Masculin ou féminin? Le ou la? Ils ou elles? For native english speakers, the idea of gendered articles and nouns in language is quite literally a foreign concept. However, even the most inexperienced of learners has a basic understanding of the role gender plays in the French language.
So in a world that is increasingly moving away from traditional ideas of gender, how are languages like French adapting? Last year, newspapers including the Times and the Independent reported that the adoption of a new gender neutral style of the French language, écriture inclusive, was angering purists. Raphaël Enthoven, philosopher and morning host on Europe 1 radio suggested that the changes were an ‘attack on syntax by egalitarianism.’ Sir Michael Edwards of the Académie française labelled the idea simply as ‘gibberish’.
That there are a portion of pedants resistant to change probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. At almost 400 years old, the Académie française - France’s language council set up by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII - serves as a reminder to the rest of the world just how seriously the French take their language. However, there are a few problems with this purist approach to language.
For the uninitiated, in traditional french grammar constructions the masculine always takes precedent over the feminine. If referring to a room filled with twenty women and one man, only ils, the masculine form is correct, despite the overwhelming female majority. Similarly, referring to the group as friends would mean calling them amis, the masculine, not amies, the feminine. That the male dominates is one thing, but when you don’t identify as either male or female, subtle grammatical rules are just another way to remind you that you are outside of the ‘norm’.
However, écriture inclusive, which is being adopted by academics and politicians alike, aims to provide a more inclusive approach. The idea is twofold; first to steer the language away from the androcentric tradition, and then also to create gender-neutral alternatives. Using le pont suspendu the above example of amis would become ‘ami·e·s’. Using this, the idea is to create a language more comprehensive of the identities that the modern French-speaking world is made up of.
Why then, in a country built on liberté, égalité, fraternité, is there such opposition to the idea of a more inclusive language? The Académie française has its history in creating the rules for grammar and spelling that the purists hold so dear. However, in more recent years it has dedicated more of its time to avoiding anglicisms at all costs and contesting the use of feminine versions of male nouns. They fear écriture inclusive seeks to appease equal rights groups at the cost of the French language.
Communication evolves at an unnoticeable rate to us. There is no such thing as static when it comes to language, because it evolves to suit the demands we ask of it. Since the world is growing more accepting of identities outside of the traditional gender binary, it only makes sense that languages would adapt to suit this. According to the Le Haut Conseil à l’Égalité, who have overwhelmingly supported écriture inclusive, ‘language reflects society and its way of thinking about the world.’
Put quite simply, whether these attempts to include non-binary people are accepted or cast off as ‘gibberish’ by purists, they are still going to exist. Écriture inclusive is far more concerned with accommodating them than it is with consciously trying to ‘ruin’ the French language. With a motto that is literally á l’immortalité (to immortality), perhaps some of the Académie française and the purists that follow should consider what it is to be a successful, immortal language. Does success come from rigidity, an unwillingness to even try and accommodate those different from the ‘norm’? Or does it come from growth and adaptability?