French Friday: L’Écriture Inclusive or a French Reform that Goes Beyond Grammatical Changes

This post is much longer than any of my typical French Friday post, since I wrote an English and a French version. So you can skip to your favorite one 🙂

As always, thank you for reading me.

The other day at yoga, I spoke with another member of the studio who told me that it was exciting and frightening at the same time to go through a real revolution for the first time of our lives. We are about the same age, too young to have experienced first hand the big changes of the late 1960s but old enough to be grateful to these changes that have made our lives as women more equal to men’s.

The viral #metoo campaign has shown that there is still a lot to do in order for girls and women to be as respected as men at work and in the street. This campaign has resonated beyond the U.S. France, among other European countries, has followed in the steps with the # balance ton porc.

As a side note, I will say that I am partial to the American #metoo which doesn’t have the denunciation inference of its French counterpart. The verb balancer means rat out.

What my partner and I realized at the yoga studio was that the late 2017 shift didn’t look like a fade. We had seen the power of women at work after the American presidential election and inauguration. Many felt that these marches were only the beginning of a larger movement, but who would have thought that the shift would be much wider and that women would speak up in such great numbers and that stories of sexual harrassement and violence against them would pile up, affecting every industry, every social class, and not only in the U.S.? I certainly didn’t envision such a movement.

I certainly didn’t envision either that a reform affecting the French spelling and grammar would eventually reflect these changes.

Anyone who has studied a little bit of French knows that French nouns come in two genders, either feminine or masculine. Any adjective describing this noun will then take either the feminine or masculine form. But when an adjective describes two nouns, one in each gender, then the masculine wins over the feminine. Always.

Example #1: Le garçon et la fille sont intelligents. The boy and the girl are smart.

The adjective Intelligent takes an E when it defines a feminine noun and an S for the plural. In the above sentence, it is clear that the adjective took a masculine plural form.

Example #2: Le garçon et les filles sont intelligents. The boy and the girls are smart.

In this case, we have one boy versus more than one girl, and yet, the same rule applies.

The masculine always wins over the feminine in French grammar.

I was in first grade when I read in my textbook that, regardless of quantity or the proximity with the noun, an adjective always took a masculine form since, “Le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin.” As a French native speaker I had already assimilated this rule, by habit. But seeing it in written took a whole different meaning. It felt unfair.

“Why does the masculine always win over the feminine?” asked one of my classmates, also a girl.

“C’est comme ça,” answered our teacher, a middle-aged woman.

“But why is it this way?” the girl insisted.

“I told you, c’est comme ça.”

“Because boys are stronger that girls, dummy,” shouted one boy.

Which triggered peels of victorious laughter from the other boys and outcries from the girls.

“Enough now!” said our teacher.

She was strict, so we all calmed down. But this is with words as simple as “This is the way it is” that the world is made different whether you are a boy or a girl.

My elementary school is on the left past the church (Photo Google)

How would have I known that decades later, thousands of miles away, in another continent I would use the exact same words to answer the exact same question?

I found myself unprepared to justify this particular French grammatical rule to my own children. Talk of the weight of education.

“Why is that?” they asked.

“C’est comme ça,” I replied.

“But Maman, it’s so-o unfair!”

This rule had not always ruled. Until the 17th century the rule of proximity applied. Meaning that the adjective took the gender of the closest noun.

Back then, the sentence above would have been: Le garçon et les filles sont intelligentes.

So what happened in the land of Liberté, égalité, fraternité?

“The masculine gender is more noble, alone a masculine noun is superior to one or more feminine nouns, so regardless of proximity an adjective will always take the masculine form.” Dupleix, Liberté de la langue française, 1651

“The masculine gender is indisputably more noble simply because of the superiority of the male over the female.” Beauzée, Grammaire générale, 1767

Yep. Here we are. This deliberate decision affected, of course, much more than grammatical choices.

I’ve never met any girl or woman acting as a victim. But I’ve met tons who knew at a very early age that there was a difference between being born female or male, including in France. My paternal grandfather, for example, uncorked a bottle of champagne when his first great grandson was born. He had six granddaughters and I still remember of my disappointment mixed with anger when he proudly cheered my cousin’s little boy. I’ve also met tons of adult women who admitted that they had wished to be a boy at some point, particularly when very young.

I’m one of them.

 

Maybe I also wanted to stop wearing stripes and plaid 🙂

 

Fast-forward several decades to jump to October 2017 in the U.S.

Over breakfast my husband annouced that he found a great topic for my French Friday post. I’ve made no secret on my blog that he and I have known each other for a very long time now. We’ve been through a lot together. We still do as any couple, as any parents of four kids. We stick to each other through sunny and rainy days, sometimes annoyed at each other, often unbelievably grateful that our paths met, always émerveillés that we’ve lasted so long – it’s amazed in English, but the translation doesn’t cut it 🙂

But when he mentioned l’écriture inclusive, we quickly realized that we didn’t see exactly eye to eye.

My husband doesn’t believe that this reform will bring more equality between men and women and ultimately serious issues such as harrassment on the work place or in the street – a real problem in France.

I believe that he cannot possibly understand why I care about l’écriture inclusive, simply because he was born male. No more his fault than mine to be born female. We cannot see the world exactly in the same way. How could we, even though we were once seven years old at about the same time? The rule “The masculine won over the femine” could not have the same resonance for him. Maybe he didn’t even notice the rule.

 

So what is l’écriture inclusive?

The reform holds three points:

  • The names of professions, which don’t come with a feminine version, should, in order to include women, now working in every industry. Most professions in French have indeed only one male version. For example: un docteur, un professeur, or still un auteur. A doctor, a professor or an author. So far, most people say, “Mon docteur,” regardless of the doctor’s gender. Years ago, many people started to add an E at the end of this type of words. Docteur/docteure. Professeur/professeure. Auteur/auteure. The reform would ascribe a feminine equivalent to each profession. Even for this decision French people are divided. And believe it or not, including some feminists who argue that feminizing professions mean that women cannot hold the same status as men. Some want to remain écrivains and not become écrivaines or writers, for example.
  • Le point milieu is probably the most controversial part of this reform and I’m not convinced it can work. I find it very distracting and have a hard time imagining reading a novel written this way. The idea is to add an E – the mark of the feminine in French – between two periods, so each word can be read in a masculine and a feminine version. When the noun is plural there is an additional S at the end. For example: les candidat.e.s for the candidates or les président.e.s or still les citoyen.ne.s for the citizens. I highly favor the use of the personal pronoun ils and elles for they.
  • No more Droits de l’Homme or Droits de la Femme but only Droits humains or Human Rights.

 

This reform wants to bring more equality between the two genders. It is a complex reform, not really with its technical aspects, but because it is signaling a shift in the way people think and see the world. And we all know that any shift triggers reactions, always related to the way we see the world. And we see the world through the person we are. Primarily defined by our gender.

For many women and also men, especially young, this reform is a step toward a more inclusive world, a world where everyone, regardless of gender, has a place and a valuable role to play.

The Académie Française, the pre-eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language, is vehemently opposed to the reform. If you read French, here is the link to their statement, published on October 27, 2017.

As a personal note, I add that currently only five women among the forty members belong to the Académie Française. And only eight have been members since Richelieu founded it four centuries ago.

For the other opponents to the reform, they describe it as futile and even distracting. These opponents argue in defense of the French language. They insist that it will be impossible for teachers to apply these changes, particularly now that they teach a more diverse population of students.

Of course, things have changed a lot between my first grade and now. Has a language to change to reflect the progress made in terms of equality between men and women? Has a language to go through more reforms to trigger more necessary changes?

A French friend of mine told me about an Iranian journalist who commented that Farsi has no gender and yet the countries where it is spoken have still a lot to accomplish in terms of gender equality. English and American English don’t either and at least in the U.S. we also know that exact equality between men and women hasn’t yet been reached.

So will this French reform be helpful? Women know first hand that changes come with education. Many teachers support l’écriture inclusive since they see more than anyone how boys and girls react in a classroom. For them, this reform, which makes the feminine gender so visible, in your face we would say here, is a huge step toward equality. Only the future will tell.

If you read French I invite you to scroll down, below the French part of this post. I linked to several websites where you can read more about this controversial reform that creates heated debate across France.

What do you think? That the French are even more complicated than you thought? That a language being alive must reflect the changes that affect the countries where it is spoken? Tell me…

 

“Le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin.” Au nom de ce principe, on dit “les garçons et les filles sont intelligents.” Mais il n’en a pas toujours été ainsi. Ce n’est qu’au XVIIe siècle que le masculin est imposé. Avant cela, l’usage était à la “règle de proximité.” Elle consiste à accorder le genre de l’adjectif avec le plus proche des noms. Cela donne : “Les garçons et les filles sont… intelligentes.”

Le changement arrive avec des grammairiens aux idées très égalitaires comme vous pouvez en juger vous mêmes :

«Parce que le genre masculin est le plus noble, il prévaut seul contre deux ou plusieurs féminins, quoiqu’ils soient plus proches de leur adjectif.» (Dupleix, Liberté de la langue françoise, 1651)

«Le masculin est réputé plus noble que le féminin à cause de la supériorité du mâle sur la femelle» (Beauzée, Grammaire générale…1767).

Ben voyons. C’est donc bien un choix idéologique qui est fait quand la dominance du masculin sur le féminin est imposée. Les conséquences ne seront pas négligeables. Si vous êtes née fille en France vous en savez quelque chose.

Ma copine de classe qui a pris la parole en CE1 pour demander à la maitresse d’expliquer pourquoi le masculin l’emportait toujours sur le féminin se souvient sans aucun doute de ces mots qui en disent tant, « C’est comme ça. »

J’ai voulu être garçon pendant mes années d’école élémentaire. J’aimais la personne que j’étais, mais je n’aimais pas la définition d’être une fille, ni les limites, ni les moqueries que naitre fille imposait sur moi et mes copines. A la ville comme à l’école. Y compris dans nos livres de grammaire.

Mon école élémentaire est le bâtiment au fond à gauche (Photo l’Orne Combattante)

La réforme appelée l’écriture inclusive est donc un pas vers l’égalisation entre le masculin et le féminin.

Cette réforme n’est pas vraiment complexe, mais elle suscite des opinions très tranchées du fait qu’elle bouscule des siècles de « c’est comme ça. »

Voici la réforme si vous n’avez pas ouvert un journal or un website français ces derniers temps.

Ses premiers opposants sont les membres de l’Académie Française qui ont voté à l’unanimité une solide mise en garde contre la réforme. Composition de l’Académie: Cinq femmes et quarante hommes. Depuis sa création par Richelieu on ne compte que huit femmes parmi ses membres. No comment. Si ce n’est ce lien vers un article relatant l’arrivée de Marguerite Yourcenar dans ce club ouvert à tous et à toutes.

Voici la déclaration de l’Académie Française du jeudi 26 octobre 2017.

« Prenant acte de la diffusion d’une « écriture inclusive » qui prétend s’imposer comme norme, l’Académie française élève à l’unanimité une solennelle mise en garde. La démultiplication des marques orthographiques et syntaxiques qu’elle induit aboutit à une langue désunie, disparate dans son expression, créant une confusion qui confine à l’illisibilité. On voit mal quel est l’objectif poursuivi et comment il pourrait surmonter les obstacles pratiques d’écriture, de lecture – visuelle ou à voix haute – et de prononciation. Cela alourdirait la tâche des pédagogues. Cela compliquerait plus encore celle des lecteurs.

Plus que toute autre institution, l’Académie française est sensible aux évolutions et aux innovations de la langue, puisqu’elle a pour mission de les codifier. En cette occasion, c’est moins en gardienne de la norme qu’en garante de l’avenir qu’elle lance un cri d’alarme : devant cette aberration « inclusive », la langue française se trouve désormais en péril mortel, ce dont notre nation est dès aujourd’hui comptable devant les générations futures.

Il est déjà difficile d’acquérir une langue, qu’en sera-t-il si l’usage y ajoute des formes secondes et altérées? Comment les générations à venir pourront-elles grandir en intimité avec notre patrimoine écrit? Quant aux promesses de la francophonie, elles seront anéanties si la langue française s’empêche elle-même par ce redoublement de complexité, au bénéfice d’autres langues qui en tireront profit pour prévaloir sur la planète. »

Mon mari est le premier à m’avoir suggéré un billet sur le sujet. Ce qui a suscité quelques discussions animées au moment de l’apéro 🙂

Nous ne pouvons pas voir le monde exactement de la même façon puisque nous sommes nés fille et garçon. Il n’a sans doute pas entendu la phrase, “Le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin” exactement comme moi. Mais j’ai trouvé son idée de billet excellente.

Il me semblait cependant important de connaitre l’avis d’un français ou d’une française qui vit actuellement en France. Et qui d’autre mais mon amie Simone? Non seulement elle écrit merveilleusement bien à propos des livres qui la touchent et lui paraissent importants, mais elle s’intéresse à l’évolution de la langue vivante qu’est le français.

Je suis assez contente de constater que même si un continent nous sépare nous sommes sur la même longueur d’onde.

  • Comme moi, elle est en faveur de parler des droits humains plutôt que des droits de l’Homme et des droits de la Femme.
  • Comme moi encore, elle est favorable à la règle de proximité, qui n’est qu’un retour à une règle très simple en vigueur jusqu’au 17ème siècle.
  • Bien sûr, nous sommes aussi en faveur de la féminisation des fonctions, professions et grades hiérarchiques. Depuis longtemps, j’ai remarqué que Simone écrit “auteure” ou “écrivaine.” Elle pense que le travail de féminisation est déjà fait dans ce domaine parmi les français. Je l’ai aussi noté en regardant quelques séries télévisées françaises où l’on dit « la cheffe » ou « la juge », par exemple. Par contre dans la série Call my Agent! le mot Agent reste au masculin, même si l’agence comporte des agents de sexe féminin. Agente? Mouais. Est-ce l’habitude de certains mots? Est-ce la peur de trop de changements? Ou simplement une raison esthétique, comme mon amie qui me dit très nettement préférer le mot « poète » à « poétesse, » vraiment moins beau. Je reconnais que le mot « doctoresse » dont je me souviens enfant me semble péjoratif par rapport à « docteur. »
  • Quant au point milieu, mon amie et moi pensont que son usage rend la lecture difficile. Sans doute moins pour des documents administratifs mais lire un roman ou un poème coupé par des points qui ne sont pas des points marquant la fin d’une phrase nous parait franchement compliqué. Utiliser les pronoms ils et elles en se référant à un groupe est sans doute une meilleure façon d’inclure féminin et masculin.

En conclusion, comme me le faisait remarquer la même amie, le persan ou farsi en Iran et Afghanistan n’a pas de genre et pourtant il y a beaucoup de chemin à parcourir pour l’égalité hommes femmes dans les pays où cette langue est parlée.

Est-ce que les français auraient les soucis frivoles ce ceux qui ont trop de temps sur les mains ou sont-ils vraiment soucieux d’un équilibre plus juste entre les deux sexes?

Je n’ai pas voulu corriger cette phrase car elle prouve à quiconque en doute que le poids de l’éducation et d’une culture ne disparait pas en un clin d’œil.

Ce qui clôt ce billet, qui je l’espère ouvre les portes à vos commentaires sur le sujet de l’écriture inclusive.

P.S. La presse couvre ce sujet depuis la publication du manuel de CE2 paru chez Hatier. Le Monde a publié un certain nombre d’articles comme celui ci ou encore celui . Slate et France Culture également. Le Figaro a largement couvert le sujet aussi. Ici vous pouvez lire la pétition des 314 enseignants en faveur de la réforme et un autre article à ce propos. Et vous pouvez même télécharger ici le manuel de l’écriture inclusive.

 

Alors, maintenant à vous! Que pensez-vous de l’écriture inclusive? Étes-vous favorables ou opposés à cette réforme? Avez-vous des enfants et particulièrement des filles qui ont un avis sur le sujet?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Change, while perhaps overdue, is always hard to bring about. Then, it seems to go through an awkward phase. The .e. would be an example. When I see he/she, (s)he, or – in my mind the worst – “it” I regret his it distracts me as I read. I understand and support the underlying notion, but when it is forced or obvious, I think it calls undue attention on the strife, rather than the cause.

    Also, in conversation, the use of those terms lend themselves to sarcasm and snarkiness. I remember the miriad ways in which men pronounced “MS” when it became popular.

    Language, grammar and punctuation are all works in progress. We’re still fighting over whether to include one or two spaces after a period.

    In the 60s, I though we would eventually get to racial and gender equality in my lifetime. We have made progress, but not enough, and many seem eager to undo that progress.

    Hopefully, we will figure out and stop the bad behavior. Maybe working it into everyday language will help, but I’m not optimistic that we will get that right. Especially at a time when gender neutral computers are writing more and more of what we read.

    • I so agree with every point of your meaningful comment, Dan. The good news is to consider that more people want racial and gender equality than the opponents would like us to believe. But progress is still necessary. As for language, things are more complex when nouns have gender and adjectives go with them. That’s when I love English so much more 🙂
      Thank you for another visit and for you wisdom.

  2. judithworks says:

    No wonder I’ve never really learned French!

  3. Ton article est extrêmement intéressant. Oui, nous vivons une révolution qui n’a pas fini de s’étendre !
    J’ai eu la chance d’être élevée par une mère qui pratiquait le ” modernisme ” d’instinct. Par exemple, elle n’admettait pas le ” Mademoiselle ” à partir du moment où une femme exerce une fonction. Donc : ” Madame ” pour toutes. Il a fallu insister, mais j’ai vu Madame l’Administration adopter définitivement le ” Madame ” dans ses formulaires et autres. La raison avouée pour ce qui est une véritable capitulation 🙂 est que des mamans célibataires pourraient être blessées d’être désignées comme ” Mademoiselle “.
    Pour la Sécurité sociale, le nombre collé aux femmes est – 2 – les hommes sont numéro 1. Mais pourquoi, alors que dans l’ordre alphabétique … femmes … hommes.
    Personnellement, j’ai déjà ” bidouillé ” pour le plaisir une sorte d’écriture inclusive si l’on veut, écrivant par exemple : ami-e-s.
    Mais je n’aime pas trop – auteur – ni – écrivaine.
    Et si c’était un peu de liberté qui nous était offerte ?
    A suivre …
    Je préfère aussi le ” # metoo ” – l’autre expression n’est pas élégante – quand même !
    amicalement 🙂

    • Si mon billet est extrêmement intéressant, ton commentaire est super, super, super intéressant! J’aime ta maman!
      Le madame est intéressant car ici c’est l’exact inverse. Pour ne pas donner un statut de femme mariée à des femmes célibataires, on n’utilise pas madame. Comme quoi chaque pays offre une solution, si je puis dire, différente pour adresser le même problème.
      Je me souviens du numéro 1 et 2 et tu as raison sur l’ordre alphabétique.
      J’ai remarqué que naturellement j’écris souvent, “Tous et toutes, les français et les françaises, ils et elles, etc…
      Je ne suis pas sûre comment l’usage du E entre les deux points marchera. Mais dans un autre registre le changement de l’ancien franc qui a pris du temps pour certains et certaines a fini par marcher très bien. Donc, il est probable que le temps donnera raison à cette réforme qui peut, je le souhaite, donner un équilibre entre les deux sexes dès les premières années de scolarité.
      Merci encore et à bientôt!

  4. Fascinating piece – thoughtful and erudite, Evelyne…
    most women would understand how you feel about the masculine over feminine I’m sure…
    And in English, there are just as many pitfalls, apart from the jokey one about man-holes… woman-holes, – person-holes????
    There are many problems – a feminist editing one of my former husband’s books changed his words and therefore the balance of his prose and sentences so that words like ‘mankind’ read ‘personkind’ ( he threw a wobbly).
    I once took a chaplain to task for altering the noble rhythm and poetry of the ‘Charge” – a blessing at the end of the Anglican service, one line of which goes, ‘Render to no man, evil for evil”… he had declaimed ‘Render to no person….etc’
    He explained that he’d done it ever since he’d been on an Anti-Apartheid march, carrying a banner with the ancient Biblical words adapted from the story of Cain and Abel- ‘I am my brother’s keeper”:, and been attacked by feminists who demanded why he wasn’t his sister’s keeper too!!!
    I wonder if our attitudes ( mens!) changed, if these things would matter less, though the outright arrogance of the French explanation for the supremacy of masculine over feminine takes a bit of swallowing !!!!!

  5. Thank you, Valerie. Interesting that I forgot about all the English nouns that come with man! I focused on the gender and at least we don’t have to deal with that in English and since adjectives remain invariable, it’s easier.
    I smiled reading your husband’s reaction. Personkind sounds strange, but on the other side it’s probably only due to our familiarity with mankind. Now, person is probably the best choice to make sure we include everyone, even people who don’t want to have a specific gender. And of course, the chaplain’s experience is great too.
    Have you read The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd? It is a very interesting, very well-researched and well-written memoir about the author’s spiritual journey as she questions her place as a woman in Christianity. I enjoyed it tremendously as it adresses legitimate questions about patriarchy in the religion.
    As for reforms affecting languages, they are complex since they tap into much more than just spelling and grammar. And yes, the supremacy of the masculine over the feminine in French grammar is a bit too much.

  6. Words matter on this issue, Evelyne. I became aware of this at an early age. I’ve struggled with it all of my life, switching pronouns to achieve some level of equality. It isn’t easy and it is often awkward, but I have always considered it worthwhile. It is interesting to see how our language copes. For instance, you rarely see ‘flagman’ anymore. It is usually flagger. I think that was an excellent solution. Excellent thought piece on an important subject. Thanks. –Curt

    • Thank you, Curt for finding the topic of my blog interesting but moreover for being so proactive to promote language equality. Most men, even though in favor of gender equality, don’t think about it and continue to use nouns and way of speaking which clearly make girls and women invisible.
      Flagger is a good example on the way a language can evolve and be more inclusive.
      Thank you for another meaningful visit. See you on your blog.

Trackbacks

  1. […] to play crucial roles back then, as it is the case in this tale. In my French Friday post about the French écriture inclusive reform, I mention that women didn’t use to be as invisible as they became starting in the 17th century. […]

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