PARIS — Quel scandale. France’s highest authority on language fears that French is in “mortal peril” over attempts to make the language a little less complex and a little less, well, male-dominated.
It is a particularly fraught moment for gender relations in French public life. The Harvey Weinstein scandal has triggered a particularly intense reaction here. A government minister went so far as to advocate fining men for catcalling in the street, and women launched their own Twitter campaign to out their abusers online, under the hashtag #balancetonporc.
Unlike English but like many other languages, French has precise rules on gender. Everything from professions to household objects are male or female. There is an effort underway to make the language a bit more neutral.
And this is where the storied Académie Française, the guardian of the French language, has said “non.” The Académie is the nation’s — and, for that matter, the world’s — highest authority on the French language. And in truly French fashion, it arguably commands more reverence than actual government ministries. Its rulings on grammar and vocabulary may be only advisory, but in a sense they are sacrosanct — edicts that govern that literal letter of the law if not the law itself.
From its gilded palace on the banks of the Seine, a Parisian landmark on par with Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre Museum, it has now issued a fiery condemnation of what in France is known as “inclusive writing.” In the careful words of the institution: “The multiplication of the orthographic and syntactic marks that [inclusive writing] induces leads to a disunited language, disparate in its expression, which creates a confusion that borders on illegibility.”
In other words, without genders, there will be chaos.
For years, a campaign led mostly by French feminists has sought to democratize this most subtle of romance languages by pushing back against the gender rules that have confounded Anglophone students for centuries. (Desk, for instance, is masculine. Chair, on the other hand, is feminine. Why, you ask? Just don’t.)
Certain linguistic constructions, critics argue, efface women from being seen in various personal and professional capacities.
Case in point: When describing a group of men and women who perform a given task, the rule is to use the masculine plural for everyone, women included. So a pool of contenders for a job may feature “un candidat” (a man) and “une candidate” (a woman) but together they would always be described as “les candidats.” To someone on the outside, it may not be immediately clear that any women belong to the group. By contrast, the only time you would say “les candidates” would be if all applicants were women. For some, this is merely to repeat a subtle suggestion that what is feminine is particular, while what is masculine is universal and, by extension, the natural law of the land.
“To really change mentalities,” notes Agence Mots-Clés, a Paris-based group of communications consultants, “we must act on what they are built by: language.”
To that end, progressives in recent years have begun writing in a way that seeks to neutralize that perceived disparity. To continue with the example, “les candidats” would become “les candidat(e)s.” This, for the Académie, was tantamount to crossing a veritable line in the sand, an affront to the language that the institution has worked so tirelessly to safeguard, mostly from perfidious English words such as “email” and “computer.”
“More than any other institution, the Académie Française is sensitive to developments and innovations in the language, since its mission is to codify them,” the esteemed linguistic body assured the Francophone public on Thursday. Among the Académie’s official charges is the annual publication of the dictionary considered the definitive index of the French language.
“On this occasion, it is less as a guardian of the norm than a guarantor of the future that it raises a cry of alarm. Faced with this 'inclusive' aberration, the French language is now in deadly danger.”
“It is already difficult to acquire a language,” the Académie said. “What will happen if the second and altered forms are added to usage? How will the generations to come be able to grow up in intimacy with our written patrimony? As for the promises of the Francophone world, they will be annihilated if the French language helps itself to this doubling down of complexity, to the benefit of other languages trying to take advantage to prevail over the planet.”
Despite these sharp invocations, polls show that a majority of French people do not have strong opinions on the matter and may even support “inclusive writing.” According to an analysis conducted by the Harris Interactive market research firm with Mots-Clés, as many as 75 percent of the French are open to the idea.
The Académie may eventually be forced to concede.