French women doctors could soon be referred to as “docteures”, and teachers as “professeures” if the notoriously conservative Academie Francaise, which
polices the language, raises the white flag next week.
Despite more than half a century of feminism, the language of French working life remains resolutely male.
Most jobs titles are automatically masculine, apart from a few notable exceptions such as nurse and child-minder.
The male-dominated Academie has fiercely resisted change, branding attempts at “inclusive writing” in government documents as an “aberration” that would put French “in mortal danger”.
And they have a powerful ally in Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a sometime novelist who has called for a clampdown on bids to make French more female-friendly.
He insisted last year that the “masculine (form) is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women.”
But there are signs that the resistance of the male-dominated Academie, whose mostly elderly members wear an ornate uniform and sword, may be crumbling.
'The dominant gender'
The “Immortals”, as they are known, were presented with a report Thursday on the vexed issue written by three of their four active female members.
One, novelist Dominique Bona, has already complained that it was no accident that the masculine was “chosen as the dominant gender” in French.
The academy's sole Englishman, poet Michael Edwards, also had a hand in their recommendations, which for now remain tightly under wraps.
Despite women being outnumbered nearly eight to one if the proposed reforms are put to a vote next week, insiders hinted that concessions are likely.
Writer and academy member Frederic Vitoux, who heads the Commission for the Enrichment of the French Language, said he believes it is no longer “against feminising names on principle”.
“For some professions it is simple,” he said. “We have never had to asked ourselves should we be able to say 'actress'. But for others professions there are objective difficulties, because they cause confusion or don't work with the root of the word.
“How, for example, can we say a female doctor (medecin in French) without confusing it with 'medecine' (the science of medicine)?” Vitoux asked.
However, French speakers in neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland have long ago found ways around the problems.
The official language body in French-speaking Canada ruled on the issue in 1979, urging feminisation wherever possible. A female doctor there can be called “une medecin” or a “docteure”.
The possible end of the long taboo in France comes as attempts to bring gender-neutral “inclusive writing” to official documents has sparked an impassioned debate there.
As it stands, a mixed-gender group of readers, for example, will always be masculine as long as there is one man in the room.
Campaigners for “inclusive writing” — who believe the language is implicity sexist — say in these situations the French word for readers, “lecteurs”, should be written as “lecteur.rice.s”.
But inserting full stops into words has horrified the purists and been sent up by others as complicated and confusing.
In 2015, France's High Council for Equality Between Women and Men issued a guide urging public bodies to avoid sexual stereotypes and use feminine forms for jobs like “firefighter” and “author” where applicable.
Some critics such as philosopher Raphael Enthoven object to what they see as France's prescriptive approach to the language, which is spoken by some 275
million people worldwide.
They say language usage should be allowed to evolve naturally over time.
As well as pronoucing on what is and is not permissible French, the Academie Francaise compiles the country's official dictionary.
However, its ability to perform the task has been called into question, with critics pointing out that its membership of 35 does not include a single linguist.