The struggle to feminize the French language enters a new round

The ongoing struggle to make the French language friendlier to women – or at least to take better account of their existence in French society.

Lost some ground this week when the French Ministry of Education rebelled against some form of gender inclusive writing as an existential threat to Molière’s language. But advocates of more inclusive French also made significant gains.

To warn that the well-being of France and its future are at stake, the government banned the use in schools of a method increasingly used by some French speakers to make the language more inclusive by feminizing a few words.

In particular, the Minister of Education’s decree focuses on what is perhaps the most controversial and politicized letter in the French language – “e.” Simply put, “e” is the feminine letter of the language, used in feminine nouns and their adjectives and sometimes in conjugating verbs.

But women’s rights advocates are also increasingly adding an “e” to words that that letter wouldn’t normally contain, in a conscious – and divisive – effort to make women more visible.

For example, take the common French word for leaders – “dirigeants.” To some, that masculine spelling suggests that they are generally men and makes women leaders invisible, because there is no feminine “e” missing at the end. For advocates of inclusive writing, a more gender equality spelling is ‘conductor es’, where the extra ‘e’ is inserted, preceded by a middle dot, to make it clear that leaders can be of either gender.

Likewise, they could write “les élu · es” – instead of the general masculine “élus” – for the holders of an elected office, again to emphasize that women are also elected. Or they can use “les idiotes” instead. from the usual generic male “les idiots”, to recognize that stupidity is not the exclusive domain of men.

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Éliane Viennot, a historian and professor of literature at Jean-Monnet University in Saint-Étienne, told Jowharin February that similar contractions have long been common in French paperwork, especially ID cards, which use the form “Né (e)” – before born – to enter a person’s date of birth.

“Critics are obsessed with an acronym – the median point – that feminists didn’t even invent,” she argued. “The feminist contribution is to have looked for a more suitable sign, as the use of parentheses is less important.”

Viennot said median points, also called “middots”, provide a suitable alternative to parentheses: they are derived from Ancient Greek and have no particular connotation in French.

Supporters and opponents sometimes split political lines. France’s conservative Republican party uses ‘élus’, the left-wing France Unbowed tends to ‘élues’.

“It’s a struggle to make women visible in the language,” said Laurence Rossignol, a socialist senator who is the feminizing extra “e.”

In a telephone interview, she said her opponents are “the same activists who opposed same-sex marriage, assisted reproduction and longer abortion periods … It is the new flag under which reactionaries are rallying.”

But to the government of centrist President Emmanuel Macron, the use of “e” poses a threat to the fabric of France. Speaking in a Senate debate on this issue on Thursday, a deputy education minister said that inclusive writing “poses a threat to our country.” and will “ring the death knell for the use of French in the world”.

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By challenging the traditional norms of French, inclusive writing makes the language more difficult to learn, punishing students with learning difficulties, Minister Nathalie Elimas argued.

“It disrupts words, divides them in two,” she said. “With the spread of inclusive writing, the English language – already quasi-hegemonic around the world – would certainly, and perhaps forever, defeat the French language.”

There are also arguments about gender-inclusive language use elsewhere in Europe.

A fault line among German speakers was how nouns can reflect both genders. For example, the German word for athletes can be written as ‘Sportler (asterisk) innen’ to indicate that it includes both men and women, as opposed to the more common, generic masculine ‘Sportler’. To critics, the addition of the feminine ‘innen’ at the end – sometimes using an asterisk, capital letter, or underscore – is downright ugly.

Italy has sporadically debated neutralizing gender-specific titles for government officials, or making them feminine while normally remaining masculine, such as ‘ministra’ rather than ‘ministro’ for female cabinet members. The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, would rather be called “sindaca” than “sindaco”.

Inclusive language has also been a long struggle for feminists and, more recently, from LGTBQ + groups in Spain, although there is no consensus on how to move forward. Politics also plays a role there. Members of the far-right Vox party have insisted on sticking to the traditional ‘presidente’ when referring to Spain’s four vice prime ministers, all women, rather than opting for the more progressive ‘presidenta’, even though the Royal Academy of the Spanish language has accepted the use of that feminine noun.

However, the French Ministry of Education circular banning the ‘e’ formula from schools accepted other more inclusive language changes that emphasize women.

They systematically include feminising job titles for women – such as “president” instead of “president” or “ambassador” instead of “ambassador” for female ambassadors. It also encouraged the simultaneous use of both masculine and feminine forms to emphasize that roles are fulfilled by both genders. So, for example, a vacancy in a school should say it goes to “le candidat ou la candidate” – male or female – who is best qualified to fill it.

Until recently, many job titles in France didn’t even have a feminine form, at least not for the Académie française, the predominantly male language watchdog, who just two years ago abandoned her insistence on calling female presidents “Madame le président”.

Raphael Haddad, the author of a French-language guide to inclusive writing, said part of the Ministry of Education’s new circular reflects progress for the cause of women in French.

“It’s a huge step forward disguised as a ban,” he said. “What happens with the French language is the same as in the United States, with ‘chairman’ replaced by ‘chairman’, (and) ‘fireman’ by ‘fireman’. ‘

( Jowhar with AP)

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