The Push to Make French Gender-Neutral

Can changing the structure of a language improve women’s status in society?

Phovoir / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

“My homeland is the French language,” author Albert Camus once wrote—and many French people would agree. That’s why any attempt at changing the language is often met with suspicion. So the uproar was almost instantaneous when, this fall, the first-ever school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French was released.

It was a victory for a subset of French feminists who had argued that the gendered nature of the language promotes sexist outcomes, and that shifting to a gender-neutral version would improve women’s status in society. Educating the next generation in a gender-inclusive way, they claimed, would yield concrete positive changes, like professional environments that are more welcoming to women.

Many others found this idea outrageous. They complained that implementing it would badly complicate education, and that there’s not enough evidence that changing a language can really change social realities. Clearly in the second camp, the office of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced this week that it’s banning the use of gender-neutral French in all official government documents.

In French, pronouns, nouns, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object to which they refer. So, le policier is a policeman; la policière is a policewoman. The language has no neutral grammatical gender. And there are many nouns (including those referring to professions) that don’t have feminine versions. So, a male minister is le ministre and a female minister is la ministre. What’s more, French students are taught that “the masculine dominates over the feminine,” meaning that if you have a room full of ten women and just one man, you have to describe the whole group in the masculine.

Feminists who believe that these features of the French language put women at a disadvantage disagree about how best to remedy them. Most recommend creating feminine versions of all professional nouns and/or using neutral nouns whenever possible. Many also recommend a grammatical tool that consists of adding a “median-period” at the end of masculine nouns, followed by the feminine ending, thus indicating both gendered versions of every noun (like musicien·ne·s, which would read as “male musicians and female musicians”). Some have even recommended creating a gender-neutral pronoun (the equivalent of how “they” is sometimes used in English, or “hen” in Sweden). These and other recommendations have collectively become known as “inclusive writing.”

Many linguists I spoke to stressed that changing a language doesn’t guarantee a change in perception; this leads some of them to say that inclusive writing just isn’t worth the trouble. But at least one major school of linguistic thought concludes that language and perception are intimately related.

Proponents of linguistic determinism argue that your language determines and constrains what you’re capable of thinking. Linguistic determinism is the strong flavor of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—the idea that your language influences how you think. This hypothesis was popular in the 1940s, but it was deemed incorrect by the linguistic community in the 60s and 70s. “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey,” argued linguist Roman Jakobson. It’s not that speaking French makes it impossible for you to conceive of something as gender-neutral, he suggested, but that the language forces you to think often in gendered terms. Whereas in English you can say “I’m having dinner with my friend” without indicating whether the friend is male or female, in French you have to indicate—and therefore think about—the friend’s gender by using either a female or male noun. Today, some still believe in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it enjoyed some popular attention last year after being featured in the movie Arrival.

Some scientific research does seem to suggest that gendered languages like French lead to more sexist perceptions than gender-neutral ones like English. But those studies are limited in that they can’t control for outside factors like culture, which are extremely important in determining sexist attitudes.

In France, this debate traces its roots back to World War I, when men went to war and left women behind to fill traditionally male-dominated positions like chimney sweep or factory worker. The nouns referring to those professions, which previously only had masculine versions, developed feminine ones, to the great horror of French society at the time. But what was tolerable in wartime became unacceptable when men returned from the battlefield, and the question of how to make French gender-neutral was sidelined until the 1970s and ’80s. Efforts at the governmental level to study the possible feminization of French began in 1984 and continued throughout the end of the 20th century, but all proposals were rejected by the institutions that control the codification of the language.

When the French publishing house Hatier released an “inclusive” textbook for children in the third grade this September, it was based on the 2015 recommendations of the High Council for Gender Equality, which had outlined 10 ways to make the French language more gender-neutral. Major conservative publications published op-eds and editorials with headlines such as “Feminism: the delirium of inclusive writing” or “Inclusive writing: the new factory for idiot·e·s.” Many philosophers and scholars came out strongly against what they saw as feminist activism masquerading as linguistic science—and using children as guinea pigs. Emmanuelle de Riberolles, a literature professor in the Picardie region of France, argued that “children should not be dragged into struggles that do not concern them.” Even the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, came out against inclusive writing, explaining that “language is a bedrock of life that we owe to children” and that it “must not be instrumentalized, even for the best of causes.”

The French Academy, the highest council for matters pertaining to the French language, issued a strong statement, saying that the additional grammatical complications of inclusive writing would lead to “a disunited language, disparate in its expression, creating a confusion that borders on illegibility.” What’s more, “faced with this ‘inclusive’ aberration, the French language is now in mortal danger, a fact for which our nation is now accountable to future generations.” The statement also warned that inclusive writing would “destroy” the promises of the Francophonie (the linguistic zone encompassing all countries that use French at the administrative level, or whose first or majority language is French). The Francophonie is arguably one of France’s most successful postcolonial tools of global engagement, with 84 member states and governments that account for 274 million French speakers and represent one-third of the United Nations’ member states.

Proponents of inclusive writing were not convinced by the Academy’s argument. “It’s laughable,” said Eliane Viennot, a historian and professor of literature. “They [the members of the Academy] never cared about the promises of the Francophonie” and “contempt [for Francophone nations] is still very much rooted in their culture.” She pointed to a famous member of the Academy, Maurice Druon, who, in 2006, said he resented the “absurd feminizations” of French, such as those proposed in Quebec at the time under the influence of the “women’s leagues of the United States.”

In fact, “France stands out from other countries by its resistance to feminization,” according to Elizabeth Dawes, a professor of French studies at Laurentian University in Canada who studied inclusive writing. The boldest innovations in inclusive writing are being debated in francophone countries; Canada started tackling the question of feminizing professions as early as 1979, and Switzerland and Belgium followed suit in 1991 and 1994 respectively.

The supporters of inclusive writing say the strong institutional pushback in France is rooted in a misunderstanding of what language is meant to do; it should be a vector for social progress, they argue. “Language is … the space where we must inscribe societal transformations,” said Raphaël Haddad, a linguist and founder of the communications agency Mots-Clés. Responding to critics who complain about unduly politicizing language, Haddad argued that language is already inherently politicized—and he set out to prove it.

Haddad and his colleagues at Mots-Clés recently commissioned a study from Harris Media that sought to measure the French public’s awareness of inclusive writing and what they thought of it. An experiment asked respondents to spontaneously name famous French TV personalities. The question yielded a higher percentage of female names when it was phrased in a gender-inclusive way than it did when phrased in a gendered way. In either case, however, respondents overwhelmingly named men.

An earlier study, “Does language shape our economy? Female/male grammatical distinctions and gender economics,” suggested a link between gendered languages and labor-force participation rates for women. It found that having a gendered grammar system is associated with a lower female labor-force participation rate compared to countries without gendered languages. But this subject is still on the margins of cognitive science and linguistics research, and critics of inclusive writing say that not enough work has been done to prove conclusively that changing a language will improve gender equality.

Nevertheless, this May, Haddad and his firm released an online manual that codified inclusive writing for corporations and institutions. He believes that inclusive writing can successfully help businesses deal with gender inequality. (According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, France ranks 11th in the world in terms of overall gender equality, but 64th in the world in terms of women’s economic participation and opportunity. The Observatory of Inequalities, a private organization, estimates that French men continue to earn, on average, 22.8 percent more than women.) A recent initiative by the Minister of Labor, Muriel Pénicaud, seems to take Haddad’s perspective seriously; on October 10, her ministry released an official guide for businesses that presents inclusive writing as a way of tackling gender inequality in the workplace.

There are other signs that the campaign to normalize inclusive writing is working: In late 2016, Microsoft Word released the newest version of its platform, which now has an inclusive writing option in French. The company explained that this new feature “targets gendered language which may be perceived as excluding, dismissive, or stereotyping,” and encourages “using gender-inclusive language” when possible. In addition, the French keyboard is getting an “inclusive” makeover: The French Association of Normalization, which coordinates the standards-development process among French businesses, announced that it is designing a new keyboard that will include the median-period. The move will please not only the proponents of inclusive writing, but also the speakers of minority languages in France (like Catalan, Occitan, and Gascon), who have always used the median-period as a phonetic marker.

New keyboards and new school textbooks notwithstanding, it’s incredibly difficult to change a language, as all the linguists I spoke with emphasized. If France is serious about gender equality, there may be more efficient ways to get there than inclusive writing. And while cultural conservatism is definitely involved in the backlash, it’s not the only factor. “Mastery of a complex orthographic system is an important piece of cultural capital,” explained Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “and people everywhere object to any development that devalues it.”