The French Prime Minister has spoken. No more “Cher·e·s ami·e·s” and “Cher·e·s électeur·rice·s”. His reasons? It would make the national language even harder to learn. Thus further diminishing the chances of French taking over from English as the official EU language after Brexit. And worse: Gender-neutral words could actually endanger the French language.
After a vote last month, the Académie Française issued a unanimous “non” to the new style, deeming it far too complicated and confusing. “Faced with the aberration of ‘inclusive writing’, the French language finds itself in mortal danger”, its statement read. “We find it hard to identify the desired objective and how to overcome the practical obstacles of writing and reading – both visually and out loud – and pronunciation. This will increase the burden for teachers and even more so for readers.”
It is a commonly held belief that language is not only a reflection of attitudes, but also shapes it. And that if one wants to do away with misogyny and gender bias, language is a natural and essential starting point for tackling the problem. In French, perhaps more than in other languages, male dominance is undeniable. To most of us it sounds odd, for example, to address a female member of the government as “Madame le ministre”, or “Madame le sénateur” – no?
Prof. Eliane Viennot, author of the book “Non le masculine ne l’emporte pas sur le féminin” is a strong defender of the idea that language isn’t just a way of communicating, but that it expresses and shapes our view of society, and the universe. She and other feminist thinkers believe that developing gender-inclusive writing is a must if we want to bring about change, and that the dominance of the masculine in French has an effect on how women perceive themselves. They cite examples of how as a teacher of a class with 65 students, 64 of whom were women, the rule of grammar dictates that because there is one male you have to address the group using the masculine form. Now, how does that make the girls feel? Why would you say “les filles et les garcons sont petits” (rather than “petites”)? Well, because the masculine always wins.
So, for a while at least, the femininization of French made some headway, embracing female forms. As an example, take the word “chef”. The French came up with “la chef”, “chèfe”, “chève”, “cheffesse” et “cheftaine”, and the Academy gave its blessing (while ruling out the often encountered “cheffe”). Other novelties included using alphabetical order when female and male protagonists were involved: “Les femmes et les hommes”, and “elles et ils”, etc. (Not sure how that affects the adjective though …). And, famously, they started using the “point milieu” (or “point médian”) to allow for the different genders, as in “Cher·e·s ami·e·s”, or „Les femmes et les hommes sont divisé·e·s. These peculiar dots, at half-height, were changing the typographical landscape of the French language in a way that was anything but pleasing. All under the pretext that it would make society more inclusive, and women more prominent.
In fact the “point milieu” was problematic, since you cannot actually type it on a standard French Windows keyboard. Therefore, many people resorted to the regular fullstop, adding to the confusion. The forward slash (used in some German-speaking countries for gender-neutral writing) was dismissed: The French argued that this stands for “division” and was therefore not a good symbol of “égalité”. Other options such as the asterisk were also deemed unsuitable.
Many agree with the Prime Minister. They found the gender-neutral typographical solution an eye-sore. Concerns were raised also by associations of blind and visually impaired people, because of the proliferation of dots this is causing in Braille.
The sensational announcement on 29th November 2020 by Edouard Philippe banning the use of gender-neutral language in communications with the public and in schoolbooks in France has gone largely unnoticed in the German-speaking countries. With one notable exception: Germany’s Association for the German Language (Verein Deutsche Sprache). They wholeheartedly subscribe to his idea that ease of comprehension and clarity must have priority before ideology. They are urging Germany to follow the French example and stop what they see as ill-advised gender egality which is becoming quite absurd: There are cases of women taking banks to court because their forms are not gender-inclusive (Kunde, Kontoinhaber, Sparer … all being masculine).
What is interesting is that in Germany the debate about gender-inclusive language has gone on for decades, creating much uncertainty, anger and confusion, whereas in France it only cropped up a couple of years ago – and now has been wiped off the map with one big blow. A true proof of statesmanship that Napoleon would have been proud of.
We should perhaps remember that language evolution aims at simplification. By its very nature, language is meant to facilitate communication, not to make it harder. That – and not a deliberate attempt at subjugating women – was undoubtedly at the root of the so-called “generic masculinum”. So, the French approach should be seen as logical and sensible – and not misconstrued as discriminatory or backward-looking! If I understand it correctly, our French friends are now entitled to address their minister as “Madame la ministre”, and their boss as “Madame la directrice”, and they may choose to refer to Catherine Deneuve as an “actrice” and a journalist as a “reportrice” – but they may not, absolutely not, copy and paste any “points milieu” into their letters.
I fear however, that even this ban and the ensuing simplification of the French language is not going to change the course of linguistic history and the dominance of English in Europe.
You may recall President Macron saying last year: “The situation now is quite paradoxical. English has probably never been as present in Brussels as now, at the time when we are talking about Brexit.” One of his ministers, Clément Beaune, argued “It will be harder for people to understand, after Brexit, that we all stick to a type of broken English”. And a journalist in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 26 Jan. 2021 suggested, tongue-in-cheek: “Instead of broken English, Europe might just as well speak broken French.”
But sadly, and despite this valiant effort from the highest échelons in France, it has been decided: ENGLISH will remain the official language of the EU after Brexit.