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A more inclusive language: what type of “language” are we talking about?

From stereotypes to linguistic sexism and “living with diversity”: language can and should reflect the complexity of society

Manuela Baroncini
By October 2021February 13th, 2023No Comments
Photo by Claudio Colotti

The act of speaking might feel similar to breathing- it is a vital and automatic function that you take for granted and rarely think about or consciously bring your awareness to- but what is language for? It has two main functions: it allows you to self-define and to describe the world and things outside of yourself. “Each word we decide to use or not to use says something about what we are and what we are not. Quite literally, words are acts of our identity,” writes Vera Gheno, a sociolinguist specialised in digital communication and matters linked to language, gender and linguistic inclusivity [1].

Both the collective and individuals are able to self-define, self-represent and identify with one group rather than another, and can recognise the boundaries they “belong to”, through the use of words. The first such boundary is the gender one: can I identify (and express) my gender identity with the language I use? Are there categories where it is difficult, or even impossible, to self-define linguistically? More and more it is not just about traditional genders, like male and female, but also non-binary genders, all the way to so-called “gender-fluid”. Social and political matters linked to gender often spark nervous reactions and significant irritation (social platforms confirm this on a daily basis). The resistance increases when the gender topic moves onto language and its uses, even just when contemplating to change one’s own linguistic habits. That is because in practice people wish to carry on speaking and writing like they have always done, but that means denying the importance of the identity-giving nature of language.

Linguistic stereotypes and sexism

In 1987, almost twenty-five years ago, “Il sessismo nella lingua italiana (Sexism in the Italian language)” by Alma Sabatini was being published. This was an article requested by the Italian National Committee for Equality and Equal Opportunities Between Men and Women, which was instituted by the President of the Council of Ministers. It contained “Recommendations to use the Italian language in a non-sexist manner”, which resulted from examining the books and mass media that ruthlessly emphasised the significant prevalence of the masculine gender over the feminine one- also given the use of the so-called “masculine-neuter” gender, or “overextended masculine” that has a double meaning and is applied when Italian grammar does not have a neuter form. “The purpose of these recommendations is to suggest alternatives that are compatible with the language system in order to avoid some sexist forms of the Italian language, at least the ones that are more susceptible to change. The minimum objective is to give linguistic visibility to women and equal linguistic value to terms that refer to the female sex” stated the introduction to the recommendations. It also added, “what we aim to achieve is to establish a real relationship between the symbolic role of language and its concrete value in life. The use of one term over another means modifying the thinking and attitude of those who speak it and- consequently- those who listen to it.”

Sabatini’s research received countless criticism and negative feedback (an example of this is the famous comment by Pietro Citati that defined the work as “one of the greatest masterpieces of comedy in Italian literature”). Nevertheless, it has the merit of starting a debate on the need to renew the Italian language, adapting it to the profound social changes that were happening then (and even more so today).

Often it’s not the language itself that is sexist, but its use; it’s not the linguistic structure but its daily use when people speak it. – Vera Gheno

Would it not be enough to just focus again on Italian grammar to turn the discussion back into a peaceful and fruitful reflection? In Italian grammar there are four types of combinations between the masculine and feminine genders, and you can almost always create a feminine form: i.e. maschio-femmina, bue-mucca (male-female, bull-cow) (fixed gender); il/la docente (the teacher) (common gender, in Italian the article changes to reflect the gender of the noun); l’antilope (the antelope) applies to both genders (promiscuous gender); gatto-gatta, professore-professoressa, lettore-lettrice (male/female cat, male/female professor, male/female writer) (mobile gender). In other words, the debate on the linguistic use of gender should be less heated and controversial. In fact, “the languages of great culture, those you can use to write the most complex texts for scientific and humanistic contexts, contain all the tools you need to utilise them in a non-sexist manner,” explains Gheno. “Often it’s not the language itself that is sexist, but its use; it’s not the linguistic structure but its daily use when people speak it”. Now, if our language already provides us with almost everything we need to be inclusive and non-sexist speakers and writers, for example by giving voice to the female population, then why does this not happen or does so very little? “Because us humans are really creatures of habit. We’re used to hearing the masculine form of a term in certain situations and the feminine one in others, so we need to modify our habits and that’s always very hard”.

In 2016, Tullio De Mauro- the Italian linguist, scholar and essayist who served as Minister of Public Education from 2000 to 2001- published on Linkiesta a reflection on the importance of classics, school, politics and the notion of “linguistically correct”. He stated that, “When we started to say words like ‘ministra’ and ‘sindaca’ (Italian words for ‘female minister’ and ‘female mayor’) many jumped in their chairs. Even though the words ‘female minister’ and ‘female mayor’ did not exist before, the roles do so the vocabulary should follow. Our language allows us to use feminine forms so let’s use them, with some care” [2].

“With regards to traditional gender forms, personally I’m very much in favour of using the feminine form when referring to a woman, using words like ‘direttrice’, ‘ministra’, ‘sindaca’ (female director/minister/mayor) and so on,” states Luca Serianni- linguist, philologist and professor emeritus of history of the Italian language at the Sapienza University in Rome. “The problem starts when the women in question do not wish to be called with the feminine form of their job title. Personally I don’t know any women that have others call them ‘avvocata’ (female solicitor) and the word ‘avvocatessa’ (a synonym of ‘avvocata’) (just like the vast majority of the words with the feminine ‘-essa’ suffix) has an ironical connotation- often even a negative one. Clearly you cannot impose the word ‘avvocata’ if the woman in question prefers to be called ‘avvocato’ (masculine form of the word solicitor).

However, why is it that women themselves often prefer masculine forms? “Firstly because, unfortunately, many associate masculine forms with a higher status so they think they’ll achieve gender equality through uniformity,” continues Gheno. “There is no more distinction between masculine and feminine forms because I am exactly like a man”. Some of you might remember the time when Beatrice Venezi, the youngest orchestra director in Europe, was on the stage of the last Sanremo concert and expressly asked to be called “orchestra director” (instead of “orchestra female director”). She said that “if the goal is to reach equal opportunities what is the point of emphasising gender differences and creating even more separation between them, which might lead to further inequality?” On the contrary, reflects the sociolinguist, “the core issue is about reaching equality while acknowledging differences: men and women- or men and other genders- are different and it would be wrong to keep thinking that you should be like a man to become equals”.

Language as a way of “living with diversity”

A language can become more inclusive- enabling all gender forms to self-define- only after a process of self-awareness and self-development has taken place: you need to work on your habits at a personal level- like Vera Gheno was explaining- and on stereotypes as a collective. The focus should also be on the stereotypes of language (such as the visual one, made of images) and not just those present in language. “It might be appropriate- particularly during formal occasions- to use splitting and to include the two gender forms (‘senatori e senatrici’-‘female senator and male senator’, ‘signore e signori’- ‘ladies and gentlemen’), but the most important thing is not to surreptitiously convey images and situations linked to male supremacy or rigid social roles, for example via textbooks,” says Luca Serianni.
With regard to tackling exquisitely linguistic stereotypes, the strategy should not be to modify linguistic norms from above in order to achieve greater inclusivity but rather to integrate more inclusive uses of the language to the norm.

Probably the process of debating about this topic already holds the seed for the potential generation of different linguistic uses because “words too help out with equality, inclusivity, feminist- or whatever you call them- demands. It’s not true that words don’t have any relevance because they have the merit of bringing attention to the issue,” continues Gheno, “there might be a generative correlation between society, culture and language so all three can help further with this”. The sociolinguist specifies that, if you don’t listen to each other or don’t keep an open mind with those around you, “each linguistic act can be nothing but a pure performative act, lacking that generative essence that instead should support you in this search for a peaceful way to live with and accept diversity and reciprocal differences” [3]. She is referring to the definition of “living with diversity” written about by Fabrizio Acanfora, a writer, university teacher and musician that promotes going beyond inclusivity to create a culture of “cohabitation with differences”.

Diversity- also with regard to gender- offers “opportunities to acknowledge the existence of forms of life that differ from our own and that therefore it would not be fair to attribute features or habits to which were not agreed, requested- the product of a dialogue- or consensual,” states Lorenzo Gasparrini. The blogger, feminist philosopher and author of “Non sono sessista, ma… (I’m not sexist but…)” [4] also stresses that, “communities exist wherever there is a shared language. Words represents the smallest unit of some languages so they definitively hold some level of civic power” [5].

In addition to the reflection on diversity and traditional binary genders- male/female- there is the increasingly relevant matter of non-binary identities, which are neither strictly or completely male nor female. In fact, non-binary people can identify with two genders (bi-gender), decide not to have a gender (a-gender, gender-free), move between genders or be gender-fluid. Such terms reflect a social complexity that can no longer be avoided or cancelled and language should adapt to this context, which is similar to what De Mauro was suggesting about extending the feminine gender form to certain job titles.

The gender-fluid topic cannot but have a unique linguistic corresponding form, at least in languages that do not have the neuter gender: the undifferentiated masculine gender.  – Luca Serianni

Experiments of linguistic inclusivity

It is appropriate- if not even necessary- to reflect on ways to make language more inclusive, so we should identify which means could actually take care of the different demands of society. If on one hand our language provides us with the necessary arsenal of tools (for example, the availability of the feminine gender forms of job titles), on the other hand, as users, can we imagine expanding such arsenal with new habits and new forms? That’s the case for the uses of the asterisk (*), the schwa (ə) or sometimes the “u” that, especially in writing, try to overcome the limitations of the Italian language when this does not provide a neuter form and uses the “overextended masculine” form to refer to the feminine gender (and, obviously, other genders). “The gender-fluid topic cannot but have a unique linguistic corresponding form, at least in languages that do not have the neuter gender: the undifferentiated masculine gender,” says Serianni who, during a recent Roman meeting on the words disputed in the public debate, highlighted the difficulty in regulating writing to modify orthography as well.

“The use of the ‘overextended masculine’ gender form is not written in the stars either. Obviously linguistic androcentrism has clear historical roots. Men have always defined history- I don’t say this with malice, but women were on the side for millennia,” explains Gheno. “I think there is an ongoing social transformation and it is so big that, even assuming we’ll go beyond the notion of binary gender, nobody can know what the final outcome will be”. Besides, this same debate has also been taking place in many other languages, well before it did in Italian. In English, for example, there are neuter nouns and only pronouns have gender forms so “the issue was finding a neuter pronoun for the singular form of ‘they’. This pronoun is already used in English when referring to a person you don’t know the gender of. For example, ‘somebody left their umbrella here, I hope they come back for it’. That use of the word ‘they’ was then extended to non-binary people,” continues Gheno. Similarly, in Spanish and Portuguese, they use “e” for plural forms so, for example, todes (neuter word for ‘they/all’) instead of todos (masculine gender) and todas (feminine gender).

The schwa symbol, which is part of the International Phonetic Alphabet, represents one of current attempts to make language more inclusive and respectful of everyone’s gender identity. “I keep thinking that these linguistic forms are like some sort of badge that you put on your shirt to say, ‘Look how much I care about this issue. I’m working on it’,” states the sociolinguist, “but, for many reasons, I don’t believe that the schwa symbol will be a solution, even though it gave voice to a minority that didn’t have it before”. Language is like a big and ever-developing lab so in such context these uses are nothing more and nothing less than experiments. “I don’t have any particular issue with linguistic experiments because I’ve always come across them during my many years studying languages of the youth and online ones. Linguistic experiment doesn’t hurt,” continues Gheno, “but it might not necessarily become part of the norm. In fact, in the majority of cases these are transient experiments that don’t stick to the memory of language. I find it very interesting to see so many negative reactions, also from those who taught me to study language this way”.

This is undoubtedly a time for reflection on gender matters that keep sparking heated debates. Perhaps nobody can predict what the result and final outcome of such reflection will be. Therefore “it’s also possible,” concludes Gheno “that we’ll reach an ideal situation where gender identity won’t be a cause for discrimination. At that point it might even be possible to go back to the use of the ‘overextended masculine’ form because it won’t be necessary to reassert the existence of different genders through a linguistic protest”. Right now, however, the search for linguistic existence and visibility is sacrosanct.

Manuela Baroncini

[1] Gheno V. Potere alle parole. Perché usarle meglio. (Power to words. Why you should use them better.) Turin: Einaudi, 2019.
[2] Giurato B. De Mauro, l’ultima intervista: torniamo al latino e al greco (the last interview: going back to Latin and Greek languages), Linkiesta, 5 January 2017.
[3] Gheno V. Verso l’inclusività linguistica e oltre. (Towards linguistic inclusivity and beyond) Zanichelli – Aula di Lettere, 18 February 2021.
[4] Gasparrini L. Non sono sessista ma… Il sessismo nel linguaggio. (I’m not sexist but…the sexism of language) Rome: Tlon, 2019.
[5] “Non sono sessista, ma…” In dialogo con Lorenzo Gasparrini, di Giusy Capone. Orizzonti culturali italo-romeni. (“I’m not sexist but…” A conversation with Lorenzo Gasparrini, by Giusy Capone. Italian-Romanian cultural views) Rivista interculturale bilingue (Bilingual intercultural magazine) 2020;X:9.