Furious backlash slams gender-neutral French

He said she said: There are at least 39 languages which use masculine and feminine grammar.

Should all languages be made gender neutral? The French prime minister has cracked down on new non-gendered grammar. But some say revolutionising the language will lead to greater equality.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” In France, a row has erupted over just what limits language is placing on society.

In French, nouns and adjectives have one of two genders. For example, the word for mouse is feminine: la souris, whereas the word for cat is masculine: le chat.

But problems arise when referring to mixed-gendered groups. Traditionally the masculine noun is used — even when there are more women in the group. So a class of students made up of nine women and one man would still take the masculine form étudiants.

For academic Eliane Viennot, this bias makes society more sexist: “Telling children the masculine form wins over the feminine cannot contribute to shaping egalitarian minds.” Her answer: “inclusive writing”.

Inclusive writing uses punctuation marks called “middots” to give words both female and male suffixes. Under the system the same group of students would be called étudiant·e·s. Adjectives are also made gender neutral. So if the students were particularly hard working, they would be described as studieux·euse·s (rather than simply studieux).

For traditionalists, this is just too much to bear. The Académie française stated that inclusive writing is a “mortal danger” to the French language. Philosopher Raphaël Enthoven compared it to “the Mona Lisa being slashed with a knife”.

This week France’s prime minister intervened, declaring that inclusive writing would be banned in official texts “for reasons of intelligibility and clarity”.

Gendered grammar is a feature of languages from all around the world, from Italian and Portuguese, to Punjabi and Hebrew.

And the influence of language structures has long fascinated philosophers. Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf famously argued: “Language shapes the way we think.” This has been backed up by a recent study which found that countries which use masculine and feminine words tend to have “less gender equality”.

But should all languages be made gender neutral?

Sticks and stones…

This is ridiculous, some say. Suddenly altering how we write and speak will not change the ideas that lie behind sentences. Let words evolve slowly — as gender equality strengthens throughout society, language will naturally keep up. Abrupt changes will only cause confusion, anger, and resentment.

Small words can have big consequences, other reply. And changing the way we talk is the most effective and universal way of transforming how we think. Gender inequality will never truly be addressed whilst the very words we use to express ourselves encourage prejudice. We need urgent reform, no matter how great the short-term inconvenience.

You Decide

  1. Should we all use gender neutral language?
  2. Are words more harmful than actions?

Activities

  1. See if you can go through the rest of the day without using gendered pronouns. That means that you cannot use words like “he, she, his, and her”. Do you think that it would be practical to do this for a longer period of time?
  2. Non-gendered pronouns have been much discussed recently. Do some research and find out what new words have been suggested. What do you think of them? If you could invent a new pronoun what would it be?

Some People Say...

“A different language is a different vision of life.”

Federico Fellini

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In 2015, the French High Council for Equality Between Women and Men encouraged organisations to avoid gender stereotypes by using feminine words when describing people’s jobs. For example, terms like “fireman” would have been discouraged. The prime minister’s recent ban on “inclusive writing” applies only to government ministries.
What do we not know?
We do not know the extent to which inclusive writing will be taken up by other sections of society. We also cannot say whether gendered grammar directly increases gender inequality in societies.

Word Watch

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Austrian-British philosopher who mostly worked on logic and the philosophy of language. In his book Philosophical Investigations he argued that the meanings of words are understood within structures known as “language games”.
Adjectives
In French, adjectives themselves do not have a rigid gender, but rather agree with the gender of the noun they describe.
Egalitarian
The principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights.
Académie française
Established in 1635, it is the authority on matters relating to the French language. It is responsible for publishing the official French dictionary.
Study
Research lead by Jennifer L. Prewitt-Freilino, published in the paper: The Gendering of Language: A Comparison of Gender Equality in Countries with Gendered, Natural Gender, and Genderless Languages.

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