the University of Ottawa and is interested in how social change influences, and is influenced by language. Zachary recently completed an undergraduate research project, evaluating bias in dictionary entries relating to the LGBTQ+ community.

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Submitted by eliana rey on May 24, 2023, at 20:54

I have a questions about how to translate the pronouns (she, her) after the name of a person. I believe both "she" and "her" can be translated as "ella", but I would like to know if there is already a standard that is being used. Any help is greatly appreciated!