Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Signora Presidente and Ms Chairperson: different paths to gender-neutral language

Yesterday a translation of mine returned, marred by some questionable edits: turns out the editor was not even a native speaker of Italian. But that, as they say, is another story.

What is interesting is that one of the "corrections" she marked in my translation was this sentence (suitably changed here to protect my customer): "La Signora Jane Doe, Direttore del Centro..." [Ms. Jane Doe, Director of the Center ..."].

My editor changed that to "La Signora Jane Doe, Direttrice del Centro...". My old elementary teacher would have agreed with the editor and marked my translation with a blue pencil. That would have been right, back then: "La ... Direttore", feminine article plus male noun - a blatant error of concordance.

But usage changes with time. Now the old feminine names for titles and professions are disappearing from Italian: no longer "Direttrice", but "Direttore"; no longer "Avvocatessa", but "Avvocato", and so on, ever more often.

A similar trend in English has replaced "Chairman" with "Chairperson", and brought many other new gender-neutral nouns in English.

Yet, if the underlying reasons for these trends are the same, the two languages have taken strangely divergent roads to similar ends. In English, where gender is almost absent, this change towards neutrality has stripped the gender from most of the few words that retained it. In Italian, where every noun has a masculine and a feminine form, the trend among women has been to adopt the masculine labels for their professional titles.

In English, women resented words such as "Chairman", because the masculine ending implied that only men were suited for such a position. On a strikingly different path to the same goal, Italian women rejected the feminine versions of their titles, finding them demeaning, as if a "Presidentessa" was a second class Chairman, and an "Avvocatessa" a lawyer only by sufferance.

As indeed my elementary teacher would have agreed, when teaching to our class that a "Deputatessa" was the wife of a Representative, while a "Sindachessa" only the wife of the Mayor.

A final twist to this meandering story. The elementary teacher I was referring to was a man, as were all the other elementary teachers to the all-male school forms in our public school. I doubt that in Italy, nowadays, one would find many male elementary teachers left.


He looked old to me, then, Maestro Buffon, certainly older than my parents; old enough that it was my grandmother who had been his elementary teacher.

And yet, he was probably younger than I am now.


  1. In genere sono d'accordo, ma "professoressa", no, quello mi pare vivo e vegeto e non credo di aver sentito nessuna (dalle medie all'università) che non si appellasse "professoressa". Se vuoi, mi pare che sia molto usato "docente", che taglia la testa al toro.

    Leggendo il titolo pensavo che il problema fosse un altro: quel "signora". A me (sottolineo, a me) pare che quel "signora" sia una spia di calco. Sui giornali italiani leggi sempre Berlusconi, in quelli di lingua inglese Mr Berlusconi. In un articolo normale io scriverei "Jane Doe, direttrice.." e mai la *signora* Jane Doe. Ah, sì, io avrei scritto direttrice, ma non obietterei a direttore.
    Tutte opinioni mie, ripeto.

    E sì, hai ragione, la femminilizzazione del mestiere di insegnare è strepitosa particolarmente alle elementari, ops, scuole primarie.

  2. Good point about "Professoressa" (although for us they were always "La prof"). Changed the post slightly, accordingly.

  3. Very interesting. In French, the opposite is happening (at least here in Québec). We are feminizing titles and professions more and more, instead of making them gender-neutral. For instance, "professeur" becomes "professeure", "agent" becomes "agente". It is interesting to see how different cultures and languages deal with this issue. Thank you.

  4. Anche io scriverei Direttrice; Direttore non suona molto bene. Credo che l'accettabilità dell'uso del maschile per il femminile dipenda dal singolo caso: ingegnere per forza, avvocato senz'altro, direttore così e così, professore solo quando parli di "professore associato" o "professore ordinario", maestro mai.

  5. I don't think "chairperson" is nearly as common nowadays as "chair," which is gender neutral but not distracting or jarring.

  6. Very interesting your post.
    I'm German living in Spain, where I've studied Greek and, as the others have said, it's interesting to see how every language has its own way to deal with this issue.
    In Spanish e. g. many profession names and titles have developped a feminin form in -a:
    - presidenta,
    - dependienta (salesman > salesperson),
    - clienta (is not a title, but the same happened),
    - jueza (judge),
    - médica (doctor).
    Professions with a normal Spanish (and not typical Latin) ending have never caused problems:
    - profesora,
    - (di)rectora,
    - autora,
    - escritora (writer),
    - abogada (lawyer).
    But there are some professions being preferred the masculine form for both to avoid the confusion with the adjective (or other):
    - la técnico (engineer),
    - la cartero (because "cartera" also means "wallet, briefcase"),
    - la médico (oscillates).
    For "poeta" (male poet), traditionally there was "poetisa" as feminin form but as it ends in an -a, the first form now is accepted also as feminin.
    About the treatment of "canciller" (chancellor), you can have a look on my site (in German/Spanish): http://alexgahr.com/index.php/2008/07/21/cancillera-merkel-por-que-no/

    In Greek, instead, the opposite happens; most times there is and is used only the masculine form for both:
    - γιατρός (doctor),
    - διευθυντής (director),
    - συγγραφέας (writer),
    - γραμματέας (secretary),
    but there's a feminin form for δάσκαλα and some others.

    In German, it's very simple to form the feminin just adding -in and it is used, almost too much: LehrerInnen, ÜbersetzerInnen...

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  8. I have just discovered your blog and I really like it.

    Regarding your post, I want to say that I agree with you, as the same is happening for the Romanian language. We tend to use the masculine form of nouns such as "teacher", "doctor", "director","lawyer" in order to avoid gender discrimination.

  9. I teach English as a Foreign Language and I've witnessed how equality is achieved in my languages, English and Spanish. It's interesting to note that while in English equality is achieved by using a neutral noun, Spanish has gone exactly the other way round, by having a female and male noun. This is because in Spanish, articles and adjectives have female and male forms as well as nouns.

    Since English doesn't have gender (something my Spanish-speaker students do not appreciate enough) the natural path was to find only one (neutral)noun for occupations, since most of them do not have female/male form: doctor, teacher, student, etc, so, naturally, nouns such as manageress and policewoman have become useless.
    However, I came across a curious example: "female actors say he's cute and easy to work with"
    Why would "actress" be inappropriate here?


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