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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

French language finally about to embrace its feminine side

The official guardians of the French language may be about to end centuries of male linguistic dominance by allowing more feminine words for professions.

French language finally about to embrace its feminine side
The Academie Francaise in Paris. Photo: AFP
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.
 
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French language police give up battle against feminine job titles

Photo: AFP 

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”.
 
'Implicitly sexist'
 
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.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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