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Saying “Oui” to a Gender-Inclusive Language?

Does language influence our perceptions of others?

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A collection of French children’s books featuring gender-based pronouns.

A collection of French children’s books featuring gender-based pronouns.

Photo by Alison Mckeough

Photo by Alison Mckeough

A collection of French children’s books featuring gender-based pronouns.

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In the French-speaking community, there is a very divisive question being debated right now: does language affect the way we perceive gender? And, if it does, should the language be changed in order to combat gender stereotyping or prejudice based on gender? Proponents of linguistic determinism have attempted to answer these questions by arguing the view that the language we use affects the way we perceive things, such as gender.

Now, in a gendered language, like French, or any other Romance language, using inclusive language would prove extremely difficult. Some people even go as far as to say that it is impossible not to assign gender in the language or that using gender-inclusive writing is too confusing, especially for children who are just beginning to learn the basics of written and spoken language and grammar. In French, pronouns, nouns, and adjectives all receive a gender according to the object in question. This means that the words one uses change according to the gender of the person or object (yes, in French, even nonliving things have a gender) being spoken about. For example, a door is feminine, a pen is masculine, a female  singer would be called a “chanteuse,” and a male singer a “chanteur.” To any native French speaker, this would be completely normal and they would instantly know the gender of what or who you are referring to by one word alone. This differs from English in that the English language is more gender-neutral, if someone referred to their “friend,” that friend could be a boy or a girl and no one would know unless the speaker explicitly mentioned their gender. In French, one would immediately know whether that friend was a boy or girl without it having to be explicitly explained.

This question has proved extremely difficult to answer. When the French publishing company, Hatier, published the first gender-inclusive textbook for children in September, they received much feedback- both positive and negative. The opponents of this textbook argue that it is impossible to completely eradicate the gendering of words in a language whose grammatical system relies on such an action. Other opponents support the idea of inclusive language but argue that the textbook was made for the wrong audience; this writing system, they say, is too confusing for children so young and should perhaps be introduced in an academic course further down the line, in high school or college.

The proponents of this writing system are mostly feminists, who believe that the standard form of written French leads to a thought process of women being inferior to men. This makes sense in that masculine adjectives, nouns, or pronouns always trump their feminine versions. The grammar rule teaches that in a room full of twenty girls and one boy, the group must be referred to in the masculine form, the same as if the whole group were made up of only men. This disproportionality, they argue, may be one of the factors that lead to discrimination against women in the workplace or, in general, in life. These supporters of inclusive language argue a belief similar to linguistic determinists, that making French a bit more gender-neutral could better the position of women in society and create a more equal playing field, so to say, for all. So, how would one go about incorporating gender-inclusivity into the language?

The most agreed-upon answer to this question seems to be a system of writing which places a median-period at the end of masculine nouns, before adding the feminine ending. For example, using our previous example, singer would be written “chanteur•euse.” This style of writing does not specify of which gender the singer is but instead includes the forms of both ways to write the word, thus, it is called inclusive language.

This debate over whether or not the language should change is not likely to be answered soon, as it has been being debated since the 1940s, when linguistic determinism first became a popular topic. In addition, the prime minister of France, Edouard Philippe announced on November 20th that inclusive language would be banned from use in all official texts, advising any writer wishing to publish in the official Newspaper of the French Republic to not use this writing style. Right now, the rejection of inclusive writing has become enormous in France. Supporters of the system would have to overcome many obstacles including the entire grammatical foundation of the language, as well as the massive amount of criticism they have been receiving. This being said, it is entirely possible that the goal of these supporters someday come to fruition.

When asked about her opinion on the topic, French teacher, Mme. Simeone claims that, “everybody has their own point of view. [Inclusive writing] could complicate the task (of learning French), but for other people, not. For the most part, I agree with the Academie Française.” She also adds that “the role of women in our society has changed” and that “if somebody would like to use inclusive writing, that would be fine with me.” Here, it is important to consider the complications of learning, comprehending, and teaching inclusive writing. Mme. Simeone seems to be of the popular view that inclusive writing is a complication that could in the end be beneficial but is not necessarily imperative to practise regularly.

As a French student myself, I realize that this transition, if it were to officially take place, from the current standard writing style to an inclusive one, would prove extremely complicated. With an entirely new system of grammar, proponents of inclusive writing have many obstacles to overcome if they would like this writing style to be utilized as a standard mode of communication.

You may be asking yourself now, “why is this important to me, an English-speaker?” Well, I asked myself the same thing. Here’s what I found to be interesting: usually when speaking in general, we English-speakers refer to a third-person individual as “he” and sometimes even “they.” For example, if referring to a person in general, such as in laws, we would probably say something like “each citizen has a moral obligation to serve his country.” Here, we generalize this person, who could be a male or a female, as being a male with the use of the pronoun, “his.” Nowadays, many citizens are pushing for policy to use an English version of this writing style, requesting the words “his or her” to be used in a situation such as this one. This request is not even as “new” as some may think, being seen in American history as early as 1848 in the Declaration of Sentiments written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and signed at the Seneca Falls Convention. As you can see, this writing style is being discussed in many parts of the world, and has been for a while now.

This debate brings forth the problem of a possible innate nature of prejudice and how it can stem from even a language which has been spoken for thousands of years. One must ask themselves how he or she fits into this situation. Do we each need to reevaluate the way in which we speak and write to be more inclusive? Or, is language too established to overcome? Would it ever really be possible to modify such an established institution?

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Saying “Oui” to a Gender-Inclusive Language?