Can the schwa be used in speech?

Feasibility study on non-binary language in conference interpreting


  • Igor Facchini University of Bologna, Italy



Experimental strategies have emerged to make non-binary people visible in languages with binary grammatical gender systems. In Italian, schwa endings (-ə) have been adopted for such purpose in writing and speech. Yet, despite being neomorphemes that are concise alternatives to more time-consuming periphrases, they entail non-standard morphological changes that risk increasing cognitive load and may prove too cumbersome when speaking. This paper presents the results of a study that was conducted on conference interpreters to assess the feasibility of schwa endings in a spoken modality. Participants completed a translation task from English into Italian and were instructed to use schwa endings as a cross-linguistic gender-fair language strategy. By providing an analysis of both the participants’ perceptions and their outputs, this work argues that implementing spoken non-binary language strategies in Italian is regarded as overly laborious but may in fact give promising results already at the first attempt.

Keywords: schwa, non-binary language, translation, conference interpreting, orality.