by Ben Papadopoulos (he/they), University of California, Berkeley

June 8, 2022, 10:30 AM

I am writing this Pride Month post from Neapoli, Greece, a small town in the region of Lasithi on the island of Crete where my paternal grandmother was raised. This is my second day here—I wish my cousins would get out of bed already and come help me order another round of coffee at this café before my abysmal Greek reveals that I am indeed Greek... -American.

I have been forced to think about being American a lot on this trip. Nationality is one of those identities that gets assigned to you when you go abroad. I don’t often identify myself as American, but when it is assigned to me, I can’t deny that it is true. Along with being American comes a whole host of privileges. For instance, during a communication breakdown abroad, I can ask if my interlocutor speaks English and chances are more likely than not that they do, if even a little bit[1]. In this way, speaking English is also a privileged positionality.

I came to Europe this summer for the first time to present my research project, Gender in Language (, publicly at Lavender Languages and Linguistics 28 in Catania, Italy. I presented an organized session of four papers with my colleague Jennifer Kaplan and eleven of my current or former mentees, many of whom use they/them pronouns in English. We are privileged in that we may use prescriptive forms already found in English to refer to each other in a way we feel honors and respects our unique gender identities. 

members of the Gender in Language Project
Members of the Gender in Language Project presenting their work at Lavender Languages and Linguistics 28. Each is listed with their pronouns in English and current affiliation. Top row: Jesus Duarte (he/him, University of California, Los Angeles), Cooper Bedin (they/them, University of California, Santa Barbara), Sebastian Clendenning-Jimenez (he/they, University of Washington), Julie Ha (she/her, University of California, Berkeley), and Carmela Blazado (she/her, University of the Pacific). Bottom row: Sol Cintrón (they/them, University of California, Berkeley), Zaphiel Kiriko Miller (they/xe, University of California, Berkeley), Chelsea Tang (she/her, University of California, Berkeley), and Ben Papadopoulos (he/they, University of California, Berkeley). Not pictured: Keira Colleluori (they/them, University of California, Berkeley), Serah Sim (she/her, University of California, Berkeley), and Irene Yi (she/they, Stanford University).


We have also been speaking a great deal of Spanish on this trip—especially Sebastian, Jesus, Sol, Julie, and me—because we find that we are better received when we speak Spanish. We are privileged here, too, in that our gender-nonconforming, Spanish-speaking siblings have popularized a method of representing nonbinary gender identities that we find natural and incredibly systematic: the e gender. Yet speaking gender-inclusive Spanish is more effortful and more foreign to our non-queer, Spanish-speaking interlocutors. 

More complicated is the case of Italian. I am one of the only Italian speakers in our group, so I have been responsible for directing taxis, consulting pharmacists, and ordering at restaurants. As in Spanish, it is impossible to avoid gendered personal references in Italian. Speak two sentences and you will have arrived at a site where binary gender must be assigned to the referent. This has obviously been very difficult for me to navigate with my students.

The gendered constraints of Italian are more complicated than those of Spanish. Four of the five vowels in the prescriptive inventory of the language are morphemes that simultaneously encode both gender and number (e.g. ragazzo ‘boy’, ragazza ‘girl’, ragazzi ‘boys’, ragazze ‘girls’). In many Sicilian dialects, which we have been hearing a lot of, word-final o is realized as [u], associating this final vowel with binary gender. Apart from these linguistic challenges, the concept of nonbinary (social) gender is extremely narrow in Italian society, including popular culture. This is precisely where the trouble begins. It takes a great deal of visibility for the right direction of language change to follow. 

Yet there is hope. At LavLang28, we learned about how community members are mitigating this issue in Italian from many of our colleagues. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to Federica Formato (University of Brighton) and Elena Sofia Safina’s (Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II) brilliant presentations. Federica foregrounded the issue by describing how gendered constraints are multiplied in masculine-feminine gender languages and presented her analysis that the development of gender-inclusive Italian does not represent a desire to collapse the extant gender system, but rather to add more options for self-identification and allyship. Elena Sofia zoomed in on the linguistics of this issue by further analyzing prescriptive constraints and linking the expansion and destruction pathways to distinct ideologies from the Italian-speaking public. She rounded out an extensive list of innovations that the two presenters co-reported, which include a number of symbolic (*, x, ‘, &, _) and vocalic (ə, u) innovations pioneered by online transfeminist communities. Prevalent among them is the use of the schwa (ə), a proposal that introduces a sixth vowel into the inventory of the language. 

This sort of empirical research based on social activism and socially-motivated research questions is the basis of the Gender in Language Project. In short, I intend for the project to be an empirical and community resource that describes the realization of gender in the languages of the world. Along with our empirical language documents (grammars, lexicons), we intend to make or host complete sets of pedagogical materials designed to sensitize speakers towards nonbinary social gender and the use of gender-inclusive forms in different languages. 

The project will soon launch a piece entitled “What We Learned in Italy,” as well as a grammar and lexicon of gender in Italian. Over the course of the summer, we will also launch materials for eleven other languages we presented at the conference, including Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, and Modern Irish. In our analyses of these languages thus far, we have already found features of gender that are not unified or even described by any extant theory of gender in language, like radical gender (e.g. 他 ‘he’, 她 ‘she’, 无也 ‘they [SG.]’), which represents the encoding of gender in Chinese orthography, and phonological mutations based on morphological gender and case in Modern Irish (e.g. bean ‘woman’, an bhean ‘the woman [NOM.]). 

My dissertation research will analyze these features and allow them to contribute to a new theory of gender in language based around the concept of social gender. This includes clearing up the notion that a language like English can be “genderless,” a terminological issue that I feel is important to resolve empirically. It is precisely because of the linguistic activism promoted by our queer community members that I am able to perform this research. I feel proud while doing so.

This Pride Month, I encourage you to consider the languages you speak as well as the queer people in your life together, as a language can never be described apart from its speakers. Consider the challenges, the victories, and the work ahead. Being sensitized to the extreme constraints of binary gender in the languages of the world is itself a form of activism, and I thank you for taking part in a global movement to protect the rights of our queer siblings. It gives me hope to know that speakers of multiple languages (e.g. English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, Hebrew, Danish, German) are innovating methods of nonbinary gender self-identification. I will continue to be behind the scenes, documenting and analyzing the solutions you attest. As I see it, this is the way forward. There is a lot of work ahead, but together we can come to express our pride in all languages.



Formato, F. (2022, May 23-25). Inclusivity, gender and neutrality through self-representation and allyship: A linguistic overview [Conference presentation]. Lavender Languages and Linguistics 28, Catania, Italy.

Safina, E. S. (2022, May 23-25). I NOSTRX CORPX RESISTONO. A diachronic corpus analysis of Italian gender neutralization strategies in transfeminist online communities [Conference presentation]. Lavender Languages and Linguistics 28, Catania, Italy.


[1] With this description, I do not mean to assume English to be the national language of the United States. English is not the declared national language of the United States, nor do I believe it should be, to the exclusion of other languages.