Words to molest, words to respect: meeting with the linguist Cecilia Robustelli

Words can harass a woman too, like laps and punches do. It’s a violence even more sneaky, because it’s almost unoconsciounsly pepetrated, as it is considered as a minor one. But, as linguist Cecilia Robustelli, who participated to the seminary «Violence against women: a problem of civilization», proved, language can hurt too if used in a different way, depending from the gender of who are we referring to.

Cecilia Robustelli is a linguist, a university teacher and a Crusca Academy’s partner: as a gender language expert she is part, since 2015, of a team who works on this theme, sponsored by the National Commission for Equal Opportunities. In fact the institutions don’t stop and stare: since the 70’s, as the expert points, we care about recognizing violence against woimen, in every part of it, to look for the best solutions.

Cecilia Robustelli (photo by Elisa Menta)

Cecilia Robustelli (photo by Elisa Menta)

Among the different types of violence we can find the vocal ones too: the first thing to clarify is the difference between idiom and language. On the one hand the idiom is the «code of the language», it is the possibility we have to use a language, in other words the rules we studied on gramathic’s book at school. On the other hand the language is the tool we use to communicate. The idiom gives us a number of possible combinations, while language can be freely used as we like, where the only limit is the understanding with other people and specially with the person who stands in front of us.

As Miss Robustelli wonders: is the idiom itself the one who exercises violence or the talker can make choices in order to avoid this?

Only the person can react: the idiom, as a system, has precise rules that allow us to talk to women in the right way, but often traditions, habits or ,breafly, culture, bring us to discriminate them through evidential language usages. The first type of oral discrimination has a semantic basis: this violence happens to be hidden behind some traditional expressions, which create some precise images of women that are difficult to erase from people’s minds. This dicrimination begins by considering women in a particular cathegory, which is different from the men’s one: diversity is a very dangerous concept since it is based on a fixed position, a superior or a lower one, if we compare it with an ethic code. And, in women’s case, the position is often the lower one: expressions like “nervous backdown” or “to burst into tears” can be found everywhere, from traditional to high-profile medias, almost exclusively for women.

Institutions neither are immune to this while they should guarantee judgment impartiality: in a Bank of Italy’s report we can read about “biological differences” which affirms that women shoud not interfer in economic fields.

(photo by Elisa Menta)

(photo by Elisa Menta)

The second possible discrimination is the grammatical one: Miss Robustelli talks about «discrimination by misappropriation», perpetrated with no awareness, hiding the woman behind a masculine language. While the semantic one «adds» someone to the feminine picture, with expressions regarding her physical aspect or his carachter, here we can find some masculine’s genre terms that, in addition to hide the woman and her role, also create communication problems: the idiom’s code come to be altered when, as an example, we talk about Maria Elena Boschi as «IL ministro» or «LA ministro» Clearly, when we refer to someone unfamous, it will be difficult to know who we are talking about and so, we have the same problems in long textes, like newspapers articles, where the usage of masculine for women is widespread, often with a difficult matter of concurrence with adjectives and participle.

The sector where discriminations are more usual and influence the people more, because of its persuasive capacity, is the media’s one. Among the most common semantic discriminations we can find a message with a harmful and offesive meaning towards women. One example is the article, published in 2003 by the Corriere Della Sera journal, about the election of four lifelong senators, 3 men and 1 woman: this one, the neurobiologist Elena Cattaneo, comes to be presented as an exception compared to her male colleagues, just because she’s a woman, a scientist, with international experiences and younger than them. The 3 others (Renzo Piano, Claudio Abbado, Carlo Rubbia) don’t need any presentation, thanks to their fame.

Le parole feriscono

Le parole feriscono

Women are also most vulnerable to an obsessive attention about their private life: often the news about women do not only talk about the essential part, but also they do it about their private life with the only purpose of creating a misinterpreted image of them. Thus, Corrirere della Sera journal, in the occasion of a woman’s nomination as the leader of Onu’s mission against chemical weapons in Siria, claims: «A Dutchwoman who speaks 6 laguages, among them, the arabic went to Damascus. She had to leave her Palestinian husband in New York taking care of their 4 children». The purpose is naturally to blemish the singularity and the prestige position of the woman by representing an aspect, the one of the husband left alone with the children, unuseful, with the only goal of sentencing that choice.

The more widespread grammathical discrimination, as already said, has to be founded in the usage of the masculine also when it refers to women. This way, masculine terms ares used for roles or professional qualifications occupied by women (as ministry, engineer, mayor and many others) or it is used the resource to the «inclusive masculine», in other words the masculine forms used to refer to both men and women. In the first case we’re hiding the woman, we don’t mention her, we don’t recognize her role, while in the second one the feminine presence has to be inferred.

But we’ re talking about wrong choices, that go against the idiom’s principle mentioned before, that can’t be changed as we like to. As Miss Robustelli reminds: «the grammathical gender is assigned according to the subject’s gender, so that this one helps the listener to understand if we’ re talking about a man or a woman, the indiscrimate usage of the masculine, more than being a form of violence against the woman, is also an obstacle in the communication’s process because a texte who doesn’t respect the idiom’s principles is a text that is simply incorrect and, as a consequence, unintelligible.»

words violence

words violence

But, why all of this? Why the language, which once was the tool of communication and sharing, has been used, in some cases, as a violence tool? Because of tradition: some linguistic habits are today so deep-rooted that they have become difficult to erase. Moreover, italian is not very well known by its speakers, there’s no knowledge of the feminine forms that can be used without discriminating.

Unfortunately the scholar system itself is the one who doesn’t educate properly: in the last years institutions have changed their mind frequently, from the Istanbul Convention in 2013 since the European Parliament Resolution happened during march in the same year that, between other things, suggests to pay attention to sexists stereotypes transmitted by teachers and teaching material themself. It looks difficult to achieve the objective if today, 2016, many italian grammar manuals adopted in middle school to explain the construption of some professional feminine terms still talk about «unpleasant forms», «to be avoided ones», going to prefer the masculine version. Also dictionaries themselves don’t report some feminine forms or, when they do it, they define them as “funny”, as in the “ministra” case.

The fear of failing and the “ugliness” of some feminine words that would make them unusable (like “architetta”  insted of “architetto”) are widespread but unuseful excuses: the discriminatory language can only hurt becaus it hides the feminine emancipation, the rights conquer, the gender equality and makes a large number of stereotypes stronger that, stabilizing itself, come to create some fixed mental images. That’s where violence begins: the woman who doesn’t respect the role that was given to her, who doesn’t adapt herself to the model imposed by society, or the culture and the language, raises rage. Language is power and we used it to submit our tongue to unfair purposes, in order to violent, humiliate and hide. But idioms have precise and fair rules that respect anyone and don’t mean to offend anyone : idioms, as Miss Robustelli claims in her conclusion, which allow us to see the feminine side of society.

We just need to want to see it.


Luigi Cazzola has translated into English the article by Elisa Menta:

Parole per violentare, parole per rispettare: incontro con la linguista Cecilia Robustelli



Un pensiero su “Words to molest, words to respect: meeting with the linguist Cecilia Robustelli

  1. Pingback: #donne. Violenza, femminicidio e differenze di genere raccontati da esperti linguisti e sociologi | CompassUnibo Blog


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