by Enrico Petrucci

Courses and historical recourses: from the fascist "Voi"...

In February 1938, Fascist Italy sanctioned the abandonment of the Lei ("she") as a courtesy pronoun to make way for the Voi (plural "you"). An initiative that from the beginning will bring easy ironies: the best known is that of "ViaGalilei" which would become "ViaGalivoi".

For eighty years, the Fascist attempt to revolutionize the language had been considered a comic ambition of a regime that was detaching itself from reality and consensus. For eighty years, replacing one pronoun with another was the prerogative of the senile senescence of a regime on the way to decay. Today this is no longer the case. The magnificent destiny and progress of mankind require new pronouns with a seriousness and severity that even the fascist Voi of Starace and Farinacci lacked.

...to the inclusive Schwa

The debate on pronouns is one that has arisen around the neutralization of Italian (the term "neutralization" we use is intentionally ambiguous) to make it more "inclusive". And so also in Italy municipalities, schools, book and comic book publishers have decided to commit themselves (especially thanks to the new wave of optimism in the future triggered by Trump's defeat) to using asterisks, "u" endings, and above all the real star of these years, the schwa or scevà: the infamous inverted "e", the phonetic sign ə. This phoneme is useful for some Neapolitan desinences or for the intermediate syllables of Apulian words (but only from central-northern Apulia).

The motive is seemingly noble. To make language more "inclusive" and "less sexist" from a twofold perspective. On the one hand, abolish the "masculinist and patriarchal" grammatical use of the "overextended masculine," i.e., the practice of understanding men and women with a plural masculine term. Canonical examples such as “tutti i presenti” (""all those present"), “cittadini” ("citizens"), "pensionati" ("retirees"). In everyday usage, one does not go to a proportion of those present using a plural based on the majority, but uses the masculine plural directly. There were 10,000 protesters in the square, 1,000 according to police, even at feminist demonstrations.

So abolish the over-extended masculine to make Italian more attentive to the role of women. But that's not all, because we also want to make the language attentive to the needs of expression of the so-called "non-binary people", i.e. those who do not recognize themselves in the spectrum of gender binarism, i.e. in the biological nature of mammals. From this point of view, Italian grammar, since it does not provide for neutral forms and the masculine is overextended, is therefore sexist and patriarchal.

The living language was then, because of the laces of linguists (white and patriarchal males), incorporated into this intrinsically oppressive binary cage.  A limiting cage obtained by borrowing in grammar the "genders" (male and female) from the "sexes" of biology (ditto).

What schwa advocates don't understand about linguistics

This view, which makes grammar intrinsically sexist, does not take into account that in some languages, such as Italian, grammatical gender is more of a convention insofar as there is generally a correspondence between grammatical gender and the gender of the entity to which we refer.

To the usual example of "il tavolo" ("the table") and "la sedia" ("the chair"), certainly some linguists of the Butlerian school (that of the post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler, who for the severity with which it is applied has nothing to envy to the Butlerian jihad imagined by Frank Herbert in Dune) would answer that the chair is patriarchally submissive because it is placed under the table. It would then suffice to say, as the Crusca pointed out in 2004, the grammatical gender may not correspond to the natural gender: "La guardia, la vedetta, la sentinella, we will often find them associated with animate beings of male sex; il soprano and il mezzo-soprano are grammatically masculine, even when referred to female voices".

One could take the example of German (that language for which "every word is an execution", as Mercurio Cavaldi of Cavaldi di Parma said in Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm) in which the Moon - yes, the one of the poets, the one to which Leopardi's Wandering Shepherd of Asia declaims - is actually a male, Germanic "male Moon": der Mond. The masculine article is used.

Yet with "male Moon" the Germans of the Sturm un drang (who tended to be male) were equally inspired, even if they weren't Italian romantics and decandentists. Unless we impute to all German romanticism inspired by the moon a subtle homo-erotic streak.

The schwa by means of ordinances and regulations

These are the premises of the grammatical debate. Premises with a thread of irony, inspired by the ironic mottos with which people used to respond to the lei-voi eighty years ago.

But if we look at current events, the time for irony is already over. The noble motive of neutralizing the Italian has taken off and it is already municipal ordinance: some small municipalities have started to use schwa in their acts. Basically, it's just a desinence: a phonetic attempt to close the final vowel as if you were saying “io song də napulə”At any rate Gomorra was seen by everyone.

Not enough. Based on ministry guidelines, one of the prestigious classical high schools of Turin has decided to use the asterisk for official communications: we will talk about student*. And the feminine endings in -essa let them go to waste. In any case, the Crusca sanctioned that the feminine of the trades with the truncated end are fine.

The question of neuter pronouns

But this is not enough, because if with the schwa in word closure we increase inclusivity by abolishing de facto the over-extended masculine, there is still the whole problem of pronouns that are not inclusive enough for non-binary people. And that is the problem we will soon face at the level of spoken language and grammar.

Here, too, the operation presents itself under the sign of common sense and inclusiveness. It is a pity that, as American universities show, it is not only a matter of defining a hypothetical neutral gender for human beings (and in fact there are languages that use it for inanimate objects or things, as our Latin was).

From neutrality to chaos

As the American case shows, the demand is not for neutrality, but for simple chaos... At present in English we have the following artificial pronouns proposed in the literature on the subject.

  1. thon
  2. and
  3. tey
  4. xe
  5. te
  6. ey
  7. per
  8. ve
  9. hu
  10. E
  11. ze
  12. ze, hir
  13. zhe
  14. sie, hir
  15. yo
  16. peh
  17. ze, zir
  18. sey, seir, sem
  19. fae
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And of course each artificial pronoun carries over all singulars, plurals, persons and, being English, even the possessives of the case. And imagine that only for ze and zeh we have at least 4 variants. Simple no?

Add other invented pronouns of minor diffusion and without significant findings in the academic literature to arrive at about 50 pronouns in total. And if there are new ones, they can be added by filling out a simple form, as Instagram has begun to do.

The sin of "misgendering"

Who claims to be called with one of these states them first on its social, in curricula and on pins or t-shirts printed in such a way that those who do not want to commit the sin of insufficient inclusiveness is warned at a distance to use the correct pronoun.

And be very careful, too, because the Inquisition is listening: in U.S. universities, a faculty member who in any capacity (and First Amendment I salute you...) should use an incorrect pronoun (misgendering) to address a student could be fired.

It will be said: it is the usual exaggeration of the ammeriganə (they used to be ammerigani because it was white wasp males who exported the fashions .... that's not the case now). But no...

Italian inclusive pronouns

Actually, the inclusive pronoun ləi is already making its appearance in our country as well, to be pronounced in the manner of the dialect between Cərɨgnola and Cɨstərnino. If to say tuttə, eventually a solution is found (a mute "e", a Neapolitan desinence, or use the ə as a simple truncated ending as de facto many of the promoters of schwa do; even in the recent video by the cartoonist Scottecs, we find the closing that "it's more of a graphic sign, but we can also not pronounce it"). With ləi how do you do it? By now it's starting to appear in the Italian translations of some DC Comics (thanks to the Crisis in Comics page) and in twitter profiles.

And here we understand that Galilei-Galivoi jokes are already outdated. The situation is dangerous (but not serious, cit.) and there is nothing more to joke about. Because, according to activists, getting pronouns wrong "can affect the mental health" of those who see themselves wrongly appealed to. Which can cost fines or even jail time, as the debate over California's misgendering law teaches.

In Italy there is still room for irony, even among intellectuals far from Trumpian sympathies. Flavia Fratello does it on Radio Radicale reading a piece by Michela Murgia published in "L'Espresso". But Fratello is of Milanese origin. She even mispronounces schwa, turning it into a kind of sciuà, in the Milanese style, and rightly so. A journalist from Puglia and Campania could have given a better proof of inclusiveness.

On the other hand, the same heralds of schwa do not have very clear ideas. For example, Murgia's article consistently uses tuttə, except in the quotation marks of texts cited and dating back to "before the grammatical liberation". Even in the final part of the article, when talking about the conductors of the Concert of May 1st, she writes conduttori, therefore she uses the over-extended masculine, and not the grammatically neutral schwa . In short: what should the new rules of inclusive grammar give us? When do I remember to use it? The feeling (perhaps cleverly circulated by the very proponents of these gimmicks) is that it's just a fad.

More Realists than the King (or more politically correct than Michela Murgia)

New confirmation is given by Michela Murgia and Chiara Tagliaferri themselves in the controversy that followed one of their podcasts in the series "Morgana", dedicated to stories of female figures. The subject of the episode were the Wachowski sisters, one of whom, Lana, is currently at the cinema with Matrix Resurrection. Problem: The Wachoswski sisters became famous when they were still siblings, i.e. boys, before making a gender transition.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, when confronted with these stories, one must be very careful. In addition to the correct use of pronouns, to avoid misgendering, we must absolutely avoid another psycho-religion: deadnaming! That is to call a person transitioned from one gender (not necessarily biological sex) to another, with the name he had before. Not a small problem when it comes to celebrities. There's another actor, Elliot Page, who built his success while he was still a she. So much so that she won an Oscar for Best Actress (and dozens of other awards and nominations for female roles played when she was still Ellen).

Murgia and Tagliaferri opted for common sense: since there is a before and after of the transition, reasoning can be used. First the Wachoski brothers and then the Wachowski sisters. Never: the audience of "Morgana", evidently very attentive to gender issues and who sees the authors as heralds of the correct approach, did not like it! And down with controversy for hurting trans people.

And the two authors apologized with an Instagram story (full of scevà) where they justified themselves for not using in the podcast the sacred scevà that could have saved them from the angry crowd. The reasons?

Although we wrote the text of the episode with the schwa sign, we chose not to pronounce it. There are two reasons for this. They may not be agreeable everyone, but they are the ones we gave ourselves. The first is that listening to a podcast, unlike reading, is often done while performing other activities and involves a more precarious flow of attention than that required for an article or a book. The second is that the audience of "Morgana" is made up of people of all socio-demographic affiliations and many of them are not at all familiar with the details of our militancy choices.

In short, simplifying: too complicated for a listener and not everyone understands it. The same objections that ordinary people make to the heralds of schwa.

This inattention in the use by the same proponents of the schwa could lead to think that it is only a passing fashion. Even if it is, it will still be very useful to neutralize the Italian language and certainly not in the sense of making it "neutral", but rather "thwarted". That is, incapable of being used to think critically.

Sterilized, if you will.

Enrico Petrucci

Essayist and popularizer, he collaborates with the magazines "Storia in Rete", "Dimensione cosmica" and "Antarès". Co-author with Emanuele Mastrangelo of Wikipedia. L’Enciclopedia libera e l’egemonia dell’in­formazione (Bietti, 2013) and among the editors of the collections Eroi. Ventidue storie dalla Grande guerra (Idrovolante, 2018) and Terra Benedetta (Idrovolante, 2020).