Thursday, March 03, 2011

Gender neutrality in Italian

Italian has taken a different route than English to gender-neutral language: in English nouns that have a gender are the exception (ships or countries used to be feminine for example, and referred to as “she” although the trend is towards referring to them with the neutral “it”), while in Italian all nouns are either masculine or feminine.

In English the move toward gender-neutral language has brought such changes as “police officer” for “policeman”, “chairperson” for “chairman”, replacing a gendered noun with a neutral one.
Italian also is undergoing a change, with the same aim, but in a different direction: most such titles are now being used in the masculine even when referring to a woman. So “il Ministro delle pari opportunità, Mara Carfagna”, using a masculine article (il) and noun (ministro). Alternatives are to use the feminine article “la", treating the noun “ministro” as invariable (“La Ministro delle pari opportunità, Mara Carfagna”), and using the formerly masculine noun “ministro” with a feminine termination (“ministra” or “ministressa”): “La Ministra delle parti opportunità, Mara Carfagna” or “La Ministressa delle pari opportunità, Mara Carfagna”.

A short test with Phras.In gives me the following frequencies:

Il Ministro Carfagna 23,300
La Ministra Carfagna    7,080
La Ministro Carfagna       194
La Ministressa Carfagna           7

Of these forms, clearly “il Ministro” is currently dominant, “la Ministra” has a respectable usage, but is probably preferred by those who do not prefer a genderless language, “la ministro” is irrelevant in terms of frequency, and the few occurrences of “la ministressa” are ironic or disparaging (for example “la ministressa Carfagna ha riproposto la riapertura dei bordelli di Stato”).

I believe that in areas where there has been a long tradition of female professionals, the preferred usage remains for gender-separate nouns, for example "professore" and "professoressa" or "dottore" and "dottoressa", while professions, such as the law, that used to be exclusively or almost exclusively male-dominated, now tend to adopt the masculine version of the title for both men and women, so “L’avvocato Rossi” could be either a man or a woman.

See also this previous post (with several interesting comments): Signora Presidente and Ms Chairperson: different paths to gender-neutral language.


  1. On a (somewhat) related note, interesting article from NY Times about language and gender etc.

  2. thanks for pointing this out.. I would like to suggest as for me I am a English speaking person and understand only English. I have read the article and looks good, because i love to understand this. I would suggest if you add your example along with English this will help me better.

  3. Italian is a clear and beautiful language... I'm from the opposite end of Europe, but I've liked Italian since long ago. I also like English, but it doesn't mean Italian "has to be more like English".

    Now, this incorrect usage of genders (masculine noun about a female minister, etc.) simply makes Italian less logical and uglier. Also the indiscriminate borrowing of English words doesn't seem good at all.

    Please, please, Italians, avoid such "modernising" of your language! Or maybe it's just anglicising/globalising. :(

  4. I don´t see the usage of masculine articles for women that critical. In my opinion it´s an inherent evolution of romanic languages. They are original macho languages and it would be "unorganic" not using masculine words in an increasingly way.

  5. Russian is similar to Italian in that respect. Some professions only have a masculine form, while others give you a choice. I often prefer to be called by the masculine form as it sounds more neutral to me.

  6. I have a question. I'm nonbinary and in English my pronouns are they (though I accept neopronouns). I'm learning Italian and I'd like to know how to proceed w my pronouns. Is there any way to keep the genderneutrality of they? Are there any neopronouns if not official pronouns? Or should I get creative?


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