The Observer

How a Pronoun Caused Pandemonium in France

Inconsequential though it might seem, the decision to add the gender non-specific pronoun iel – a blended neologism of il (he) and elle (she) – to the online version of a major French dictionary has sparked an outcry, and yet another debate about national identity. Thereby hangs an intricate tale.
© Sylvie Serprix

First, a little background (grammar-phobes can skip this part). The French language has no neuter form: All nouns are either masculine or feminine. In many cases, the choice is logical: for instance, un homme, a man, is masculine, while une femme, a woman, is feminine. In 80% of cases, a noun’s gender can be deduced from its final syllable (for example, -age or -al are generally masculine; -ion and -ine feminine). In other instances, the attribution seems arbitrary or illogical: Why is nuit (night) feminine but minuit (midnight) masculine? Worse still, some nouns have two genders with different meanings: une somme is a sum of money, un somme a snooze. For all these words, and a myriad others, neutrality would be logical.

Unfortunately, language and logic are often at odds. That said, French did once have the neuter pronoun el – a vestige of vulgate Latin – but it disappeared in the 12th century or thereabouts, leaving only il and elle. To complicate matters, il can be impersonal (Il est tard, It’s late). Nevertheless, it is still the masculine form. And, as countless generations of French schoolchildren have learned by heart, le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin (the masculine prevails over the feminine). In fact, that diktat is relatively recent, dating only from the 18th century. It also carries a lot of baggage because the grammarians who coined and perpetuated the rule – all of them men – did so because, as one of them argued, “the male is obviously superior to the female.” Obviously.

Since language shapes the way we think, the dominance of the masculine in French has arguably had a huge impact on perceptions. The word for man (homme) can refer to a male individual but also to the whole of humankind (even today, despite an epicene effort, the common term for “human rights” is still les droits de l’Homme). Doctors and bankers are masculine by default, while nurses and cashiers are feminine. Even when a female noun does exist, it is generally the masculine form with a terminal -e or -esse. A “noun feminization commission” was set up in 1984, but it failed to find convincing coinages; it also provoked the ire of the Académie Française, the arbiter of the French language, which decried a breach of its guardianship privileges. According to les immortels – a masculine noun designating the Académie’s 40 members, only six of whom are women – the masculine gender is unmarked and must therefore be used by default. For instance, it must be used to describe a group of 99 women and just one man.

© Sylvie Serprix

Despite the difficulties caused by this linguistic determinism, efforts have been made to overcome some of the societal hurdles. The most prominent of these has been l’écriture inclusive, or inclusive writing, which consists, among other things, in placing a so-called median period at the end of a masculine substantive, followed by the feminine ending. Thus a teacher is un.e professeur.e. Laudable in ambition, the system was adopted enthusiastically by feminists who hoped it would improve women’s work status in a gender biased society. But this staccato form of writing has proved unwieldy. For example, a group of professional musicians and producers is rendered as et producteur·trice.s professionnel.le.s. Needless to say, the new system whipped up a storm of criticism, not all of it grammar-related. In 2017 the then prime minister banned the use of inclusive writing in official government communications, and les immortels – them again – proclaimed that it was “an aberration” that put the French language in mortal danger.

And so, to pronouns. One of the key elements of inclusive writing is the adoption of non-gender specific forms such as lel (lui+elle, him/her), cellui (celle+celui, this) and, of course, the third-person subject pronoun iel. Like anything related to the French language, the issue is polarizing. But while linguists and purists have been playing merry hell, ordinary folks have readily adopted some of these inclusive forms and regularly employ them in written and spoken communications. Hence the decision by Le Robert, one of the top two dictionaries of the French language, to include iel in its online edition. The word (and its alternate form ielle) was defined as a rarely used pronoun referring to a person regardless of their gender. No sooner was the new entry posted than the culture war erupted afresh. One elected official wrote a public letter to the Académie warning of a clear and present danger to the integrity of the language, no less. The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, also weighed in (“Inclusive writing is not the future of French”). Even the wife of President Emmanuel Macron opined publicly that only two pronouns, il and elle, were needed.

But the bickering over a non-binary neologism is as much about national consciousness as it is about la langue de Molière, or so-called “proper” French. Mr. Blanquer has previously railed against le wokisme and la cancel culture, his choice of words suggesting that these and other aberrations are purely Anglo-Saxon (code for American) imports. He has also sounded a call to arms against “an intellectual matrix” that originates from American universities and poses a direct threat to the French republican model predicated on human equality. Other public figures, including President Macron, have warned against the social science theories and call-out culture that France has supposedly imported from the U.S.

So in case you thought that the ongoing media furor was about a three-letter pronoun that queer, non-binary, or gender nonconforming people might use to identify themselves, think again. The coinage is, to quote one of its opponents, a manifest ideological intrusion and the harbinger of a woke ideology that destroys French values and undermines a shared language. No matter that the original aim of inclusive writing was to embrace and accept: The road to iel is clearly paved with good intentions – and foreign influence.

Article published in the January 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.