Gender-inclusive French

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An unusual article on language in Foreign Policy:

"Aux Armes, Citoyen·nes!  Gender-neutral terms have sparked an explosive battle over the future of the French language," by Karina Piser (7/4/21)

The article is long and detailed.  Here I try to quote only the most important and telling points.

In early May, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced a ban on the use in schools of an increasingly common—and contested—writing method designed to make the French language more gender-inclusive.

Specifically, Blanquer’s decree focuses on the final letter “e,” which is used to feminize words in French—étudiant, for example, becomes étudiante when referring to a female student. Like many other languages, French is gendered: Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object or person they refer to; there is no gender-neutral term like “they.” Most critically, say the proponents of the inclusive method, the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine—if there’s a group of 10 women and one man, a French speaker would still refer to the group in the masculine plural, ils.

Feminist activists argue this linguistic bias has real-life consequences and have crafted what they call more inclusive forms of writing, incorporating both the feminine and masculine into words that would otherwise be gendered. An example of how this looks: A group of male and female high school students would appear as lycéen·nes—adding an extra “ne,” preceded by a “middle dot,” rather than defaulting to the standard—and masculine—plural of lycéens. In the absence of a nongendered pronoun, the method’s proponents have adopted a hybrid version of he, or il, and she, or elle, resulting in the gender-neutral iel.

You can see that we're already in deep, deep water.  These modifications of how to write French would have a profound impact, not only on how the written language looks, but also on its ideological implications.  One could say that it amounts to a revolution through activist language change.  It really would transform the way French people think about themselves, both individually and as a whole.

The writing style, known as écriture inclusive, or “inclusive writing,” has gained attention in recent years, particularly among feminist activists who argue it’s an essential element in the fight for a more equitable future. Some media companies have adopted the method, such as Netflix France and Canal+, and in 2016, Microsoft Word started including an inclusive writing option in French.

Prominent podcasters—such as Lauren Bastide, host of the popular show La Poudre—even use it while speaking. But it has also angered pundits and legislators alike, who contend that the method is not only clunky and grammatically incorrect but—in classrooms especially—confusing and could alienate children with special needs.

Blanquer’s ban on the style’s use in public schools is just the latest attempt to relegate écriture inclusive to the margins. Since 2017, legislators have introduced a series of bills, most recently in March, to ban the form altogether; the education minister’s decree followed a 25,000-strong petition calling for the style to be banned.

As a matter of fact, I find this entire article to be so stimulating, if not provocative, that it is hard to refrain from quoting all of it — but I will keep my quotations within limits.

It’s easy to lump recent tensions over écriture inclusive into France’s seemingly endless and all-encompassing culture wars—about religion, race, how girls should dress, and what kids should eat at school cafeterias. But the push to strip languages of masculine bias is hardly a French phenomenon. From Brazil to Germany, feminist activists have sought to rewrite national laws, change school curricula, and draw awareness to what they consider the straight line between language and gaps in wealth, opportunity, and representation between men and women. In many cases, these efforts have met fierce resistance—from government officials, linguistic traditionalists, and citizens who bristle at what they consider an abstract and ideologically driven attack on language.

In Germany, activists’ attempts to promote gender neutrality—in part by using an asterisk, or “gender star,” to include both the feminine and masculine forms—prompted the popular Duden dictionary to alter its 12,000 website entries for nouns to include feminine versions and explicitly state that masculine versions refer to men—rather than everyone. The move sparked outcry among prominent politicians and the German Language Society, whose chairman went so far as to liken efforts to de-gender language to a “modern Hitler salute” used by “left-wing ideologues.”

In Brazil, right-wing politicians moved to ban the term presidenta—which former President Dilma Rousseff had opted for over the standard presidente, the Portuguese word for president, which lacks an explicitly feminine form.

The author goes on to describe the situation in Sweden, Argentina, and Spain, "where Socialist leaders have called for the constitution to be rewritten in inclusive language."

The latter part of the article looks into the history of language change with regard to gender, and shows that many modifications have already occurred, though not without resistance.

Indeed, the long history of disputes over gendered language shows that these tensions are not, exactly, about language itself, explains Gwenaëlle Perrier, a researcher at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord who in 2020 oversaw a special issue of an academic journal devoted to gender and language in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Brazil, and Sweden. “It’s not only about conservatism, or a preoccupation over language, but a strong statement against feminism, even if it’s rarely framed in those terms,” she said.

Disputes over efforts to “de-gender” or “neutralize” language tend to escalate amid other gains for gender equity. “What stands out is that, in every case, these debates take place at a time of gains for women and growing contestation to that progress,” Perrier said.

Not all critics frame their pushback in ideological terms. Instead, they contend that adding a middle dot makes texts confusing and illegible. But often, those not-unreasonable grammatical gripes accompany more ideologically charged reasoning. In claiming that écriture inclusive promotes a “disunited language … creating a confusion that borders on illegibility,” the Académie Française—the elite, conservative guardian of the French language—also warned that gender-neutral writing will compromise the International Organization of La Francophonie—the group of 88 states and governments for which French is an official language and a particularly enduring aspect of France’s colonial legacy.

In a recent op-ed for Le Monde, Raphaël Haddad, founder of the Mots-Clés communications agency, and the literary scholar Eliane Viennot called the recent controversies “formidable moments of public deliberation” around language. The middle dot’s usage, they write, can be refined and limited depending on context, improving readability without undermining “our attention to gender equity.”

The article ends with a series of thoughtful remarks by Deborah Cameron, a professor of language and communication at Worcester College:

Cameron, for example, doesn’t consider herself a “linguistic determinist”; she doesn’t believe grammar and usage “predict the way a society treats women.” But she does point to some evidence that when the masculine is no longer the default, perceptions shift. “French-speaking kids are more likely to report that a girl could become a successful pilot or a mathematician if they read a description of what pilots/mathematicians do in écriture inclusive than if they read one that uses the traditional generic masculine,” she said.

Backlash from the top, she adds, doesn’t necessarily mean the push for gender-neutral language has stalled. “Language reforms that fail, or only partially succeed, may still have a consciousness-raising effect,” she argued.

Nor are the politics of language zero-sum: Where activists and critics alike might contend that changing language changes everything—and others might see it as a “trivial side-issue and not ‘real’ politics”—Cameron opts for a middle ground. “Changing language isn’t going to change the world on its own,” she said, “but both actual linguistic changes and conversations about linguistic changes are part of the process through which norms and attitudes change.”

As for grammatical gender, it is mentioned one time in the article, but not in a way that exposes the potentially devastating effect it would have if reformers ever began to tamper with that dimension of the French language in a broad fashion.  To do so would seem to be almost inconceivable.

Meanwhile, if they really do carry through with the changes that have already been proposed, French will look very dotty.


Selected readings — just a small sampling of what's available on LL


[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Laura Morland said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 6:51 am

    Fascinating article. From my perspective, M. Blanquer and l'Académie are trying to shut the barn door after the horse has bolted. (To use an idiom for which there is, surprisingly, no French equivalent; see

    Returning to Paris in 2018 after a 10-year hiatus, I was immediately struck by the prevalence of 'middle dot' inclusive writing in communications from all sources. When I'd left in 2008, the common way to include both genders was to write, e.g., "lycéen(e)s".

    The 'middle dot' is less ugly than parentheses, perhaps even "cool" (a widely-used slang word in France, btw), but whatever the motivation, the French have adopted it in the way they usually do with a new technology: initial resistance, followed by a full embrace with no looking back.

  2. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 8:17 am

    IMHO, the problem with this fix is that it divorces the written from the spoken language. How does one pronounce lycéen·nes?

    On the other hand, the non-gendered pronoun iel (presumably pronounced "yell"), seems perfectly reasonable.

  3. Max Wheeler said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 8:31 am

    Deborah Cameron, as ever, the cool voice of reason.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 8:38 am

    From John Lagerwey:

    Many thanks for sending this. I despise Blanquer, an elitist tone-deaf idiot, but on this issue he is right. Putting in these dots makes French illegible and ugly. One of the stupidest ideas ever. I refuse to read things with such dots and feel like vomiting when I see them. Talk about PC! (That and people who want to be called “they” or whatever.) If they’re so upset about gender inequality, then why not just make the feminine forms the norm. Big deal. Just not the dots.

  5. bororo said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 8:54 am

    "How does one pronounce lycéen·nes?"

    Presumably "lycéens et lycéennes"?
    Not sure why peple would rather use a middle dot than type the whole phrase.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    From the o.p.:

    "Prominent podcasters—such as Lauren Bastide, host of the popular show La Poudre—even use it while speaking."

    I would love to hear how she does that.

  7. Scott P. said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 9:09 am

    IMHO, the problem with this fix is that it divorces the written from the spoken language.

    Spoken French already diverges more from the written form than any language other than perhaps English; why would this make a noticeable difference?

  8. KevinM said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 12:38 pm

    Having studied French in the era of the "purity" wars over the adoption of foreign terms, I was amused to pull up the Le Monde op-ed only to be confronted with "Paramétrer les cookies."

  9. Doreen said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 1:05 pm

    "Deborah Cameron, a professor of language and communication at Worcester College"

    That's Worcester College, University of Oxford (not some place in Massachusetts).

  10. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 1:52 pm

    Scott –
    to you the written language may be divorced from the spoken language. To a person who reads and speaks French, there is hardly a word whose pronunciation can't be determined from the orthography without difficulty. Yes, there are loads of silent letters that come to life from time to time. And everybody learns the rules for them in childhood and has no problem with them.

    But lycéen·nes can't be pronounced. In lycéens, the n serves to nasalize the vowel but is unpronounced. In lycéennes, the vowel is not nasalized and the the nn is pronounced. By dividing the nn with a dot, the spelling is asking the speaker to pronounce the nn and not to pronounce the n at the same time.

  11. KevinM said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 2:39 pm

    Not to mention the typographical havoc that will result in MS Word, which, unless instructed otherwise, will skip a space and capitalize the next letter after the dot!

  12. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 3:38 pm

    I thought that written and spoken French are extremely divergent, not just because of all the inflections and case endings that are written without being pronounced, but more importantly because of all the things like "ne … pas" that are used in writing, but almost never used in speech. Given that French already has many features in its writing that don't show up in speech, some of which would even drastically affect pronunciation, it seems to me that this sort of further divergence might still be less significant in French than in other languages.

    It would be interesting to compare how the conventions of written language differ from spoken language in a cross-cultural way – I've heard that the Chinese languages have some significant divergences as well, but am less familiar with them.

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 4:56 pm

    Lycéen·nes could be pronounced [liseɛ̃nə]. This is distinct from both lycéens and lycéennes. But such an alternative pronunciation is not always possible.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 6:37 pm

    Lycéen·nes could be pronounced [liseɛ̃nə]. This is distinct from both lycéens and lycéennes.

    Where did that final [ə] come from? That's not present in either source word.

  15. David C. said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 7:22 pm

    Job postings in German-speaking countries usually put "(m/f)" after the job title , which I always found interesting. In my mind, saying "Français, Françaises" out loud in fact renders the first word less inclusive by insinuating that "Français" include only men.

    I can't help but chuckle when I hear Canadian politicians from an English-speaking background say something like "les Canadiens et Canadiennes" in French in their speeches, which end up sounding exactly the same in their English accent.

  16. Pau Amma said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 12:58 am

    Meanwhile, if they really do carry through with the changes that have already been proposed, French will look very dotty.

    That's the whole point!

  17. Uly said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 1:59 am

    > One of the stupidest ideas ever. I refuse to read things with such dots and feel like vomiting when I see them.

    Yes, that's surely a reasonable and in no way bizarre reaction.

  18. poftim said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 6:04 am

    It depends how you think about it. Yes, French is full of pesky silent letters, but the pronunciation of French words is predictable when you know the rules, like Bloix says. "Maintenant", which I saw mentioned on another thread, can only reasonably be pronounced /mɛ̃t(ə)nɑ̃/. However, this doesn't work the other way – you can't predict the spelling from the pronunciation. "Mintenan", "maintenends" and several other variations would all be pronounced the same way. This is different from English, which clearly doesn't work in either direction, and phonetic languages, which work in both directions.

    David C,
    In Romania, where I am, most job ads in shop windows unashamedly target one gender, usually with feminine endings like "casieră" or (amusingly) "barmaniță".

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 6:47 am

    Uly — "Yes, that's surely a reasonable and in no way bizarre reaction". I imagine that this was intended as a sarcastic response, but whilst I don't share John Lagerwey's loathing of the French adoption of middle dots in their orthography, I nonetheless experience exactly the same reaction on receiving an e-mail with the subject field in title case, so I know exactly how John feels …

  20. Batchman said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 10:18 am

    Whether the middle dot is ugly or unpronounceable, a bigger problem will be typing it. There's no middle dot on a standard computer (or typewriter) keyboard (Francophone or otherwise) as far as I am aware.

  21. ardj said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 1:04 pm

    With my poor command of French, it is unsurprising that la lecture inclusive does not upset me in the slightest, though it can sometimes take a moment longer to read. If it makes one briefly stop and think, then that surely is the idea. When writing, however – and why is it not l'orthographe inclusive ? – when called for, I generally just use a full stop (or two: lycé, but the middle dot is available for those willing to essay Alt+0183 (in Windows™)

    As for violent reaction against gender variation, perhaps the less said the better. At my age I am pretty much inured to most of the funny ways people behave, with regard to sex & most other things, as long as doesn't hurt anyone else. Of course, that leaves me with a problem in respect to M. Lagerway. For formal occasions, perhaps I can suggest the opening formula I used in a talk on "L'allemand sans larmes" for the New Year party of my choir: "Mesdames ! Messieurs ! Et les entre-deux !"

  22. ardj said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 1:52 pm

    Sorry, I was interrupted. That should of course have read "Et mes entre-deux"

  23. Anthony said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 7:31 pm

    Turkish, targeting one gender, says "garson kız" for 'waitress.'

  24. JB said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 8:23 am

    Part of the issue is that ideologists like Viennot have been consistent in their misrepresentation of the development of the language. A recent article examines this in closer detail (in French):

  25. Rose Eneri said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 11:40 am

    Am I the only person in the world who prefers simplicity? Why can't gendered languages just pick the simplest gender and eliminate all of the more complex genders, thereby effectively eliminating gender from the language altogether.

    Even if the simplest gender is currently the male version, in less than a generation nobody will even remember.

    Using something like "lycéen·nes" is not even inclusive, as there are plenty of folks who do not identify with either gender in this binary form.

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 3:46 pm

    @Batchman, shift-3 on my (Spanish) keyboard is a middle dot. It's used in Catalan.

  27. SS said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 4:25 pm

    The French could learn to use (and love) that "ugly dot" like their Catalan neighbors to the south. The ela geminada is two Ls with a dot in between and just acts to extends the L sound a bit when a word is spoken aloud.

  28. Alexander Browne said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 2:43 pm

    @Rose Eneri: I can't find it now, but I remember seeing one gender-neutral proposal for French that involved only using the feminine for all words. The reasoning was at least partly that the feminine forms are more distinct since so many final consonants are not pronounced in the masculine forms.

  29. Kimball Kramer said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 5:21 pm

    On my Mac the symbols . or • are easily typed. The first symbol is, of course, obtained by depressing the .> key, and the second by depressing the *8 key while holding down the alt or option key. Now you are aware.

  30. ExTex said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 1:07 am

    Perhaps it was in some of the unquoted text, but I found it noteworthy that "latinx" was not mentioned. This hasn't taken over the (Spanish-speaking) world, but it is becoming increasingly common in the media I read/listen to.

    It has also faced a conservative backlash, of course, even though it doesn't involved typing anything that isn't already easily accessible on the keyboard. It's just not easily accessible intellectually.

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