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Is the French language sexist?

12/06/2022

Is the French language sexist?

As 2022 is almost over, Time magazine just named women in Iran, heroes of the year.
More and more organizations are speaking up as well and pointing not only towards violence against women but also towards language inequalities.


Thus, in its recommendation R-90-4 of February 21, 1990, the Committee of Ministers from the Council of Europe had recognized that "the sexism characterizing current linguistic usage in most member states - whereby the masculine prevails over the feminine - is hindering the establishment of equality between women and men, since it obscures the existence of women as half of humanity, while denying the equality of women and men".


Let us recall that the old French was more egalitarian in the Middle Age:

•        Feudal society did not limit women's access to public life, so many professions were feminized [e.g. "poĂ©tesse" (a poet who is a woman), "mairesse" (a city mayor who is a woman)]
•        The grammatical rule based on proximity allowed the gender of the adjective to be determined based on the closest noun. For example, the adjective "bleu" was considered feminine in the sentence "les camions et voitures bleues sont Ă  vendre"


In the seventeenth century, the prohibition for women to hold certain positions had repercussions on the language and some feminized professions were removed from the dictionary or relegated to the background: "ambassadrice" no longer defined the position of ambassador held by a woman but the wife of the ambassador. The Académie française, created in 1634, went even further by suppressing the grammatical rule based on proximity in favor of the one according to which the masculine prevails over the feminine.


However, major changes have taken place since the 1970s, driven by a society that wants to be more egalitarian. The names of professions have been feminized and the use of epicens and doublets is strongly recommended in written communications. The median point is gradually crowding out the parenthesis in abbreviated doublets and is reminding us that one gender should not be bracketed at the expense of the other. Thus, "magicien·ne" is gradually overtaking "magicien(ne)".


Although recently suggested by the French organization Haut Conseil à l'égalité entre les hommes et les femmes (2022 practical guide), the grammatical rule based on proximity remains marginal. In Canada, the Office québécois de la langue française recognizes that it "is not grammatically incorrect" but it does not encourage it because of the risk of "confusion" (in our example above, "bleue" can be seen as only related to cars and not trucks).


There’s no doubt that French language is in a state of flux, as evidenced by the entry of the non-binary personal pronoun "iel" in the online Petit Robert dictionary. The debate is ongoing and it is likely that French grammar will continue to shift from what was taught only a few decades ago.