Should the French language be changed to be made less masculine?

Sir Michael Edwards, The French Academy's only British member, discusses the new row erupting over the use of a more gender-neutral style of writing, so-called 'écriture inclusive'

27 May 2021

'The Académie is the guardian of the language but also the place where its enrichment should take place. If a language doesn’t change, it becomes dead' Pic: Sir Michael Edwards

By Liv Rowland

A style of writing that seeks to make French more gender-neutral and to abolish the rule that ‘the masculine prevails’ has been banned in schools by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.

The new style – known as écriture inclusive – suggests that instead of writing, for example, les lycéens, to mean both male and female lycée students, you should use les lycéen.n.es, a combination of masculine and feminine forms separated by a point.

The same goes for adjective and verb agreements, for example: Les français.e.s sont content.e.s instead of les français sont contents.

Other suggestions include using the feminine to refer to groups where there are more women than men, or using a ‘rule of proximity’, where agreement is made with the word nearest to the adjective, such as les hommes et les femmes sont belles.

This was used centuries ago and could be brought back, some suggest.

However, Mr Blanquer said ‘inclusive’ writing made French hard to learn.

Professor Sir Michael Edwards, 83, who lives between homes in Burgundy and Paris, sits on the Académie Française. It is France’s oldest, most revered linguistic body, which among other tasks compiles a dictionary of words that have stood the test of time in good quality written sources.

He thinks the minister “is absolutely right”, although “it is a big question”.

“The problem with écriture inclusive in the strict sense, with dots, brackets or hyphens, seems to me foolish.

“It makes clumsy a language which everyone has always thought was rather beautiful. It looks like a kind of eczema on the page and it simply disfigures it. And when you try to read it, it causes a kind of cerebral stammering.

“It also seems to me a form of Maoism: that you should destroy all the past and start over again. But you can’t do that because a language evolves slowly.

'What foreigner would want to learn French if you had to learn these rules?'

Sir Michael also dislikes the less extreme, but increasingly common, practice of doubling up masculine and feminine terms. He said it separates men and women rather than bringing them together.

“I’m thinking of things like saying chacun et chacune, il et elle, etc.

“You are continually interrupting the process of thought to remind people that there are men and women in the world, whereas the French have always been keen on speaking clearly.

“You end up with phrases like: Chacun et chacune des français et des françaises doit accomplir son devoir de citoyen ou de citoyenne en votant pour le candidat ou la candidate de son choix. It’s gibberish.

“However, there are moments when talking about men and women makes sense.

“You might say les Patagoniens et les Patagoniennes font les courses, to point out the fact that men in that country also do the shopping.

“Or, for example, Mr Blanquer said you should talk about les candidats et les candidates in advertising an exam, to make it clear that both men and women can take part – but once you’ve done that, you don’t need to keep saying ‘il ou elle’, etc.”

Some grammarians fend off claims that the traditional grammar rules are sexist with arguments that the masculine can be seen as neutral grammatically.

'The basic premise is wrong, that the French language is biased in favour of men'

Sir Michael is not convinced. He said they argue that most Latin neuter words became masculine in French, but this was not systematically the case. In his view, “the basic premise is wrong, that the French language is biased in favour of men”.

“My view of the rule that says if there are feminine and masculine nouns, then the masculine should be used for past participles and adjectives is that it is simply for utility.

“It’s got to be one or the other and it happens that it’s the masculine that’s used. It’s not impossible it could have been the feminine, but it’s not worked out that way.”

He added: “If you say il y avait un homme et dix femmes belles, you would take it to mean there was one man and 10 beautiful women, but if you put it in the masculine everyone understands you are including the feminine. Putting it in the feminine would cause ambiguity.”

Sir Michael added that linguistic gender is not always related to the gender of a person. He gave the example of dans cette salle il y a 500 personnes, toutes barbues (in this room, there are 500 people – a feminine word in French – all with beards).

“No man objects to being called une personne, and there are many words from the army, such as une sentinelle, une vigile [watchman], une estafette [messenger]…”

He said offence can also be avoided by the way we talk about language.

For example, teachers in French schools talk about the masculine ‘dominating’ in certain phrases, which he said tends to please the boys but not the girls.

“It would be better to simply say that, for clarity’s sake, one has to use the masculine,” he said.

Regarding the rule of proximity, Sir Michael said he had found an Education Ministry directive from as recently as 1926 saying it was acceptable.

“However, there can again be a problem of clarity. If you put an adjective into the feminine, it always looks as if it only refers to whatever is feminine.”

Sir Michael is, however, “not against” feminisation of jobs and titles and has sat on a committee which looked into it.

He said the traditional tendency for these to be masculine reflects past social norms, when most mayors, ministers, and ambassadors were men.

“I would be for it if a woman was elected president of France. Who would say Madame le président? It would be ridiculous.

“And the argument that you mustn’t say l’ambassadrice, because it means an ambassador’s wife, is foolish now.

“In fact, the very first (1694) edition of our dictionary defined the word as ‘a woman sent on a mission’.”

“My view is that it is an enrichment of French. The fact that many women now occupy roles that used to be closed to them is an opportunity to create the feminine forms: une avocate, une écrivaine…

“The only problem is they are not familiar, so for a moment people feel uncomfortable with them. I’ve heard someone say écrivaine sounds like vaine [feminine form of the French for ‘vain’], but no one says the same about écrivain.”

Sir Michael said, historically, the Académie has sometimes been reactionary. For example, it reported against feminisation of jobs at the end of the 20th century – but he feels that has changed.

“We voted unanimously in favour this time. The Académie is the guardian of the language but also the place where its enrichment should take place. If a language doesn’t change, it becomes dead.”

Sir Michael said he has enjoyed his time at the Académie since his election in 2013 and still visits weekly, when possible with regard to Covid restrictions.

“It’s like a family. I thought it would be a rather formal affair but, in fact, it’s very friendly and I’ve made great friends.

“Its work is very important and I am centrally involved, as a member of the dictionary committee.”

Académie members may propose ‘new’ words for inclusion in the dictionary and he said he is proud to have been responsible for many new entries, such as semaison (sowing) or numineux (having a mystical or spiritual quality).

He will be arguing for simplexité, which he said can refer to a situation where a very complex idea is ultimately rendered simple, such as Albert Einstein’s E=mc2 equation.

'We don’t want to introduce a buzz word but find 10 years later that nobody is using it'

“However, we take time to make sure a word is going to stay, because we don’t want to do what Larousse or Robert do and introduce a buzz word but find 10 years later that nobody is using it.”

The dictionary committee also has a final say on word use for official purposes, he said. Their approval is sought on widely varying terms, such as components in a nuclear power plant.

“We think very seriously about the best way of saying things, and accept a lot of these new words,” he said.

Sir Michael said his forthcoming personal projects include a book of poems in English and a series of lectures on the Bible, also to be published as a book.

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