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Masculine: neutral or dominant? French ‘inclusive writing’ explained

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French article
Credit: Daily Mail



By Annette Lordereau

The French language. Considered to be the language of romance, right? Not for all who speak it. ‘Inclusive writing’ is the latest topic to cause controversy in France.

Below is a breakdown of the basic grammar regarding nouns in French:

il = he

elle = she

elles = refers to several women

ils = refers to several men, or a mixed group

Take this as an example: “Jean is working in the library.” Or: “il travaille dans la bibliothèque.”

“Léa is also working in the library.” Or: “elle travaille dans la bibliothèque.”

Now, let’s say Jean and Léa decide to join forces and work together. In French, you’d have to describe this by saying: “Ils travaillent dans la bibliothèque.”

Why “Ils”? Well, that’s grammar. The masculine takes over the feminine. If you see a group of women, you may refer to them as “elles”, but it takes just one dude to join them for this to change into “ils”.

Same goes for adjectives and nouns. Jean is a teacher, the masculine form; “un instituteur” is in use.

Léa is also a teacher, the feminine form is in use; “une institutrice”.

But, if you refer to them together, the masculine is appropriate, followed by the plural ‘s’; “des instituteurs”.

“Now, how can a language be sexist? It’s no one fault that the masculine takes over the feminine, it’s just default!” This is what I’ve been telling myself ever since learning this grammar rule, which French children do at around eight years old. And as literature professor Viennot has been quoted as saying: “Telling children the masculine form wins over the feminine cannot contribute to shaping egalitarian minds.” Seems pretty plausible.

But recently, this normal part of our lives is being put into question. Why not just make the language less sexist?

This was the initiative suggested in a third-grade course book. In this new kind of writing, the correct way to refer to a group of teachers comprising of both men and women would be “des instituteur·rice·s”.

The first observation that can be made about this is about the robotic nature of the word, created by the use of the interpoint. And I also have no idea how it is meant to be pronounced!

Now, does this solve the sexism of the language? I would say it doesn’t because the masculine still comes first, so the idea of masculine as the norm is still conveyed.

Should we just go on and create a third, neutral pronoun for French, like in German? Well, that would be going way too far. Indeed, many people, including French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, think the new way of writing previously shown is an attack on the French language. Mr Philippe has indeed banned inclusive writing from all official texts, so it looks like it will not be integrated into normal French grammar for a while, if ever.

I’ve personally always cringed every time I’ve heard “the masculine takes over the feminine”, but there are plenty of other, more directly effective ways to make women’s lives better, like mending the wage gap, so maybe language will just have to wait.

1 Comment

  1. I speak both French and German fluently and found this very interesting. However, I’m a bit confused as to why you mentioned creating a third, neutral pronoun like in German. The neutral pronoun in German is used to refer to a lot of things/people (including ironically for “the girl” = “das Mädchen” whereas “the girls” = “die Mädchen”) but for plural forms, you use “die” and not “das”. So when you meant creating a third, neutral pronoun, I thought you meant in order to replace “ils/elles”, which is not what “das” is used for? Or were you referring to “es”? But I still don’t see how that would solve the French issue of ils/elles at all. Also, “sie” = elle, ils/elles, and “Sie” = vous (lorsqu’on vouvoie quelqu’un). In German, if you had a group of teachers with both women and men, you would still use “Lehrer(n)” and not “Lehrerinnen”, the latter would only be used if the group consisted exclusively of women. Did you mention the creation of a third pronoun as a way to be able to keep il/elle but to have a different form altogether for the plural? In that case, perhaps a better comparison is English, where he/she are used in singular, and “they” in plural. It was an interesting article to read 🙂

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