Non-binary in Italian: Queering the Italian Language

What if I was to refer to someone who is non-binary? It is impossible in Italian to do so.


Written by Vittorio Bottini

Art by Charisse Kenion

A small Italian publishing house, Effequ, decided to accept the suggestions of the sociolinguists Vera Gheno and Luca Boschetto to use the graphic symbol ‘schwa’ (in IPA: ə) instead of the more ‘traditional’ generic masculine in a series of publication.

“Don’t they have anything better to do in the middle of a pandemic?!” – The Italian language is made up of two genders, masculine and feminine, used to define nouns, adjectives and participles (Italian speakers might be able to relate to the difficulty of explaining to an English audience why a car is a female object). In the past, other symbols have been put forward to solve a problem of gender inclusivity which is intrinsic to the Italian language. Examples are the use of the asterisk (*) or the ‘at’ sign (@) to avoid using any gender termination. However, the schwa is not only a graphic solution, but also a vowel sound which features in many other languages (e.g. the sound “a” in the word “about”) and even in Italian dialects (cfr. /Napulə/). Moreover, the schwa is superior to the use of the vowel -u to avoid any gendered termination in words. In fact, the problem with the use of such vowel is the similarity in sound with the masculine termination -o and the lack of a plural; on the contrary, the schwa is easily recognizable as a sound, and it has a plural: the long schwa (з).

However, what if I was to refer to someone who is non-binary? It is impossible in Italian to do so.

“I wonder about the usefulness and the need of such ‘drastic’ measures. We could use both genders when talking to a group of people: for example, instead of saying ‘cari tutti’ (‘dear all’) with the masculine plural to refer to a group of non-only-male-people, we could use ‘cari tutte e tutti’ addressing both the female and the male components of said group. What is more, we could start using the feminine even for those nouns which are commonly used in their masculine form such as ‘avvocato’ (‘lawyer’). Thus, a female lawyer would not need to refer to herself as an ‘avvocato’, but she could refer to herself as an ‘avvocata’ or an ‘avvocatessa’. Is this not enough?” – Undoubtedly, women need to be able to use an appropriate language to talk about themselves and to be acknowledged in language. However, what if I was to refer to someone who is non-binary? It is impossible in Italian to do so. Other languages have solved this problem. In English, the singulars forms, they/their, are now used as genderless pronouns (accepted by the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2019, and strongly supported by the American Psychological Association). Swedish offers another interesting case: just as Italian, this Nordic language has two grammatical genders (hon, “she”, and han, “he”) and, when there is need to refer to an unknown gender, the masculine has been traditionally used. However, they have adopted a gender-neutral personal pronoun hen, which has now been introduced in the SAOL (Svenska Akademiens ordlista).

 “How many non-binary people are out there though?”– The answer is tricky, given that most research and official census does not include ‘non-binary’ as a response when enquiring about gender. Some studies have found that non-binary individuals make up of 25-35% or more of transgender populations. However, such studies do not account for the non-binary people who do not identify as transgender. Generally speaking, there are not enough reliable studies aimed at accounting for the non-binary people across the globe. Unsurprisingly, such data are non-existent for the Italian population. However, we might want to take one of the few countries where we have an idea of the number: interestingly, according to the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission), in the UK at least 0.4% of the UK population defines as non-binary when given a 3-way choice in terms of female, male or another description, that is about 1 person for every 250 people. I would be surprised if the Italian numbers would be much lower. Maybe the schwa is not the perfect solution. Still, why should we toss in the bin a problem which seems crucial for the inclusion of all the people who speak, or want to speak, Italian? What about those people who are Italian and their own language does not allow them to speak about themselves without abiding to the gender binary system?

The Italian language is unable to acknowledge these people and, as a consequence, the rest of the Italian speakers are unable to reflect on the given problem, as language itself does not give them the opportunity to do so.

It is a fact that when people use gendered pronoun, they also make assumption about the gender of a person and this has various sexist effects (Gastil, 1990; Moulton et al., 1978). What is more, it has been convincingly argued that ‘by virtue of the closer relations of language to thought, certain natural tendencies of language not only create new entities but generate reasonings about these entities’ (Urban, 2013). Then, why should we not strive to change our language to prevent such consequences? The Italian language is unable to acknowledge non-binary people and, as a consequence, the rest of the Italian speakers are unable to reflect on the given problem, as language itself does not give them the opportunity to do so. As Saussure puts it, “far from the object preceding the point-of-view, it would seem that it is the point-of-view which creates the object.”

“How is that my problem?!”– It is not. However, are we to turn our head in front of non-binary people feeling left out, discriminated and nullified because their own language does not recognize their existence? We could. Just as in any problem, the question boils down to whether we decide to disregard something that it does not concern us personally, as we can go on living without acknowledging it as a problem, or we want to help other human beings to be able to be recognized as such by their own language. Effequ made its choice: their heart and mind are in the right place. Now, it is our move. Grazie a tuttз.

About The Author

After having obtained a M.A. in Classics from the University of St Andrews (Scotland) and a M.St. in Classics from the University of Oxford (England), Vittorio Bottini is currently a PhD student in Classics at the University of Toronto. He has spent most of his academic career studying ancient languages with a strong interest for gender issues and narratology.

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