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Why writing French is becoming (even) more complicated - in the name of equality

The Local France
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Why writing French is becoming (even) more complicated - in the name of equality
Photo: Depositphotos

Gender-inclusive words are becoming increasingly common in France, and while this might be a pain for language learners, it could be a sign that the French are starting to put the 'égalité' back into 'Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité'.


The row over sexism in the French language has been raging for decades but as the feminised versions of the professions (surgeon - chirurgienne, solicitor - avocate) are increasingly accepted, it seems attitudes towards so-called 'inclusive writing' could be changing too.

French grammar rules officially state that masculine forms are used when describing a group that has at least one man, which means a group of 99 women and one man would be referred to as "heureux" - happy (in the masculine form).

However activists argue that this represents the inherent sexism in the French language and are pushing for more 'inclusive writing', which would see the group in the example above referred to as "heureux.euse.s". 

Increasingly this version of French is being used by French media, and even on official documents. 


French language finally about to embrace its feminine side Photo: AFP

Those in favour of 'inclusive writing' argue that it can be used to highlight sexist and non-inclusive attitudes. 

"I'm not sure if 'inclusive writing' will change attitudes in France," said Sophie Bailly, Professor of Language Sciences at Université de Lorraine, told The Local.

"But it contributes to the conversation around inclusion.

"In France there are people who do not understand the debate and don't think it is worth having - but there are others who understand what's at stake when it comes to feminism. 

"It's certainly a debate that divides the French - some people are sympathetic to it and others aren't," she added.   

The argument put forward by campaigners that in these situations the French word for readers, "lecteurs", should be written as "lecteur.rice.s" has been met with a horrified reaction from language purists, among them the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe
They argue that 'inclusive writing' is complicated and confusing and the Academie Francaise, the guardians of the French language has branded attempts at "inclusive writing" in government documents as an "aberration" that would put French "in mortal danger". 

Nevertheless, back in March, the male-dominated institution, considered the guardian of the French language, waved the white flag allowing more feminine words for professions.

The result of this is that French women doctors can be referred to as docteures, and teachers as professeures although there is still a way to go before this is common practice.

Up until this change, the official language of French working life had been resolutely male, with most jobs titles automatically masculine, apart from a few notable exceptions such as nurse and child-minder.

French language police give up battle against feminine job titlesPhoto: AFP

"There is a lack of visibility of women in the professions," said Bailly, adding that despite this things do seem to be moving in the right direction.

"During the Women's World Cup France's Le Monde [France's newspaper of record] used the term la defenseuse (defender) in articles about the matches.

It is also possible to argue that with the normalisation of the feminine words for jobs, as well as cases of French media organisations using 'inclusive writing', the French language is already in the process of changing. 

"The force of normalising this use of 'inclusive writing' should be taken into account," said Bailly. "Perhaps the normalisation of it in the media will mean that a sense of urgency is felt in other professions."

Of course, French is spoken in other countries, many of which have come up with their own ways of addressing the gender imbalance in the language.

French speakers in neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland found ways around the problems long ago.
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".

(Inclusive) French words to know

Citizen(s) -
Consumer(s) - consommateur.rice.s
Farmer(s) - agriculteur.rice.s
Actor(s) - acteur.rice.s
Engineer(s) - ingénieur.e.s
Director(s) - directeur.rice.s

Sophie Bailly, Professor of Language Sciences at the University of Lorraine, speaks more about the themes and topics discussed here in The Conversation: How Language Defines Us as Women on the BBC World Service. You can listen to the programme here.


Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2019/07/10 18:06
An inclusive form of fraternité?

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