On the (profound) sexism of the Italian language

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If she had had to put up with Sanremo 2021 a few weeks ago, the linguist Alma Sabatini would have regretted many things, not least the insistence with which a conductor asked to be called director. However, I don't think she would have been dismayed or desperate.

As a fine sociolinguist, Sabatini knew just how deeply, in the language we are given, there is a androcentric principle that organises the linguistic universe around a male speaker. He knew how rigged is the dimorphism of the 14th century/ baroque language we speakwith its grammatical and semantic dissimilarities. He therefore knew, palm to palm, the sense of immanence and minority to which the feminine is destined in the language systemAnd she knew the mocking and prosaic colours that female agents often bring with them - since director, alas, rhymes with nurturer and harlot - and certainly not with procurer. But Alma Sabatini also knew that the power of discursive practices that marginalise us lies in their going unnoticedbecause this allows them to produce a cumulative effect at an unconscious level. And so Sabatini would perhaps even have thanked director Venezi for having so candidly - and on the unified networks - expose the effects of those constructsand for recklessly raising the issue. Of course, because you have to raise the dust if you want to sweep it under the carpet. Architect, engineer, minister probably sound bad and are funny. There is semantic asymmetry, we know.

We know the history of semantics, we have experienced it first hand. And now, according to you, after millennia of incensing you and making us small, we should be here waiting for your precious "semantic recognition while respecting your titles of nobility by patrilineal line? Forget it! We will not cooperate! We will not abide by your approval! We will light the fuse of feminist subversion under your curled nose, which no, is not in place. We will cripple your beloved male agents and invent new words under your nose which you will be forced to transcribe with ill-concealed contempt while we laugh. I will be a poet, and she will be an architect, a lawyer, and if a director is not enough for you, I will also be a director.. And then I will also be a bricklayer and an engineer, and everything that stings you you will hear endlessly. And we'll rub these words in your faces while you turn up your noses at how to recognise us and how not to. Because she centuries of you erasing us and silencing us behind your universal masculinity are coming to an end.. You have used the ending to corner us: so much the worse for you, now we will invent the suffixes, until you will be forced to reckon with the words with which you have submerged us in nullity and drowned us in ridiculousness.  

W the poet! W whoever breaks out in annoyance! We here claim the use of our syntactic weapons and the insolent play of words out of tune, misplaced, irreverent and heedless of your recognition. The sound of discordance will overwhelm you!  

PPPPRRRRRRRRRRRRR (quoting freely from a wonderful Alessandra Pi.) 


There is more, of course. There is not only the earth, there is also the sky. It is not just a question of inclusive language, as in a postcard that has to portray everyone properly. Language renders a view of the world, of course, but it is not a reduction in scale - because a language does not function simply as a shop window or an eastern fair. A language also does something else, much more esoteric: it innervates contact with the self, in the speaker. The struggle is on women's bodies and this means, precisely, that it starts with some acts of aggression on their psyches. "Precisely because in Italian every noun must have a grammatical gender, i.e. it must be masculine or feminine, this characteristic has lost its semantic or referential function. The unmarked masculine has no relation to the extra-linguistic category of sexual gender.as it is a purely formal structure', soothed Giulio Lepschy in 1988, to quell the seed sown by Sabatini - and it is a pity to see a professor making it so simple. Of course, the masculine ending is given a markedly neuter value and purely formal, and a whole series of morphological structures of the language are mobilised for the purpose. But nothing similar happens with the feminine ending. And it is not only a question of over-extended masculine (between nouns), it is something that happens deeper, in more protected and decisive areas of the language, where its elements of greater specific weight operate: it happens in the morphology of verbs. "Yesterday I worked a lot". "Why didn't you sing last night?" "How many hours did you walk?" 

How do they sound to you? The purely grammatical significance of these feminine endings is clear, isn't it? But, In the language we have been given, the feminine ending can only dream of such transcendence, is the prerogative of others. For the feminine ending remains, basically, the function of indicating female gender of the speaker. Apart from the moon, stars and tides, of course. And only if there are no prestigious roles involved. Thus Reduced to an anomaly in the language, feminine desynchronisation is perfect for achieving an inexorable exclusion of femininity from the self of the female speaker. And so the language registers, and at the same time acts, the seminal interdiction that the male dominion addresses to us, the deepest and most nefarious interdiction, the one that the feminists of the first wave, without much talk, identified immediately, with precise and timely flair: the ban on 'starting from scratch'.. Because, of course, it is possible, but it is more daring, to start from scratch if the language with which you think, speak, write and dream relegates an inherent and intrinsic aspect of yourself to a particularity and/or distinctive note.

The effects of this linguistic exclusion are precisely intended, psychic and behavioural, amplified by its accumulation in the unconscious (and over generations).  Accustomed through linguistic use to exclude their sexuality from the self, women lose the ability and the habit to dispose of and transcend it, i.e. to combine it with the rest of oneself, thus experiencing it more as a normative element, burdened with precise obligations, rather than as a resource and a freedom.  

"I have never been able to bear the thought of being understood under a concept. I shy away from acts that fall within the essence, I don't let myself be defined. I don't want to be something, because I am a woman, and I want the sky".

It is a thought taken from the Cahiers nocturnes of Paul Valery, but here I like to propose it in the feminine form, because it echoes the act underlying the practice of self-awareness. 

Elena Urru

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IBAN: IT80C0200812914000104838541

Much of the news published by Feminist Post you will not read elsewhere. That is why it is important to support us, even with a small contribution: Feminist Post is produced solely by the voluntary work of many people and has no funding.
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