Nonbinary pronoun ‘they’ sparks French language debate

A debate has been sparked in France over the lack of an official gender-neutral French word for “they” and “them”, after the pronoun “they” was voted Word of the Year 2019 in the United States.

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In English, the pronouns “they” and “them” can be used not only in the plural to describe a group of people, but also for one person, singular, without determining their gender.

In this way, in English, the pronouns can replace the words “him/her” and “he/she” as a neutral equivalent. As such, within the LGBTQ+ and nonbinary communities, the pronouns “they” and “them” have become commonly-used by people who do not identify with one of the usual binary genders (male or female).

The US dictionary Merriam-Webster - the equivalent of the Larousse dictionary in France - has chosen the pronoun “they” as its Word of the Year 2019, in reference to this growing use. Online lookups for "they" increased by 313% in 2019, the dictionary said.

It explained: "This is a special case, and a consequence of shifts in the way 'they' is used."

A new definition in the dictionary says: “Used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary”. As an example, the definition continues: “The person I was interviewing...they had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago…”.

The American Psychological Association has also officially adopted the pronouns as a way to refer to nonbinary people, and the American Dialect Society had already named “they” its own word of the year in 2015, for the same reason.

This growing use has sparked a debate in France, as French does not have an “official” way of referring to a gender-neutral or nonbinary individual, as “they” would always be translated as either “ils” (male) or “elles” (female).

The male word “ils” is also used for a group of people of different genders - including male and female - but this is not the same as not specifying a gender at all, and would also not be used to refer to just one person.

In French, people have begun to use the pronoun “iel” (and sometimes “ille”) to refer to a nonbinary person. Linguistically, these are a mix of “il” and “elle”, but they are so far yet to be officially adopted into the French language by the Académie Française.

Some people have also begun to use pronouns in French such as "ol", "al", "ul" or "yul".

Yet, these new pronouns still do not solve the problem of adjectives that align with gender in French - for example, “content” or “contente” - prompting further debate.

As French literature professor Éliane Viennot wrote in newspaper Libération: “[Even if you use ‘iel’ or ‘ille’] you must then choose between ‘iel est content’ ou ‘iel est contente’. Whereas in English, for example, a neutral pronoun can work, because the rest of the sentence is not affected.”

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