Cracking the Code of “Il Presidente”: Giorgia Meloni and Gendered Language in Italian

In 2022 when Giorgia Meloni was appointed President of the Council of Ministers (Presidente del Consiglio) she issued a circular specifying that she should be addressed as “Il signor Presidente” (“Mr. President”). However, Meloni soon reconsidered the inclusion of the “signor” component and withdrew her request.

Nevertheless, Meloni has explicitly reiterated her preference to be addressed as “il Presidente del Consiglio,” opting for the masculine article over the feminine one (“la Presidente”). This stance has sparked debate among members of both Italian and international media with some arguing that Meloni’s choice perpetuates an outdated notion implying that the role of prime minister is inherently male. In contrast, the Accademia della Crusca, the foremost authority on the Italian language, has confirmed that “la Presidente,” “la premier,” or “la prima ministra” would all be more linguistically appropriate choices.

English speakers learning Italian might be inclined to draw parallels with the diminishing usage of feminized forms of professions in their own language, such as “actress,” “waitress,” or “stewardess.” However, applying the same framework of understanding to the Italian context can be misleading.

While debates surrounding the usage of gender-specific terms in English have persisted for decades, with efforts to replace them with gender-neutral alternatives like “actor” or “server” considered progressive, the implications of Meloni’s decision to strip her title of feminine associations are perceived differently in Italy.

Before delving into these implications, let’s first examine the significance of gender in the Italian language as a whole.

The Fundamentals of Gender in Italian Language

Feminine nouns like la fragola (the strawberry) will generally take the ending -a in the singular and -e in the plural (le fragole).

Understanding the intricacies of gender in Italian nouns is essential as they profoundly influence the forms of other words, such as articles or adjectives.

As you may already be aware, Italian nouns fall into two gender categories: femminile (feminine) and maschile (masculine). Every noun is assigned a gender; even inanimate objects like il treno (the train) or la bottiglia (the bottle) are designated as either femminile or maschile.

Feminine nouns typically end in -a in their singular form and -e in their plural form. Definite feminine articles, equivalent to “the,” are la for the singular form and le for the plural:

La stanza — le stanze (the room — the rooms).

On the other hand, masculine nouns usually end in -o in their singular form and -i in their plural form. Their definite articles are il in the singular and i in the plural:

Il divano — i divani (the sofa — the sofas).

However, exceptions occur when the noun begins with s + a consonant, z, gn, ps, x, y, or pn. In such cases, the article becomes –lo (gli in plural form):

Lo zaino — gli zaini (the backpack — the backpacks).

Nouns, both feminine and masculine, that start with a vowel use the definite article l’ in their singular form, but their plural articles differ:

L’ora (f. la) — le ore (the hour — the hours).

L’olio  (m. lo) — gli oli (the oil — the oils).

Additionally, there’s a group of nouns ending in -e that take -i in their plural forms, regardless of gender:

La chiave— le chiavi (the key — the keys).

Il cane — i cani (the dog — the dogs).

Remembering the gender of such nouns can be challenging, so it’s helpful to learn their singular and plural forms along with the articles when learning vocabulary.

Some nouns ending in -e and referring to people can be either masculine or feminine:

Il cantante (singer) / la cantante (singer).

Il testimone (witness) / la testimone (witness).

Pay attention to these nouns when they begin with a vowel and require an l’ article:

L’interprete (the interpreter) — plural gli/le interpreti

L’ospite (the guest) — plural gli/le ospiti

L’insegnante (the teacher) — plural gli/le insegnanti

In professions or social roles, some nouns end in -a but change articles depending on the gender of the individual:

Il/la giornalista (the journalist)

Il/la pianista (the pianist)

Lo/la psichiatra (the psychiatrist)

Il/la farmacista (the pharmacist)

Il/la regista (the director)

L’autista (the driver)

Il/la collega (the colleague)

The endings also vary in their plural forms based on gender:

I giornalisti/le giornaliste (the journalists)

I pianisti/le pianiste (the pianists)

Gli psichiatri/le psichiatre (the psychiatrists)

I farmacisti/le farmaciste (the pharmacists)

I registi/le registe (the directors)

Gli autisti/le autiste (the drivers)

I colleghi/le colleghe (the colleagues)

Other professions in Italian simply switch their -o or -e endings to -a to form the female form:

Il maestro/la maestra (the teacher)

Il cuoco/la cuoca (the cook)

Il sarto/la sarta (the tailor)

L’infermiere/l’infermiera (the nurse)

For professions where the masculine form ends in –tore, the feminine form follows a pattern:

Il pittore/la pittrice (the painter)

L’attore/l’attrice (the actor/actress)

Lo scrittore/la scrittrice (the writer)

L’autore/l’autrice (the author)

Navigating gendered language in Italian can be complex, especially when discussing professions historically associated with a specific gender. While some advocate for maintaining grammatical “purity” in Italian, languages evolve to reflect societal changes.

Navigating Gender Dynamics in Italian: A Deep Dive

In discussions surrounding professions or roles historically dominated by one gender, Italian encounters the challenge of “linguistic sexism.” Despite progress, lingering debates persist around the appropriate use of gendered language in these contexts.

For instance, the suffix -essa, found in words like professoressa (female teacher) or dottoressa (female doctor), was initially viewed as ironic, but has become standard. However, controversy arises when feminine forms are applied to traditionally male-dominated professions. Terms like la direttora (executive director), l’assessora (council member), or la sindaca (mayor) still spark debate, challenging linguistic norms ingrained over time.

Advocates for linguistic purity often resist such changes, citing aesthetic preferences or concerns about grammatical integrity. However, language evolves to reflect societal shifts, as demonstrated by recent updates in dictionaries like Treccani. This influential dictionary now prioritizes feminine forms over masculine ones, marking a significant departure from convention.

Treccani’s embrace of feminine forms extends to professions traditionally viewed as masculine, such as architetta (female architect) or notaia (female notary), indicating a broader acceptance of linguistic diversity. However, not all reactions to these changes are positive, as illustrated by Giorgia Meloni’s insistence on using the masculine article “il”.

The Giorgia Meloni Enigma

The varied reception of Treccani’s revisions leads us to the case of Giorgia Meloni and her committed adherence to the masculine article “il.” Positioned as a supporter traditionalist on social matters, Meloni’s preference to avoid the feminine article may stem from a belief that only individuals with stereotypically male attributes command respect in politics.

Meloni’s stance has sparked both critique and support. While the Accademia della Crusca advocated for “la” as the more fitting article, its president, Claudio Marazzini, acknowledged the rights of those who favour traditional masculine forms, noting that some women may not feel represented by feminist linguistic reforms.

In contrast, Laura Boldrini, who served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies of Italy from 2013, and who herself preferred to be addressed as “la Presidente,” voiced criticism of Meloni on social media. Boldrini questioned what hindered Meloni from asserting herself, drawing parallels to Treccani’s assertion that roles should be delineated. She also pointed out the potential sexism and exclusivity implied by the name of Meloni’s political party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy).

Adapting Language to Modern Realities

The question arises: should Italian speakers mirror the English trend towards gender-neutral language as a pathway to linguistic reform? This debate remains open. Italian speakers inevitably encounter challenges in addressing mixed-sex groups due to the absence of a neutral gender.

For instance, “Ciao a tutte!” (Hello everyone!) implies addressing exclusively women, while “Ciao a tutti!” is applicable to all-male groups or mixed-sex groups, serving as the default inclusive form, known as the “inclusive masculine.”

In efforts to shift away from language centered on male perspectives, some linguists propose utilizing the asterisk (*) as a written workaround, although its application in spoken Italian is limited.

Alternatively, sociolinguist Vera Gheno suggests employing the schwa symbol (ə), familiar to English speakers and certain Italian dialect users. The schwa, a neutral vowel devoid of stress or tone, could serve as a simple substitute for gendered endings in nouns, theoretically promoting inclusivity.

For example:

– dottorə (doctor)

– avvocatə (lawyer)

– assessorə (council member)

Plural genderless nouns could use the long schwa (ɜ):

– Carɜ amicɜ (Dear friends).

– Buonasera a tuttɜ! (Good evening, everyone!).

However, the challenge lies in the limited accessibility of schwa signs on standard keyboards. Some proponents resort to using @ and 3 in text messages and emails as quick solutions. Despite these efforts, the schwa remains outside mainstream usage, with many Italians accustomed to the familiar inclusive masculine.

Moreover, there exists a pervasive sentiment that certain words simply don’t “sound right” to Italian ears, reflecting entrenched linguistic habits. Nonetheless, language evolution is essential for its vitality.

In closing, this discussion sheds light on the intricate issue of gender in Italian, signaling the ongoing journey towards genuine inclusivity.

As an Italian woman I believe language should evolve together with culture and therefore I do not agree with The Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in perpetuating sexism by no giving a role example to the new generations.