The decision from a major French dictionary to add “iel,” a gender-neutral pronoun that has become popular in the nonbinary community in recent years, to its lexicon has drawn heavy criticism from political leaders in France, a move that highlights once again the controversy around efforts to make the Romance language more reflective of an inclusive society.
Le Robert, an authoritative reference book on the French language, created an entry for “iel” after its researchers had noted “an increasing usage” of the third-person pronoun in “a large body of texts drawn from various sources,” the dictionary’s director, Charles Bimbenet, explained in a statement Wednesday. He added that the publication has received positive feedback from “a majority of” its users.
The dictionary defines “iel,” which combines the words for “he” and “she,” as a third-person pronoun in singular form that could refer to a person of any gender. The word is labeled “rare,” as its use remains relatively low despite a surge in recent months, Bimbenet said. (The plural form of the nonbinary pronoun is “iels.” The variations “ielle” and "ielles” are also included in Le Robert’s entry.)
“The mission of the [dictionary] is to observe the evolution of a French language in flux. ... Defining the words that describe the world helps us to better understand it,” Bimbenet added in defense of the editorial decision, which was made in October.
But this week, several French politicians expressed strong opposition to formally adopting the nonbinary pronouns, bringing to the fore a long-standing battle over whether the French language, rigidly structured under masculine-feminine grammar rules, should be changed to better represent women and gender-nonconforming individuals.
French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer tweeted Wednesday that school-age children should not use Le Robert’s entry as a valid reference, adding that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language.”
François Jolivet, a French Parliament member from the ruling centrist party, similarly rejected the nonbinary pronouns, characterizing the acceptance of “iel” and its variations as akin to pushing a “woke” ideology.
In a letter addressed to L’Académie Française, a nearly 400-year-old institution created to be the gatekeeper of the French language, Jolivet asked its members to weigh in on the debate. Le Robert’s “solitary campaign is an obvious ideological intrusion that undermines our common language and its influence,” the lawmaker’s letter read.
L’Académie Française did not respond to a request for comment early Thursday.
The storied organization issues guidance on French grammar and vocabulary, but many in the francophone world consider its nonbinding advisories sacrosanct.
In 2017, the esteemed linguistic body put out a fiery warning, declaring efforts to make French more gender inclusive may result in “a disunited language, disparate in its expression, which creates a confusion that borders on illegibility.”
For many years, feminist activists have campaigned against the dominance of the masculine form in French, which some argue reduces women’s standing in professional settings.
As early as the 1990s, women holding senior postings in the French government, including cabinet-level jobs, have attempted to refer to their positions as “madame la ministre,” swapping out the masculine “le” for its feminine form.
But the usage is far from being widely accepted even to this day as those opposing the inclusive form of French hold steadfast to tradition. In 2017, France’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, banned the use of gender-neutral French in all official government documents.
Authorities in other parts of the francophone world may be more open to changing the language. But so far, none has adopted “iel” and its many variations in official government functions.
Canada, where French is one of the official languages, encourages its lawmakers to use gender-neutral language when drafting English versions of their bills, arguing that pronouns like “they” are useful in a legislative context to “eliminate gender-specific language and heavy or awkward repetition of nouns.”