UW News

March 17, 2022

New volume on gender-neutral language sheds light on political controversy in France

person holding nonbinary flag against a blue sky

A person holds the nonbinary flag over their head. A new volume co-edited by the UW’s Louisa Mackenzie describes how nonbinary French speakers are changing their language to reflect their identities.Shutterstock

As societies evolve to become more inclusive, languages are changing too. Words once in common use are being reconsidered as inaccurate or harmful, and more inclusive words are taking their places. People are using or creating pronouns that more closely match their gender. To describe nonbinary people, gender-neutral pronouns are being added to languages like Norwegian, Swedish and Mandarin.

In the United States, use of the singular “they” as a pronoun for nonbinary people was added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2019 with little contention, even becoming the dictionary’s Word of the Year for that year.

But when Le Robert, a respected dictionary in France, tried last November to add a gender-neutral pronoun — “iel,” a pronoun becoming widely adopted by the nonbinary community — it caused an uproar. Political figures, including a member of the French Parliament and the First Lady, came out strongly in opposition. French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer went so far as to say, “Inclusive writing is not the future of the French language.”

This controversy made the work of Louisa Mackenzie, associate professor of French at the University of Washington, especially relevant. Alongside Vinay Swamy of Vassar College, Mackenzie co-edited and contributed to a volume called Devenir Non-Binaire en Français Contemporain, or “Becoming Nonbinary in Contemporary French.” It was released in February by the academic press Éditions Le Manuscrit in Paris.

“Almost everything in the French language is gendered in ways we don’t have to think about in English,” Mackenzie said, pointing out there is no neutral gender for nouns and adjectives in French like there is in Latin, from which it derives.

In French, the default when the gender is unknown or when referring to a group of people of mixed genders is to use the masculine form of the word. “Strict grammarians will argue that the dominance of masculine forms has nothing to do with social reality. Sociolinguists tend to argue that there is a feedback loop between linguistic rules and social norms,” Mackenzie said. “It’s a very active and legitimate debate.”

The volume incorporates the voices of eight contributors, including Mackenzie and Swamy, from the United States, France and Canada. Along with academics, there are perspectives from a user experience researcher, two activists, an author who is a linguist and a cartoonist. Together, they describe “the many ways in which French speakers and learners have long been creatively navigating the constraints of their language in order to create new cultures and communities that reflect who they are.”

Mackenzie answered questions over email about why the French gender-neutral pronoun caused such a hubbub — and the role of tensions with the United States.

Is the French language more resistant to change than other languages?

LM: The answer depends on where the French language is being spoken! In France itself, I would argue that yes, there is a lot of resistance to change. Much of it comes from the authority of the French Academy, founded in the 17th century by the Cardinal Richelieu, which still exists today. It’s a government institution whose mission is literally to defend the French language — there’s no equivalent in most other countries. They have a very prescriptive attitude toward language, and their linguists often issue clarifications and proclamations about what they call “le bon usage” or “correct usage.”

One of their main preoccupations is to find acceptable equivalents to popular Anglicisms in French. They see English as one of the main threats to French. Certainly, the question of nonbinary French is seen by some as an unwelcome influence from Anglophone culture.

In other Francophone countries, such as Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, there seems to be more acceptance of change as a natural part of language evolution, and they are less fiercely resistant to the influence of Anglophone culture. In former French colonies or overseas territories, the language issue is so tied up with the violence of colonial history that it’s hard to compare. French may be an official language spoken in the government, but it replaced and/or coexists with indigenous languages in ways that make the question of change really complicated.

How does this controversy reflect the politics of France?

The previous answer is relevant here in that the French Academy is still partially funded by the government. Language in France is political and tied up with national identity in ways that can surprise outsiders.

The controversy about gender-neutral pronouns is bound up in the debate about “le wokisme,” which is a new French term — ironically, an Anglicism — implying that progressive movements are somehow not French, and that U.S. activism is fracturing French society from the outside. The French are quite attached to a concept called universalism, which holds that individual differences are not as important in political life as the collective cohesion of the state. For adherents of universalism, insisting on the rights of specific minority groups can be destabilizing to the body politic.

Dismissing gender-neutral pronouns as “le wokisme” is a way to delegitimize them by associating them with something that’s not French. Of course, nonbinary people exist and have always existed in France — they are not being planted there by a nefarious U.S. woke agenda — but it’s very hard for them to convince their government of that!

Tell me about the range of perspectives you’ve gathered in this volume.

Our authors discuss strategies for teaching inclusive French beyond the binary, the ways in which young genderqueer French people play with grammatical rules to express their sense of self, the relationship between feminism and trans rights, and the role of popular media and culture in normalizing non-normative genders. They also discuss the need to go beyond the reflexive dismissal of nonbinary identity as an “American import” by respecting the fact that French nonbinary people exist on their own terms and the idea that the French language might be less binary than it might seem at first.

Our volume is more interested in describing these changes as they are happening, rather than issuing a set of prescriptions for what we think should happen. Nonbinary French speakers are changing their language to reflect their identity, and we have been lucky to be able to observe and to shine a bit of light on what they are doing.

What is the way forward to make the French language more gender-inclusive?

I think we’re witnessing it in real time, which is really exciting. There are more and more media outlets and publishers using so-called “inclusive writing.” This is a set of strategies that allow you to keep from defaulting to the masculine forms of words, for example by bringing in the feminine form, too; by combining forms with a punctuation mark called the interpunct, or middot; or by using an epicene word (one that does not change form and/or does not change gender).

These strategies are still binary, of course. We are also seeing French nonbinary people finding creative ways to avoid binary gender entirely by coming up with new forms and systems. In time, some of these forms and systems will acquire legitimacy, in the same way that “they/them” is becoming normalized in English. It’s language change in action.

When language changes to reflect social reality, there is always resistance, but in hindsight it can be hard to imagine what the fuss was about. Some of us remember the fierce resistance to neutral terms such as “flight attendant” or “mail carrier,” terms which are completely normal now and used even by the most gender-conservative speakers! I think we’ll get there with “they/them” in English, and that French equivalents will likewise become more standard, but that it will take a bit longer for both linguistic and political reasons.

For more information, contact Mackenzie at louisam@uw.edu.