OPINION: ‘The French language isn’t sexist, it’s the people who speak it’

OPINION: 'The French language isn't sexist, it's the people who speak it'
Photo: AFP
A row over whether the French language is too macho has been raging in France in recent weeks. The Local France spoke to a professor leading the charge to make French more female-friendly about how and why things need to change.
Last week, 314 schoolteachers signed an op-ed on the French edition of the Slate news website pledging to scrap a grammar rule that sees masculine adjectives take precedence over female ones.
Since then a petition backing their manifesto on change.org has garnered nearly 8,600 signatures (at the time of writing). 
All this follows moves to embrace both genders by increasing the use of inclusive writing formulations  such as “lecteur.rice.s” (readers) and citoyen.ne.s (citizens). – See pic below for examples. 
Eliane Viennot is a historian and professor of Renaissance French literature at Université Jean Monnet in Saint Etienne and the woman behind the petition on change.org.
She has been spotlighting the issue of machismo in the French language for several decades including in her two books: “No, the masculine does not take precedence over the feminine!” and “The Academy against the French Language: The Feminist Dossier”. 
Here's what she had to say on the issue. 
The Local: Is the French language simply too macho?
Viennot: “It's not the French language that I think is macho but the people that speak it.
“What we're trying to do is return French to its less macho past. It was only in the 17th century that the grammar rule that the masculine takes precedence over the feminine came into effect and at the time, made it clear that the decision was about the superiority of men over women.
“Today, every child hears that repeated over and over at school.”

The French language is in 'mortal danger', say its own panicked guardiansPhoto: AFP

What would you change?
“As an example, at the moment we say “Les arbres et les fleurs sont beaux” (or “The trees and flowers are beautiful”) which uses the masculine form of the adjective even though only the word “arbres” is masculine while “fleurs” is feminine. 
“We're proposing two other options. Either we could use a rule of proximity, meaning that because the word flowers is next to the adjective the feminine would be used.
“Or in a situation where there is more of one thing than the other we could use the rule of majority.” 
Is this issue that important considering the other issues women face today?
“There are always people around to tell women that the issue that they are focusing on isn't the right one. 
“This issue is linked to the wider debate you see going on which includes the anger over sexual violence and aggression.
Eliane Viennot. Photo: Nattes a Chat/ Wikicommons
“We live in a society that talks about equality between the sexes but doesn't face the fact that there is inequality everywhere.” 
What is the ultimate goal of your petition?
“The petition isn't actually asking for anything.
“It's about supporting teachers who are saying that they are no longer going to be teaching that the “masculine takes precedence over the feminine” which is a phrase every child learns in French grammar lessons. 
“This is the total opposite of what we should be teaching children and ultimately we want to stop it being taught in every school in the country.”
But isn't this change denying part of the country's linguistic history?
“We are saying the opposite. We want to restore its history. 
“We want the language to function normally without this dogma attached to it.” 
But isn't the alternative just too complicated for language learners?
“I'd say it's a lot more simple because it's natural. It won't change children's lives. 
“It's just asking them to think logically about what they're saying.” 
Do you think your goal is achievable?
“It's going to take a long time. We're hoping for at least some tolerance as we start changing how things are done.”
Will society change as a result? 
“Language isn't magical so I can't say that it will give women equality but it's linked to and can accompany bigger changes in society. 
“The debate that we're having now can push the argument forward and the fact that we're talking about it shows that things are advancing.
“It's shocking that every child in France learns the phrase “masculine takes precedence over the feminine”. Language carries values. 
“The Academie Francaise presents itself as an authority on the language but it absolutely is not.” 
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Photo: AFP/Pixabay