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Can Maltese be more inclusive of gender identity outside of the binary?

As Malta has kicked off its Europride celebrations, the visibility of people who express gender and sexuality outside of the traditional binary has increased as have discussions on how language has adapted to broaden the expression of those identities. But can languages with grammatical gender afford to flex to be more inclusive of the people who seek to use it to express identity outside of that binary?

Academics and activists will be tackling the subject during a discussion in Valletta on Sunday evening.

Romario Sciberras, one of the academics who will be participating in the session and who is engaged in active research on the topic, told Times of Malta that when it comes to the Maltese language, it is not simply a matter of conjuring new words but learning how to use the language better to make it more inclusive.

“Language is like a piece of raw dough, it's simply a matter of knowing how best to work with it to produce the most optimal results,” he said.

Acknowledging there are challenges when masculine and feminine words are the most established tools for communicating gender in Maltese, he said that nonetheless there are different approaches to language one may take in an effort to be more inclusive.

“I think part of it is down to reframing the way you are thinking when using the language. For example, when you speak to a person you don’t know very well it is automatic to assume they are either male or female, despite growing visibility that they could be non-binary,” he said.

“If you were to ask them ‘Fejn sejjer’ or ‘Fejn sejra’ (where are you going), for example, in Maltese you are bound to pick a gender, but with some thinking, you can realise that the verbal conjugation in the second person singular in Maltese is not gendered so you could perhaps use ‘Fejn se tmur’ instead.”

“If we really took our beautiful Maltese language and got to know it better I am sure we can get there and find ways to make it more inclusive.”

Sciberras also said that as international activism tends to operate primarily in English and because it is also an official language in Malta, there could be a tendency to look at how the English language has developed to accommodate non-binary people and try to apply it in Maltese. However, the two languages have two totally different systems and similar changes cannot be applied as broadly.

“In English, for example, using the they/them pronoun for non-binary people has become almost established. But if we had to try and apply that to Maltese it would impact the way the rest of the language is structured and does not flow quite as well,” he said.

“If you had to create a new pronoun in Maltese, further changes would be required in the different grammatical categories that agree with grammatical gender such as verbs, adjectives, participles and pronouns.”

But at its core, Sciberras said that the discussion will also be centred around the ties between societal and linguistic expression of gender.

“Language is the primary tool to express and build identity. It is high time we start looking at language in a way that embraces its ever-changing character, in order to provide alternative discourses for the gender binarity that it currently upholds.”

The discussion will be taking place at the Pride Village in Triton Square Valletta on Sunday, September 10 at 6 pm.