Fixing French: Inside the Divisive Fight For a Gender-Neutral Language

This September, the publishing house Hatier released the first “inclusive” history textbook.

The Editors of the publishing house had aimed to promote a gender-neutral version of the French language based on the guidelines issued in 2015 by the High Council for Gender Equality.

The decision came after various ministries and universities have been implementing gender-neutral orthographical marks over the past couple of years. It also reflects the outcry of French feminists who think that the traditional asset of the language contributed pejoratively to codify women’s status in society.

In French, the masculine forms of plural words dominate over the feminine ones. For example, when a speaker wants to identify a group of directors in a room, he will say directeurs (masculine form) instead of directrices (feminine form), even if the number of women exceeds that of the men.

The controversial solution proposed by this new textbook is to opt for a plural form that includes both genders by inserting middots into words. As a result, ‘directors’ would be written ‘directeur·rice·s’.

The argument that changing the writing of French could improve the representation of women is part of what is technically known as ‘linguistic determinism’. This idea suggests that the structure of a language influences the way of thinking of its speakers.

Elsewhere, this theory has already inspired major changes at the administrative level. In 2015, the Swedish Academy introduced the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” in the official dictionary of the Swedish language. It is used when the gender of a person is unknown, when the person is transgender or when the gender is considered a superfluous information.

“Language structures thought,” Elianne Viennot, historian and professor of Renaissance French literature at Université Jean Monnet in Saint Etienne, told the newspaper Sud-Ouest. “Telling children the masculine form wins over the feminine cannot contribute to shaping egalitarian minds.”

In early November, more than 300 schoolteachers declared in an op-ed published on slate.fr that they are no longer willing to teach the traditional rule that makes “the masculine trump the feminine” in plurals.

The teachers argue that this rule was created in the 17th century and was largely established with the imposition of compulsory primary school education.

However, the reasons behind this rule were political, not linguistic. As state advisor, Scipion Dupleix wrote in 1651, “Because the masculine gender is more noble, it takes precedence alone against two or several feminines, even if these are closer to their adjective.”

The transmission of the rule across generations entailed the acceptance of a sexist mindset with regard to the social representation of women.

On the other hand, the members of the prestigious Academie Française, the highest institution on linguistic matters, reacted with outrage.

“Faced with this ‘inclusive’ aberration, the French language is now in mortal danger, a fact for which our nation is now accountable to future generations”, they said in a statement.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer added that French “should not be exploited for fighting battles no matter how legitimate they are.”

Late last month, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe weighed in on the debate banning “inclusive writing” in official documents.

He wrote in a memo that the government must “comply with grammatical and syntactic rules” for “reasons of intelligibility and clarity.”

In particular, he said the “the masculine is a neutral form which should be used for terms that are applicable to women.”

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