A docile but not neutral language: sexism in the Italian language

Language, taken in and of itself, is docile,

but in the minds of the speakers it is not neutral.

- (Francesco Sabatini) [1]

There is a sentence, in a splendid book by Wu Ming 4, which the author of this article is particularly fond of (so much so that she repeats it at every opportunity without any respect for the tired ears of the poor listeners on duty). The work in question is Stella del mattino, and the quotation referred to is as follows:

'Words give meaning to things.'[2]

The quote is simple, concise, seemingly innocuous. It is almost in danger of getting lost in a book that features some far more lyrical expressions; yet this very phrase, if turned over the tongue long enough and carefully enough, gives us the opportunity here to introduce one of the most complex and pervasive problems that Western culture is finding itself facing, today as never before: the issue of linguistic discrimination.

The topic is broad, the space and time limited. Therefore, it seems necessary to create some boundaries, to remove anything that could lead us off-topic, to arrive at a manageable core of the issue. This article will therefore deal with the theme of sexism in the Italian language, how and why those who call themselves feminists often do not turn up their noses when they tell a (male) child to "not cry like a sissy", how those who say they are against discrimination do not feel uncomfortable calling a girl with short hair or who loves football "a tomboy", because after all "these are certainly not the important things!"

But in fact, yes, these are also the important things. They are important because the words we use are fundamental in constructing our horizon of meaning, the way we see the world and interpret what is outside and inside us. They are not only used to express our judgement on something, but somehow the very terms we decide to use construct the idea we have about what we are talking about, in a continuous game of exchange between signifier and signified. Words in the form of thoughts create our inner world and only later allow us to communicate it to the outside world, either in written or oral form.

Therefore, one can speak of linguistic sexism whenever a sentence containing a sexist stereotype is uttered, and it is therefore clear that it does not necessarily have to be a question of openly offensive sentences. The problem should not be reduced to someone calling a girl who walks down the street in a short skirt a prostitute, or who does not live her sexuality in a sufficiently demure manner, or to saying that a woman victim of violence 'had it coming because [insert unnecessary and insufficient reason]'. Linguistic sexism is much more than that, and it is so intrinsic in everyday communication that fighting it requires constant attention. And no sentence is worse or better than another; no expression can pass for good because 'that's what they say, I didn't mean to be offensive'. Well, my dear Italian speaker, you did mean to be offensive, since you said something offensive and sexist. And if you didn't mean to be offensive even though you said an offensive sentence, should it be inferred that you don't know what you're saying?

The fact that it is also women who make inappropriate comments only goes to show once again how sexism is so inherent in our culture that it often becomes totally unconscious. After all, who would want to reprimand someone for an innocent joke?

The worst thing, in fact, is that expressions of this kind are considered so harmless that anyone who expresses a minimum of justified disappointment in response is immediately accused of being too serious: "C’mon, have a laugh!". Let's try to eradicate a strong conviction: discrimination is no laughing matter.

There are countless sexist expressions that every woman hears every day. D magazine, the women's supplement to Repubblica, has collected no less than forty examples [3], but each of us could enumerate infinite variations on the theme: from the classic "This is not a job for you, it's a job for men!" to "You don't know how to drive because you're a woman!" or "You're so hateful today, should you be getting your period?". Such sentences are addressed to all women, indiscriminately, all the time. About housework, about anything to do with children (including the lack of them), about clothing, every day we are reminded in a thousand different ways of our status as women, that is, as something different from men. And this would not be a problem, of course: after all, it is true that women are something different from men. It would not be a problem, as I was saying, if this emphasis on diversity were not accompanied by a much more insidious, dangerous and unpleasant message: you, a woman, can (or rather must) do this, and you cannot (or must not) do that.

Because language tells us precisely what women must and can do (a woman of the house, a woman to be married, an angel of the hearth, woman and mother, and "what are you cooking for your husband tonight?") and what they could not do until recently (and which even now is often denied, unrecognised, underpaid): every type of profession for which only a specifically male term exists or sounds good is a clear example. Female minister? Female surgeon? Female notary? Yet there are women in these and many other professions that were born in the masculine. How, then, can we ensure that the language keeps pace with the changing times? Who has the ungrateful task of disturbing for a moment the sensitive feelings of the speakers (from a beautiful and clear expression of Francesco Sabatini)[4] to introduce with brute force new terms or another way of agreeing article and noun, and finally do justice to all those women who study for certain professions, only to have to give up their female identity in the title? The question is a thorny one and still remains open.

Attempts to put an end to this problem have been numerous, especially in recent years. In particular, proposals have been made for a radical change of the language - more specifically, in its written form: some of the most widespread changes are for example the use of the asterisk, the at sign or more recently the schwa (ə) in place of the suffix commonly used to indicate gender.

The issue of language discrimination has also been taken into consideration by several administrations which, at the invitation of the EU and many individual scholars, as well as numerous associations, have drafted a number of texts to promote non-sexist use of the language used in official documents.[5]

However, these suggestions do not consider a fundamental fact. This is what we might call linguistic resistance, given that language can be defined as a superstructure; as such, it changes very slowly in relation to the reality to which it refers. The world moves forward, the written word lags, or at least trudges along. And while the spoken word is continually populated with neologisms that often leave time to find, linguistic virtuosities or terms destined to remain in the collective imagination only in the form of a vague memory, in the written word we hesitate, we search for synonyms and paraphrases, we continually consult the Accademia della Crusca. Often, however, it is enough to consult a dictionary (Vera Gheno in this beautiful article [6] suggests Zanichelli) to realise that many feminine terms that at first sight may seem strange, sound wrong or incorrect, actually already exist in our language: they are there, available for use by the speaker who wishes to get rid of that unpleasant and persistent smell of sexism.

Despite the good intentions to make the Italian language a little less sexist, however, it is likely to take a long time before these changes enter into common use. And they are not enough: any formal change must be accompanied by a cultural renewal in order to take root. And here too, unfortunately, there seems to be a long way to go.

However, there is no reason to lose heart. Each of us, man, woman or otherwise, can do our part to imagine a world without any kind of discrimination, and we can fight to build it in the most peaceful way possible: by using words.

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Simona Sora

The sources used to edit this article can be consulted freely:

[1] et [4]

[2]Wu Ming 4, Stella del mattino, Einaudi, 2008


[5]un approccio di genere al linguaggio amministrativo


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  • L'Autore

    Simona Sora

    Laurea triennale in Lettere Moderne ad indirizzo storico, laurea magistrale in Antropologia Culturale ed Etnologia. Nel 2014 ha fatto volontariato in un pueblo delle Ande peruviane perché voleva sapere cosa si prova ad essere straniera; nel 2018 ha fatto ritorno sulla stessa catena montuosa, seppur in diversi confini nazionali, per scrivere una tesi sul rapporto tra volontari italiani e campesinos, o forse solo per fare di nuovo ricerca su sé stessa.

    Nella vita ha fatto la receptionist di un ostello in Portogallo, la cameriera a Brescia, la promoter sul lago di Garda, la commessa a Milano, tenendo sempre le orecchie e gli occhi ben aperti su tutto quello che le capitava intorno.

    Da grande vorrebbe continuare ad ascoltare le storie delle persone, per fare esperienza del mondo attraverso i loro occhi; vorrebbe prendere un’altra laurea cambiando completamente ambito o forse discostandosi solo di un po’, perché studiare le piace tanto e le piace anche spaziare tra le conoscenze, e vorrebbe anche scrivere.

    Si sente sempre un essere umano in costruzione.

    In Mondo Internazionale è autrice di pezzi per il progetto TrattaMI Bene e revisore di bozze.

    Bachelor’s Degree in Modern Literature with a major in history, Master Degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology. In 2014 she volunteered in a pueblo in the Peruvian Andes, because she wanted to understand what it is like to be a stranger; in 2018 she returned to the same mountain chain, although in different national borders, in order to write her thesis about the relationship between Italian volunteers and Campesinos, or maybe just to research herself again.

    She worked as a receptionist in a hostel in Portugal, as a waitress in Brescia, as a promoter on Garda lake and as a shopping assistant in Milan, and she have always kept her hears and eyes opened to see all the things around her.

    When she will grow up, she would like to keep listening about people’s stories, to experience the world through their eyes; she would like to pursuit a new degree in something completely new, or maybe in something just a little different from her degrees. She loves studying and learning different subjects too. She would also like writing.

    She always feels herself like a constantly evolving human being. In “Mondo Internazionale” she writes articles about DirittiUmani and she proofreads articles.


From the World Europe Sections Culture Human Rights Society


sessismo sessismo linguistico linguistica discriminazione DISCRIMINAZIONE DI GENERE lingua italiana

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