SCHWA (ə) AND INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE, A CONVERSATION AMONG COLLEAGUES

It all started with something our Social Media Manager Cristiana said: “Guys, why don’t we ever talk about schwa?” You’re right, why don’t we? … But how can we?

Oh yeah, by talking!

And so Letizia and I had a long conversation about it, thanks to which I learned several new points of view. The following is a summary and adaptation (with some of our silliness after a hard day’s work removed) of what we said.

A discussion about schwa

L: You know, I’m almost ashamed to discuss this… first of all because it’s been quite a hot topic recently, and in many cases by people who know much more about it than we do! But I think it’s interesting to look at it from a common man’s and woman’s perspective.

S: Well, I share the same opinion on it as the Accademia della Crusca [society of scholars of Italian linguistics]: I think that using schwa, an asterisk, or other symbols is forcing language. We already apply the masculine plural which performs a “neutral” function. In short, I don’t see a gender misrepresentation when using the masculine. It’s certainly true that language is a way to describe our world, but it’s also a system with consolidated rules.

L: I think the matter is more complex. I admit I never wondered about the issue until a few months ago. But the fact that we talk about the possible use of schwa (and other inclusive forms) shows that the problem exists.      

S: Okay, but what problem are we really talking about?

L: About feeling represented. Here’s an example: when we talk about inclusive language, the objection that’s raised, especially among those who work in the language services field like us, is that we could use what the Italian language already has available. So for example, instead of saying, “Greetings to all the guests” [the masculine plural applies to ‘guests’ in Italian], you could say “Greetings to all the people listening”, thereby using an inclusive solution.

S: And in doing so you avoid using a masculine term that would make certain people feel unrepresented. But couldn’t you simply use both the masculine and feminine form?

L: Of course, but the schwa does more than that: it also takes gender fluid and non binary people into account.

S: That’s true. But isn’t it a bit overly “superficial” addressing an issue like gender identity starting from language? Without considering the sensitivity and needs of individuals? When I say good morning to everyone [tutti, masculine plural in Italian], I mean everyone, no one excluded, and I think this is clear.

And then, how do we translate schwa into spoken language?

L:  It’s pronounced like the “a” in “about”. If you prefer a more “local” example, it’s similar to the “mute” vowels we often hear in the dialects of central and southern Italy. Think of the word “mamm’t”, that’s what I mean!

S: I’m trying to think of an example that works specifically in my case, where I would feel unrepresented. An example could be what happened in the office where I worked years ago, where all my colleagues were women and when people would say, “Hi ladies” I would also say hi, without it bothering me. But I definitely noticed it.

L: Probably because you didn’t feel represented.

S: Yes, but the rules of the Italian language say that “tutte” refers exclusively to the female gender. And that “tutti” is for tutti and tutte, so both genders.

L: I prefer enabling possibilities. Rules can change, languages are living things! Even if I’ve played around with schwa, with asterisks, even with a final “u” (like in “ciao a tuttu”, “hello to everyone” which normally is “ciao a tutti”), both in written and verbal communications, the hardest thing for me is being consistent in using these various solutions. I began with the best of intentions and then got lost right away, going back to using masculine and feminine. I think it’s a bit because it’s hard to add something new to your native language, and a bit out of sheer embarrassment, because I’ve seen rather varying reactions, from the calmest to the most outraged.

S: I think that’s absurd, becoming outraged is a bit too much. But if I didn’t know who was writing me and they used schwa or an asterisk I’d be surprised, because in my opinion it shouldn’t be used until an official body, for example La Crusca, officially recognises it.

L: But it’s also important to consider that La Crusca is only a group of scholars and researchers. So they study the state of the language, they don’t write the rules. La Crusca is rightly a leader in this sense, but its role in this case is to study the phenomenon, or to express an opinion on it. But it can’t prevent its use.

S: I consider myself an open-minded person, my freedom ends where yours begins, but I don’t think I’ll use these new solutions even in the future.

L: That’s okay! It’s not a contradiction, you can be respectful of others and not embrace this change. But let me give you another example, perhaps it’s trivial but it gets the point across:

if we had just met and you then addressed me as “Mrs.”, and I told you to call me “Ms.”, because “Mrs.” makes me feel old, you’d certainly have no problems obliging.

S: Sure, but that’s inherent in behaviour patterns. If you asked me to call you “Sir”, that would already be different.

L: You know, the best part of all of this is that we’re talking about it? And that’s what’s important, that we talk about it. Earlier you said that breaking all this down to a linguistic debate is trivial, and instead I think that talking about language is a way to broaden our gaze.

S: That’s true, we should talk about it more. And I say this as a stick-in-the-mud conservative of the Italian language (laughs). I remain convinced that we should think about making our society more inclusive, even before we think about how we express ourselves.

L: I’m really open to this objection, but beware of the trap of dodging issues! (laughs) I think it’s always important to see things from other people’s perspectives. Something that we don’t see as a problem could be a problem for someone else.

S: So we should also talk about it with other people, hear other points of view, what do you think?

L: Of course! You could find the answer to many questions.

S: Or maybe just more questions?

L: Probably… but I like the idea!

So then on to the next conversation, possibly with an even broader scope!

English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider