Can It Be Done? – Gender Neutrality in the French Language

by Monique Kasonga

Image: papillion_1/Flickr

In a world where gender nonconformity and neutrality are slowly on the rise, many languages and cultures have added and adopted gender neutral pronouns. While there have long been gender-neutral pronouns in English, many other languages still lack this inclusive language. Understanding the situation’s complexity requires looking at the concept of grammatical gender and how it maps onto different languages. The push for gender neutral pronouns and language structures has been prominent within the French language. Many activists have begun proposing different structural changes for the language and it is a topic that is up for debate with many linguists. 

In the French language, there is no “official” way of referring to a gender-neutral or nonbinary individual, as “they” would always be translated as either “ils” (male) or “elles” (female). French grammatical rules give the masculine form of a noun precedence over the female. For example, if there was a room full of females, the group of people would be referred to as “elles” (feminine plural pronoun), however, if there was a man added to the room, the group would then be referred to as “ils” (masculine plural pronoun). Favouring the masculine over the feminine does not allow for proper representation or expression from those who identify as female or as gender non-conforming.   For the most part, gender is an important aspect of the French language and its grammar. The institution that takes care of matters pertaining to the French language is called the Académie Française, an academy that prides itself in protecting and preserving classical French language structures. Members have been known to oppose major changes to it and are generally seen as more conservative. Back in 2017, the academy released a statement regarding the introduction of gender neutral pronouns, in which they branded these proposed changes as “inclusive writing” and completely opposed the changes. In this short statement, they deemed the language changes as too complicated and that “faced with the aberration of ‘inclusive writing’, the French language finds itself in mortal danger”

But why are people pushing for this linguistic change? The reality is that these aspects of the language are contributing to gender inequalities within France. The French language uses the male pronouns as a default and many social activists and feminists have argued that the gendered nature of the language promotes sexist outcomes, and that shifting to a gender-neutral version would improve women and non-binary people’s status in society. A study led in 2017 by Odoxa/Le Figaro revealed that 53 percent of French women say they have been the object of sexual aggression or harassment. Many argue that gendered languages such as French contribute to more sexist views than gender-neutral ones such as English, but these studies are limited in that external factors such as culture, which are extremely important in deciding sexist attitudes, can not be measured.

Maxime, a non-binary writer for the website Alterheros, an anonymous source for questions related to sexual health, gender identities, sexual and romantic attractions and intimate relationships, says that “French is a deeply, profoundly gendered and sexist language and us, trans and non-binary folx, had to get quite creative to fix some of its glaring issues.”. As there is no exact equivalent of “they/them” pronouns in French, some suggested neo-pronouns have been: iel, ille, el, y, ul, ol and more. However, it is important to remember that proper neutral grammar in French is simply not possible at this point in time. 

The Francophonie is arguably one of France’s most successful postcolonial tools of global engagement, with 84 member states and governments that account for 274 million French speakers and represent one-third of the United Nations’ member states. In November of 2017, France banned the use of gender-neutral language in official documents. This is a large contrast to other European countries such as Germany, where nouns also have specific genders, the justice ministry said in 2014 that all state bodies should use gender-neutral language in official documents. This decision made by the French government received praise from French language traditionalists but was majorly frowned upon by social activists, demonstrating a large disconnect between the French youth and its older generation. While the youth seem to be pioneering for change within the language, those of older age involved in politics and linguistics seem to disagree. 

All things considered, it seems that the introduction and use of genderneutral pronouns in French would not only help the non-binary and gender-nonconforming community feel more included, but it may also contribute to rejecting sexism within the language and abolish its patriarchal roots. However, this brings up the question of whether small changes would be able to be made to accommodate gender neutrality, or if large structural changes would have to be made to the language. And if these large structural changes must be made, would this result in crucial aspects of the French language being destroyed? These questions will most likely be thrown around within linguistic groups for many years to come. However, let’s all hope that we will be able to see a world where people of all genders and sexes can feel included. 

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