Qu@*ring the Italian Language

by  Charlotte Ross, c.e.ross@bham.ac.uk

Spoken and written language are not only crucial means of communication, but also one of the main ways that we make sense of ourselves and of ourselves in the world. The complex relationships between language, culture and identity continue to engage and elude us, as we attempt to grasp how the reciprocally constituent elements of this triangle inflect and impact on each other and on us, individually or collectively. Languages, cultures and identities are not fixed, but evolve over time and change according to context. They are often (always?) performative, in that by speaking certain phrases, or by enacting even banal cultural rituals, we are not simply making a statement or carrying out an action but constructing and reinforcing both individual and shared cultural identities.[1] For example, someone might say of a boy who is very physically active and boisterous, ‘He is such a typical boy’, thereby not only describing the behaviour of the child but also reinforcing norms of maleness and masculinity. This is ‘normal’ boy behaviour, we are told, which is implicitly in opposition to an unspoken but evoked norm of passive, docile femaleness and femininity. Performative enunciations or behaviours are individual acts that become consolidated through repetition, and therefore they may appear natural and inevitable; they establish norms. And since everything we do or say occurs within a socio-cultural context, we are always in relation to, normative models of sexed, gendered and racialized behaviour, even if what we say and do is not in line with these models.

Language matters, since it is so much more than an abstract series of signs. As Michel Foucault argued, language has the power not only to name and describe things, but to create them, although this ability often remains hidden:

Discourses are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak... discourses are not about objects, they don’t identify objects, they constitute them and in doing so, they conceal their own invention. [2]

So the way that we talk about things and people impacts materially on the way that those things and people are viewed, their status and how they are treated. Yet we are often unaware, or claim to be unaware, that we are contributing to this process. It’s just an expression, we might say, if challenged on our use of a particular phrase. Or we might hide behind the rules and norms of grammar, making sure our language is “correct” according to current dictionaries, and shrugging off the fact that language is cultural, and is often highly patriarchal, sexist, and binary in its conception of identities. What are the consequences of tolerating or even defending these linguistic norms? Well, these norms sanction some behaviours and stigmatise others; they lend authority to certain ideas and marginalize others; they validate some identities and silence or do violence to others. 

And this is where queer language comes in. Judith Butler talks about queering as ‘an exposure that disrupts the repressive surface of language’, that reveals the hidden power dynamics at work behind the scenes.[3] By ‘queer language’, I am thinking about ‘queer’ as both a noun and a verb: language that disrupts normativity, and the process of disrupting the normativity of language.

Both of these processes might be going on at once, as with polari, the queer slang used mostly by gay men in 1950s Britain. Polari was about people who challenged norms of sex, gender and desire, and also queered the existing lexicon by adding a host of new words.[4] Queer(ing) language has the power to challenge norms, and to intervene in the process by which dominant models of identity are consolidated, undermining them, inviting people to think critically about the limitations of language, its moralistic connotations, or its ‘repressive surface’, as Butler puts it. In contemporary English, several processes of queering are underway. One example is in relation to trans or non-binary identified people who often throw into relief how inadequate the binary system of grammatical gender is: the stark choice of ‘he/she’ is just too limited to convey the complexities of some identities. For queer individuals who do not define straightforwardly as male or female, traditional pronouns can become a battlefield, in which their sense of self may be eroded, suppressed or denied, in an act of casual (although potentially extremely harmful) indifference, or through deliberate verbal violence. This is just not necessary though, since as regards sex and gender binaries, English has the potential to be quite flexible. For those who prefer not to be categorized as he/she, or situations where someone’s identity is unknown, the plural ‘they’ is often used, thus avoiding the imposition of the default male pronoun or of an incorrect pronoun. Relatively new coinages such as ‘ze’ (a pronoun which avoids the need to opt for either he/she) are now being broadly adopted (or such is the hope) in some institutions.[5] But there is still quite forceful resistance to these changes. Given that languages evolve all the time, and that these innovations simply attempt to resolve basic linguistic inadequacies in relation to the people being described, this resistance speaks volumes about the enduring, normative power of binary models of sex and gender today.

Gender binarism in language can be exacerbated by grammatical rules. English is not an intrinsically gendered language, in that nouns are neutral (tables, chairs, cars etc. do not have a grammatical gender). Nevertheless a strong gendered current flows through it for many speakers: cars, boats and other vehicles are often referred to by cis-gendered men as ‘she’, in a discourse that anthropomorphizes and sometimes sexualizes the object; terms such as ‘Chairman’ impose norms of gender on positions of authority, excluding women. In recent decades, gender-mainstreamingand increased feminist campaigning have led to more inclusive use of language: ‘Chairman’ was supplemented by ‘Chairwoman’, and eventually shrunk to ‘Chair’.[6] However other sexist, exclusionary terms like ‘man-made’, and ‘mankind’ persist.

Italian, on the other hand, is a profoundly gendered language. Tables, chairs, trains, boats and planes have genders. Moreover, the gendering of many nouns is deeply sexist. The default sex if the sex is unknown is male: i.e. rather than just speaking about a baby, people refer to ‘un bimbo’ [a baby boy]; when asking if someone has siblings, often the questioner enquires about ‘fratelli’ [brothers]. The grammatical rules for pluralization are similarly problematic: a mixed group of people will always be gendered as masculine, using the universal masculine form, even if the group is composed of 999 women and 1 man.[7] Feminists have long argued against the ways that the language invisibilizes or trivializes women; for example the noun for a government minister is the male term ‘ministro’. The female form of the noun ‘dottore’ [doctor] is ‘dottoressa’, which, it has been suggested, sounds decorative and frivolous rather than simply acknowledging that a woman has the same qualifications as a male doctor. Some high achieving women have attempted to feminize the language by insisting on being referred to by a new feminine form of the default masculine noun, e.g. ‘ministra’, or a less belittling form of the existing feminine noun, e.g. ‘dottora’.  The minister Laura Boldini, currently President of the Chamber of Deputies, is one person who has sought to popularize the use of feminized nous to refer to women, arguing that this is one way to recognize women’s achievements and to open the way for other women to aspire to hold public office. She has run up against strong resistance from other politicians; recently Giorgio Napolitano, former President of the Republic, publicly asserted that the term ‘ministra’ was ‘horrible’ without feeling the need to explain why this might be the case.[8] One way out of the sexist plurals in Italian, in certain situations, is to adopt double terms of address: ‘Good morning everyone’ [Buongiorno a tutti, masculine plural) becomes ‘Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen’ [Buongiorno Signore e Signori]. However these feminized nouns and double forms of address still reproduce a gender binary. The person referred to by the noun still has to be identified as either male or female by the masculine or feminine version of the noun, which means that the language is still inadequate, potentially exclusionary and problematically normative.

Recently, queer activists and those who wish to move away from exclusionary, gender binary language, have forged an alternative for written language, using the asterisk or @ sign that replace the gendered word ending: ministr*, tutt*, bimb@. The asterisk has become associated with the LGBTQ movement, as a symbol of defiance against the normative imposition of binary sex and gender, and in celebration of dissidence. It expresses frustration with the constraints of everyday language but also conveys defiant playfulness through a graphic cypher that acts as a wild card.

The asterisk has been used in publicity for Pride events.

 Source: http://www.agedopalermo.org/2010/02/arte-contro-omofobia/logo-sicilia-pride-rainbow/

In the publicity campaign for Pride in Palermo in 2010, the asterisk was widely used as a symbol of queer pride, that sought to disrupt a whole host of socio-cultural norms.[9] The asterisk was displayed on posters, badges and even painted onto people’s bodies as a legible sign: everyone is free to interpret it as they wish but its general meaning is a disruption of reductive linguistic normativity, and of the attitudes that proliferate linguistic and other forms of discrimination. However, while the campaign had many strengths, there were also some problems: For example, the tag line that appeared on the posters was ‘Contro l’omofobia’ [Against Homophobia].  

Source: https://thisguise.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/sicilia-pride-2011/

This meant that for anyone who had not encountered the asterisk before, it was simply a symbol that meant taking a stand against homophobia, and not a way of queering language and attitudes. Moreover, the focus on homophobia reduces the focus to a campaign against prejudice against gay men and lesbians, eclipsing attention to transphobia and racism, for example. This confirms the importance of context in encouraging the most progressive interpretation of the asterisk. For its full potential to be realized, its significance needs to be explained or framed in such a way that it doesn’t end up being reduced to a shadow of itself.

Returning to written language, the use of the asterisk to avoid sexist plurals or gender binarism is beginning to make inroads on the general population. It has been recognised by the Treccani Dictionary as a widespread linguistic development.[10] However, even in relation to written language the asterisk has its problems. It cannot be spoken out loud, for one. This means that where the written form ‘tutt*’ [everybody] avoids gendering the group to which it refers and performs a radical critique of normative language, the spoken version ‘tutti e tutte’ [everyone, both male and female] reproduces and reinforces a sex/gender binary. The asterisk has also attracted quite a bit of criticism, mainly from those who are opposed to recognizing subjectivities that disturb their narrow, normative worldview (sad but predictable). Teachers and parents who are involved in progressive initiatives to encourage the use of inclusive language in schools have been involved in discussions about the use of the asterisk to overcome linguistic normativity, but here again there has been resistance from those who are wedded to heteronormative concepts of identity, the family and relationships.[11] In a different vein, there has also been resistance from some feminists who are opposed to the use of the asterisk since in their view by cancelling out female pronouns and word endings it cancels out a female subjectivity that has historically been erased from the Italian language, and which was just beginning to become visible. However this resistance begs the question: is the priority to assert a (rather essentialist) female subjectivity, in a process that excludes from language those who do not recognize themselves in binary gender pronouns, or should the priority be to move beyond linguistic norms that exclude minorities?

So there are still many open questions and unresolved issues in relation to queering the Italian language. The playful use of the asterisk by queer activists, and anyone who wants to disrupt norms of sex and gender and linguistic normativity, is an interesting development that forges a striking alternative to the sexist binaries of Italian grammar. If discourse creates its own object, and binary discourses of gender reinforce a reductive, dualistic conception of human life, then the unpronounceable, but highly suggestive asterisk, opens up a plethora of potential meanings and ways of doing or embodying sex, gender and sexuality. We will continue to discuss and debate these issues on this blog and in our workshops.


[1] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990; Bodies that Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

[2] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 1972, p.49.

[3] Butler 1993, p. 176.

[4] See Rictor Norton’s article ‘A Critique of Social Constructionism and Queer Theory’, http://rictornorton.co.uk/social23.htm

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/oxford-university-students-gender-neutral-pronouns-peter-tatchell-student-union-ze-xe-a7470196.html

[6] For a discussion of this question, see for example Sherryl Kleinman, ‘Why Sexist Language Matters’, Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 2002.

[7] On this issue see, for example, Alma Sabatini and Marcella Mariani (eds) Il sessismo nella lingua italiana, Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri, Direzione generale delle informazioni della editoria e della proprietà letteraria, artistica e scientifica, 1987; Adriana Cavarero, Per una teoria della differenza sessuale, in AA.VV., Diotima. Il pensiero della differenza sessuale, La Tartaruga, Milan 1987, pp. 43–79.

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.it/2016/12/15/giorgio-napolitano-sindaca-ministra_n_13656004.html

[9] For more information see these blogs: http://asteriskproject.tumblr.com/progettohttps://thisguise.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/sicilia-pride-2011/. See also Ilaria Marotta and Salvatore Monaco ‘Un linguaggio più inclusivo? Rischi e asterischi nella lingua italiana’, gender/sexuality/italy, 3 (2016). This issue of the journal contains several articles on sexism in the Italian language: http://www.gendersexualityitaly.com/gendersexualityitaly-3-2016-table-of-contents/

[10] http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/asterisco_(La-grammatica-italiana)/

[11] See Ilaria Marotta and Salvatore Monaco ‘Un linguaggio più inclusivo? Rischi e asterischi nella lingua italiana’,  gender/sexuality/italy, 3 (2016) .