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What is 'inclusive writing' and what does it mean for French noun rules?

James Harrington
James Harrington - [email protected]
What is 'inclusive writing' and what does it mean for French noun rules?
Pupils listen to their teacher wearing a protective mask at Turgot elementary school, in Lille, northern France, on September 1, 2020, on the first day of the school year amid the Covid-19 epidemic. - French pupils go back to school on September 1 as schools across Europe open their doors to greet returning pupils this month, nearly six months after the coronavirus outbreak forced them to close and despite rising infection rates across the continent. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP)

It's frequently the target of attacks, usually from those on the political right, but what is inclusive writing and exactly how does it work with French grammar rules?

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What is inclusive writing?

As we know, every object in France has a gender and unlike languages such as German which have a neutral option, in French it must be either masculine or feminine.

This isn't a problem when referring to la table, but does have an effect on things like job titles, or members of certain groups.

Revealed: The simple trick to get the gender of French nouns (mostly) right

So making French gender inclusive is a little more complicated than in English where one can - for example - substitute the word fireman for firefighter, which covers both male and female employees of the fire service.

Feminine forms for traditionally masculine roles are now commonplace in French. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo uses the feminine la présidente rather than the traditional Mme le président, for example, on her Twitter bio (that's referring to her presidency of the AIMF mayors group).

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And government documents deliberately use both masculine and feminine - referring, for example, to le candidat ou la candidate, and recognise feminine forms for professions - la ministre, la secrétaire générale or la directrice.

As well as creating feminine versions of all professional nouns, feminists and egalitarians have recommend a grammatical tool that consists of adding a “median-point” at the end of masculine nouns, followed by the feminine ending, to indicate both gendered versions.

This is known as écriture inclusive (inclusive writing).

Here are some examples:

  • musicien·ne·s - which refers to a male musician (musicien), a female musician (musicienne) and the masculine and feminine plural (musiciens, musiciennes)
  • citoyen·ne·s - a male citizen (citoyen) a female citizen (citoyenne) or the masculine and feminine plural (citoyens, citoyennes)
  • acteur·rice·s - a male actor (acteur), an actress (actrice) or masculine and feminine plural (acteurs, actrices

So this is widely used?

It's becoming more widespread, but the two places that you will most likely see it are in government publications and the tweets of people on the political left, usually the younger ones.

And if you have kids in French schools, don't expect them to be learning it - the teaching of inclusive writing was banned by the former Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer in 2021.

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"In the context of education, compliance with grammatical and syntactic rules is essential," Blanquer wrote in the circular published in the Bulletin officiel de l'éducation nationale

“Recourse to so-called 'inclusive' writing should be prohibited … which notably uses the median-point to simultaneously reveal the feminine and masculine forms of a word used in the masculine when it is used in a generic sense."

He's OK with admitting that women do certain jobs though, adding: “The choice of examples or statements in a teaching situation must respect equality between girls and boys, both through the feminisation of terms and through the fight against stereotypical representations." 

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Is this a new problem?

The row over sexism in French has raged for decades. It can trace its roots back more than a century to World War I, when women filled traditionally masculine working roles while the men were in the trenches.

They changed the language. Nouns referring to men-only professions quickly developed feminine versions. At least until the men came back from the front.

The issue was studiously ignored at government level until 1984, when the first of numerous studies to make French gender neutral and more inclusive began. But any proposals put forward were rejected out of hand.

Playing catch-up

French-speakers in neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland dealt with this ages ago, while the official language body in French-speaking Canada urged language feminisation wherever possible in 1979. 

France is finally beginning to catch up with other Francophone nations. 

Today, feminine versions of the professions (surgeon - chirurgien or chirurgienne, solicitor - avocat or avocate, editor - rédacteur or rédactrice) are commonplace.

And it's completely standard for politicians such as Emmanuel Macron to address françaises et français or, as below, female Europeans and male Europeans - although Charles de Gaulle also did this, so it's not exactly a new development.

 

 

But it wasn't until March 2019 that hoary old French language bastion the Académie Française waved the white flag allowing more feminine words for professions.

Until then, the official language of French life had been resolutely male, with most jobs titles automatically masculine (even if many people ignored the Academie's views on this subject).

What about gender neutral terms?

For some, just adding feminine terms misses the point, but gender neutral pronouns in France are a very recent development.

Only in 2021 was the most common gender-neutral pronoun - iel - added to the dictionary.

The word iel - pronounced eee-ell - means him or her and is used in the same was as 'they' in English - either for when you don't know the gender of the person you are talking about, or if the person prefers to go by a gender-neutral pronoun.

The French language has an additional problem for this, which is that adjectives must agree - so either il est gentil (he is kind) or elle est gentille (she is kind).

When using iel, the dictionary Le Petit Robert suggests either using inclusive writing;

iel est gentil·le - they are kind  

Or picking adjectives that do not change according to the gender ie iel est aimable - they are likeable - or the slightly more slangy iel est sympa - they're nice.

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Comments (4)

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Anonymous 2021/05/12 02:53
This is patently ridiculous. It will NOT stop w/comédien vs comédienne. For example, here in the USA, the people acquiesced early, and now we have replaced breastfeeding with w/'chestfeeding', your mom is now the 'delivery person,' and tampons are offered in the boys' bathrooms and lockers. Not to mention over 64 (sixty-four) sex classifications have been identified such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual, (LGBTQIA) + 56 others. Of course, they will ALL need their own pronouns and articles. Oh, The Republic is about 30% of 275M French-speakers worldwide. Good luck convincing the other 70%. Mon avis? Arrête les conneries, personne ne s'en soucie!
Anonymous 2021/05/11 08:22
Surely large parts of French society will continue to simply ignore Blanquer's edict, which seems to only concern the how to teach schoolchildren. I am a graduate student at Sorbonne University, and see this kind of gender-inclusive writing a lot. It definitely slowed me down as a reader, as I had not seen it before. I suspect that in 10 years, it will be more mainstream to use gender-inclusive nouns and we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.
Anonymous 2021/05/11 07:59
Perhaps people like Blanquer should realise that language is a living entity and is always changing but people people with a blinkered attitude like his are not helping a country but are holding it back.
Anonymous 2021/05/10 20:50
Surely you mean "substitute the word 'firefighter' for 'fireman'". It's nothing to do with sexism, or being old-fashioned: using "they" for "he" or "she" is just obscurantist virtue-signalling. Fortunately the French are too sensible for the time being.

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