The Schwa As A Symbol Of Gender Inclusivity In Modern Italian

In recent years, the need for gender-inclusive language has risen throughout many cultures, as seen in the widespread use of the 3rd person singular “they” and “them” in English. Italian, however, has opted to introduce an unfamiliar sound – the schwa – to determine gender-inclusive nouns.

The Schwa

There is a sound familiar to so many English speakers, yet few people know its name: the “schwa”. Written as ə in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the schwa is a vowel, pronounced as an ‘uh’ sound. This sound exists everywhere in English; the ‘er’ in ‘sister’, ‘a’ in ‘about’, and the ‘su’ in ‘support’ are just a few examples. It’s everywhere in English, yet in Italian it has emerged only recently.

Vowels in Italian

Until a few years ago, the schwa was non-existent in Italian’s phonetic inventory. Vowels play a key role in Italian, with almost every word ending in one; they are particularly significant in noun endings, where the type of vowel determines both gender and plurality. In Italian, most masculine singular nouns end with -o (e.g albergo, libro, museo) and feminine singular nouns with -a (e.g torta, finestra, strada). For many nouns, the ending denotes a certain gender, such as ragazzo (boy) and psicologo (male psychologist) versus ragazza (girl) and psicologa (female psychologist). Similarly, for the plural forms, we have masculine -i as in ragazzi (boys) and feminine -e as in ragazze (girls).

Yet, when addressing groups of people, either the masculine form takes precedence or both the feminine and masculine must be mentioned – excluding non-binary individuals as there is no gender neutral ‘they’ in Italian. To tackle this necessity for gender inclusivity in Italian, the schwa has been proposed as an alternative.

What is the Schwa used for in Italian?

As the options for non-binary individuals to express themselves in Italian is limited, there has been a proposition to introduce the schwa as a gender-neutral noun ending. This comes as a result of the position of the schwa as being a mid-central vowel in the IPA, thus thought to be a suitable ‘middle ground’ sound that can be used in both oral and written language.

Therefore, we see ragazzə (singular) and the use of the long schwa [ɜ] in ragazzɜ (plural) emerge to include all gender identities. The long schwa is also found in English, such as the vowel in ‘bird’ or ‘word’. This innovative plural form removes the ‘inclusive male’ form (where the masculine plural is used as gender neutral) so that genders other than male are represented. This also extends to situations where the genders of people in a certain group are unknown. Italian emails, for example, may address a group with carə tuttə ‘dear all’ rather than cari tutti e care tutte ‘dear all (men) and dear all (women)’, meaning that not only is the inclusive male no longer used, but it also does not assume anybody’s gender.

What do Italians think of the Schwa?

Some argue that change is necessary, especially when other languages have already adopted gender neutral alternatives. For example, English uses ‘they’ and ‘them’, whereas Spanish and Portuguese have adopted using -e and -es for noun endings. If other languages can encourage the use of gender-neutral language, many have argued that Italian should and must do the same.

There has been some backlash, however, particularly in academics who argue that this shift encourages radical “wokeness” and that it would damage the grammatical integrity of the language. Others also argue that whilst it might be straightforward to implement in written language, its pronunciation is unnatural as no schwa sound has existed previously. Some feminists also argue that the gender inclusive nouns for professions like direttorə “director” and autorə “author” will extirpate the feminine equivalents direttrice and auttrice, meaning that many years of fighting for these titles would be to no avail.

Alternatives to the Schwa

There have also been some other alternatives proposed to degenderize Italian, namely through the @ and * symbol. This means tutt@ or tutt* instead of tuttə, and whilst this alternative is functional when written, neither sounds can be pronounced. As a result, if we use these symbols to promote gender inclusivity, we may say tutt, removing the vowel sound entirely. Whilst this seems like a plausible solution, the lack of pronounceability, exacerbated by the fact that Italian nouns almost always end in a vowel, makes changing the Italian phonotactic rules an immense challenge. As the abovementioned symbols are used strictly in writing, they fail to provide phonological solutions to the issue of gender-inclusive language, making it unlikely that they will become widely popular.

Another alternative that was considered was the use of -u instead of ə, such as in tuttu and ragazzu, however there were two fundamental problems: there is no suitable sixth vowel for the plural form (as Italian only has five vowels), and -u bears too many similarities to -o, particularly in some dialects where it is indeed used for the masculine singular.

What is the future of the Schwa?

As the schwa has only existed for a few years, it is still too early to tell whether the gender-inclusive form will stick. Ultimately, language is flexible to change, so if there is demand for inclusivity in society, Italian will eventually adapt to these circumstances.

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