For over a decade now, there has been an exponential increase in the public interest in how language and communication shape (or break down) prejudices and other forms of discrimination. After being taught for centuries that language is a neutral, abstract concept (“It’s just words, they don’t do any harm!”), we are now starting to realise – thanks to the ongoing efforts of linguists, activists and political representatives – that the way we speak and write plays a huge part in shaping the way we think and the way we perceive ourselves and others. To quote the European Parliament’s gender-neutral language guidelines: ‘Language powerfully reflects and influences attitudes, behaviour and perceptions.’
As linguists, we are particularly invested in this topic. Whether you agree or disagree with the use of inclusive language, it is fundamental to understand the factors that made our language the way it is and the effects it might have on the people who read our works. Writing is our job and words are our tools, so we need to know what’s at stake every time we choose a specific term or linguistic construction. Whilst I am not a huge fan of military metaphors, I believe it is appropriate to say that words can do harm: They are powerful weapons that we can use to either reinforce the status quo or go against it and provide alternatives.
Here at AJT, we keep a close eye on what goes on in the language industry. We of course do our very best to adapt our way of working to our clients’ needs, but also to the changes happening in our society. Inclusive language has therefore become a matter of great interest within our team and among our clients, and we give it thorough consideration when organising and carrying out translation projects. We strongly encourage our linguists to use gender-inclusive (or gender-neutral) language, which also enables our clients to reach a broader audience and improve their branding. As our colleague Julia Landry explains in her article ‘Localising for the German market: A case for gender-inclusive language’ adopting a gender-inclusive strategy gives a brand a better chance of being perceived in a good light.
Romance and Germanic, gendered and non-gendered
In this article, I will focus on my main working languages – Italian (my mother tongue), French and English. First of all, it’s important to establish what formally differentiates these three languages. In this context, the answer is that Italian and French are gendered languages of Romance origin, whereas English is a non-gendered Germanic language. But what do these terms mean in practice? Romance languages, also known as Neo-Latin, are derived from Vulgar Latin (besides Italian and French, examples include Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and Romanian). Germanic languages (such as English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Afrikaans), meanwhile, are derived from Scandinavian Proto-Germanic.
The second distinction is more closely related to the concept of gender and, as a consequence, to inclusive language. A gendered language is a language in which the gender of a noun (masculine, feminine and in some cases neutral) is grammatically ‘marked’ and visible through morphology (the structure of words), pronouns and grammatical classifiers. This is what we call grammatical gender-marking. Non-gendered languages, on the contrary, do not feature grammatical gender distinctions. For example, in English we would say my cousin whatever the cousin’s gender, whereas in French we would have mon cousin (masculine) and ma cousine (feminine), the latter grammatically marked both by the -e ending in the feminine form and by the different possessive adjective (ma). Now, while Romance languages all express gender distinctions in one way or another, not all Germanic languages are non-gendered (German, for example, is a Germanic language that features feminine, masculine and neutral nouns).
If we switch from a grammatical to a lexical point of view, the English vocabulary also contains nouns that refer to a specific gender. For example, brother or son refer to a male member of the family, sister or daughter to a female. Such lexically gendered nouns undoubtedly represent the biggest challenge when it comes to inclusiveness. And yet it is interesting to observe that, certain languages such as English offer lexical solutions to represent more than one gender. Take, for example, the words siblings for brothers and sisters, or the perhaps lesser-known niblings for nieces and nephews.
Writing for all genders
When learning a gendered language, we are taught from the youngest age that masculine is neutral, and that the masculine form takes priority over the feminine when referring to a mixed group of people.
In Italian, for example, the norm would be to use the masculine form i miei amici for my friends, even if we are talking about a mixed-gendered group of people. Amiche, the feminine form of amici, is completely invisible here, as is any non-binary alternative. In short, everything not masculine will be completely erased from the communication.
This rule applies every time there is a male component in the group, even if it is just one. How many times, in high school or at university, did I hear my teachers enter the room saying Buongiorno a tutti! (Good morning everyone! – tutti being the masculine for everyone) even if the classroom only featured one or two male students for every dozen females? The same goes for French with Bonjour à tous – tous once again being the masculine form that overrides the feminine toutes even when women represent the majority of the group of people.
Similarly, when listening to Italian or French radio, you can often hear cari ascoltatori or chers auditeurs (dear listeners). Here too, ascoltatori/auditeurs is only the masculine form of listeners, the feminine being ascoltatrici/auditrices. These are very basic examples of how language can contribute, bit by bit, to the non-representation of a part of a target audience.
Do the teachers and radio presenters actually believe their audiences are exclusively male? Of course not. The chances of an entire classroom or radio audience being made up solely of male individuals are slim. The common argument for using plural masculine as the default to refer to everyone is that all other genders are ‘always implied’. But that’s a slightly archaic view. Today, more than ever, language matters. And being represented in language matters. So it is time to examine what solutions we can put in place to communicate better – to communicate in a manner that includes everyone, not just those who identify with the masculine form.
Having lived in France for the past five years, I have witnessed with enthusiasm many different ideas being promoted to make the French language more inclusive. I will now list the ones that I believe to be the more relevant and widely employed by the public and the media and compare them with Italian, my mother tongue. Of course, since inclusive language is still a relatively fresh topic, and since its methods are constantly evolving and improving, it would not be realistic to give an exhaustive overview in this one article.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, solution for using inclusive language would be what is linguistically called ‘symmetrical use of gender’, i.e. to explicitly state both the masculine and feminine forms.
In French, this would look as follows:
In Italian, we would have:
We can easily see that all the above forms are far longer than the English. This is because we have to decline both the subject and the matching adjective into masculine and feminine. As mentioned earlier, in gendered languages every element related to a noun has a gender (dear becomes chers et chères, my becomes i miei e le mie, and so on).
Although this solution is pretty straightforward when it comes to spoken language, it can represent an obstacle when it comes to writing or translating – both in terms of the ‘heaviness’ and with regard to potential character limits.
Another solution would be to use a dash (-), a full stop (.), a middle point (•) or a slash (/) to put both gender markers one after the other. This way of implementing inclusive language is becoming more and more frequent in French publications, particularly in marketing and academic circles, not to mention certain magazines and books.
Here are some examples:
This way of writing admittedly takes a bit of practice, but once you get into the swing of things, it turns out to be an efficient way to write inclusively. Although this seems to be working quite well in French, that’s not always the case in Italian, however:
This technique does not work as well when translating my friends, as in this case we would also need to decline the article and possessive adjective into masculine and feminine. This is a clear example of the formal obstacles faced when trying to make the Italian language inclusive. The fact that we not only have different endings for masculine and feminine words, but also different articles for each gender throws up a fair few challenges.
Following the urge to write in an inclusive yet clearly understandable way, several Italian linguists – including essayist and inclusive language pioneer Vera Gheno – have proposed creative alternatives that omit the gendered marker at the end of nouns, as we will now see.
Another option is to use the asterisk (*) or the schwa (ə), i.e. the ‘neutral vowel’ whose sound is located between the a and the e and is widely used in English. While this method doesn’t really apply to French, where full stops and dashes are effective enough to include the feminine marker -e at the end of nouns, it can represent a solution to replace the -o and -a markers (-i and -e for plural) in Italian. We could write, for example, tuttə for everybody, amicə for friends or ragazzə for boys and girls. Something similar has become quite common is Spanish, where * or @ is often used to cover both males and females (tod@s for todos y todas, chic@s for chicos y chicas, and so on).
Nowadays, the schwa is paving its way through social media and its success is partially down to the fact that it offers representation to non-binary audiences. Even though this ‘neutral vowel’ doesn’t solve the problems linked to gendered articles and pronouns, it can be combined with the above-mentioned techniques to create sentences with a better flow:
In this last example, it would be useful to create a neo-article that includes both feminine and masculine forms, as is the case with French iel and iels or ielles. These are formed by contracting il and elle for the singular, and ils and elles for the plural, and are being used more and more frequently to refer to mixed-gender groups of people and non-binary individuals. Recently, iel was officially introduced into the French dictionary Le Robert.
Change from the ground up
The implementation of inclusive language has sparked a heated debate between its partisans and the more conservative linguists or ideologists, including some of highest linguistic authorities in Italy and France, who believe that the masculine form should continue to be considered as neutral for the sake of readability but also in the interest of upholding tradition.
Of course, changes in language require time and practice, but there is no challenge that cannot be overcome thanks to creativity and an open mind. Any historical change in our vocabulary has happened from the ground up, as speakers chose to change their way of writing and speaking to reflect their beliefs. So it is now up to professional linguists to code and promote inclusive language – and it is up to us all to start making regular use of it to normalise gender-neutral communication.
 M. Hellinger, H. Bussmann, Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men, John Benjamins Publishing, Amsterdam 2001.
 Further and more detailed resources on inclusive French language can be found here:
- Mots-Clés, Manuel d’écriture inclusive, (online) 2016
- Haut Conseil à l’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes, Guide pratique pour une communication publique sans stéréotype de sexe, (online) 2015
For Italian, I would recommend the following publications:
- Robustelli, Linee guida per l’uso del genere nel linguaggio amministrativo, Comitato Pari Opportunità, Florence 2012.
- Gheno, Femminili singolari, Ombre Corte, Venice 2019.
 Publisher Nouriturfu, created in Paris in 2016 and specialising in gender and food-related topics, features several books written entirely in inclusive language: https://www.nouriturfu.com/nos-livres. See, for example, the works of French journalist Nora Bouazzouni, Faiminisme (2017) and Steaksisme (2021), both written using either the dash or the middle point to include both the masculine and feminine gender.
What’s more, socio-feminist magazine La Déferlante (founded in 2021) chose to establish and follow precise inclusiveness guidelines in all its articles