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The online version of the Petit Robert French dictionary has added an entry for a gender-neutral third person pronoun, "iel", also spelled "ielle":

It's a concatenation of [i], the common reduced pronunciation of  the masculine pronoun "il", with the normal pronunciation of  the feminine pronoun "elle".

And the predictable storm of protest has erupted, among politicians as well as many mass-media commentators in France, along with more English-language coverage than usual for dictionary entries in other languages.  Amy Cheng's WaPo story ("A French dictionary added a gender-neutral pronoun. Opponents say it’s too ‘woke.’", 11/18/2021) provides a summary and links.

The dictionary's editor explains their choice without trying to use écriture inclusive in the salutation:

Chères lectrices, chers lecteurs,

Suite à l’ajout il y a quelques semaines du mot « iel » dans notre dictionnaire en ligne Dico en ligne Le Robert (, un débat animé nourrit les réseaux sociaux, débat qui a été repris par certains médias et par des personnalités politiques.

Dear readers,

Following the addition, a few weeks ago, of the word "iel" in our online dictionary, a lively debate fed the social networks, a debate which has been taken up by some media and by political personalities.

He goes on to give a version of the usual lexicographer's reasoning:

Est-il utile de rappeler que Le Robert, comme tous les dictionnaires, inclut de nombreux mots porteurs d’idées, présentes ou passées, de tendances sociétales, etc. ? Ce qui ne vaut évidemment pas assentiment ou adhésion au sens véhiculé par ces mots. Dit plus clairement : ce n’est pas le sujet pour nos lexicographes. La mission du Robert est d’observer l’évolution d’une langue française en mouvement, diverse, et d’en rendre compte. Définir les mots qui disent le monde, c'est aider à mieux le comprendre.

Is it useful to recall that Le Robert, like all dictionaries, include numerous words carrying present or past ideas, social tendencies, etc.? This obviously does not represent agreement or adhesion to the meaning carried by these words. Said more clearly: it is not the topic of our lexicographers. The mission of Robert is to observe the evolution of the French language in its diverse movement, and to take account of it. Defining the words that tell about the world helps to understand it better.

Some of our earlier coverage of écriture inclusive:

"Écriture inclusive", 10/9/2017
"More on 'écriture inclusive'", 3/31/2020
"Gender-inclusive French", 7/7/2021

Update (11/28/2021) — The NYT gets on the story: Roger Cohen and Léontine Gallois, "In a Nonbinary Pronoun, France Sees a U.S. Attack on the Republic". Subhed: "When a French dictionary included the gender-nonspecific “iel” for the first time, a virulent reaction erupted over “wokisme” exported from American universities."


  1. D.O. said,

    November 19, 2021 @ 9:40 am

    You forgot to title the post. Should I suggest "Iel"?

    [(myl) Done — thanks! ]

  2. Thomas Rees said,

    November 19, 2021 @ 12:17 pm

    Tweet from @Babar_le_Rhino:
    Moi aussi j'ai écrit à l'académie Française mais concernant l'anglicisme fourre-tout "woke" que vous utilisez tout le temps et qui "cancel" la langue Française.
    Translated from French by Google:
    Me too I wrote to the French Academy but concerning the catch-all "woke" anglicism that you use all the time and which "cancels" the French language.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 19, 2021 @ 12:33 pm

    Your translation of Définir les mots qui disent le monde, c'est aider à mieux le comprendre as "Defining the words that people use, we help to understand them better" doesn't quite hit the mark. Dire le monde is a set expression popularized by the philosopher Francis Wolff (in a 1997 book of that title), and he defines it as par­ler des choses, mais aussi en par­ler à quelqu’un, but basically it just means 'tell about the world'. So the translation actually is "Defining the words that tell about the world is helping to understand it better."

    [(myl) Thanks for the correction!]

  4. chris said,

    November 19, 2021 @ 4:53 pm

    I was going to ask how you complain about something being "woke" in French, but apparently from what Thomas Rees posted, they just borrow the word "woke" to complain about it.

    I suppose that proves the French don't even have a word for "woke". Do conservatives envy them that?

  5. Arthur Baker said,

    November 20, 2021 @ 1:11 am

    I'm open to correction here. I'm a native speaker of English, and I teach French to beginners in Australia.

    I suggest that there's a difference between "Définir les mots QUI disent le monde" (defining the words which tell about the world), and "Définir les mots QUE disent le monde" (defining the words which people use).

    The distinction between qui and que is critical, in that it reverses the direction of agency.

    Pleae feel free to correct me if I've entirely stuffed up here.

  6. Pau Amma said,

    November 20, 2021 @ 3:40 am

    @Arthur Baker Native speaker here. You're correct about the meaning inversion that changing "qui" to "que" would cause, but you'd also have to adjust the verb conjugation for number agreement for the changed sentence to be grammatical: "dit", not "disent".

  7. Chris said,

    November 20, 2021 @ 4:06 am

    "iel", also spelled "ielle": does that mean that a gender-neutral pronoun needs to have both a masculine and a feminine version?

    [(myl) No — in both cases, the word is basically il + elle. But il is often pronounced just as /i/, without the /l/, so that give "ielle". And the final orthographic "e" in elle is essentially never pronounced, even though it's always written, so that would give "iel", at the cost of greater deviation from traditional orthography as well as grammar.]

  8. JJM said,

    November 20, 2021 @ 9:37 am

    Grammatically, it just doesn't matter what "gender-neutral" pronoun you come up with in French. It still has to be either masculine or feminine. It cannot be both and it cannot be neither.

    What I found interesting – and indeed rather amusing – were the masculine and feminine forms (iel/iels and ielle/ielles) for what is putatively claimed to "évoquer une personne* quel que soit son genre".

    * The word "personne" neatly encapsulates the difficulties involved in trying to bolt English-language nostrums about "gender-neutrality" onto a language like French: "personne", whether referring to a male or female person, is always feminine.

  9. Mark Meckes said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 9:05 am

    Isn’t ‘on’ a French pronoun which is neither masculine nir feminine?

  10. JJM said,

    November 21, 2021 @ 12:33 pm

    The pronoun "on" is masculine by default.

    Note the form of the past participle in (for example): "On est prié de ne pas fumer".

    Only the first- and second-person pronouns ("je/nous" and "tu/vous") are either masculine or feminine depending on whether they represent a male or female.

  11. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 22, 2021 @ 2:09 pm

    @JJM: difficulties involved in trying to bolt English-language nostrums about "gender-neutrality" onto a language like French

    So true. Because of the lack of inflectional morphology in English, gender-neutrality gets focussed on things like pronouns. And then people want to blindly copy those solutions in inflecting languages. What a waste of time. (And it's easy to argue that it's just another manifestation of the dreaded American global cultural hegemony.)

    In my own native language verbs are marked for gender (in addition to nouns and adjectives, of course). It's telling that, say, instructions in school books default to the masculine forms. Now, this is something that can actually be avoided with just a tiny bit of more careful editing, at least most of the time. But no one notices. I need to point this out even to my fellow sociolinguists.

    Instead, people waste time on invented gender neutral forms or "feminatives". The main effect seems to be ridicule from the right wing. Sadly, this ridicule is too often on point.

  12. Terry K. said,

    November 23, 2021 @ 2:49 pm

    I recently read a book in Spanish, with help from Google Translate via Google Lens, and I noticed how rare gendered pronouns were in the text, which I think would be typical for Spanish. Spanish is pro-drop, which means usually no subject pronouns. And possessive pronouns are genderless (or, more specifically, the common forms are genderless, and the long forms agree in gender with the thing possessed). It wasn't noticeable to me reading the Spanish, but Google Translate often guessed wrong on the gender of pronouns, which made the translations disjunctive to read, and made me aware of the lack of gender information in the Spanish phrases translated.

  13. John Swindle said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 1:04 am

    In Esperanto "iel" means "somehow." Associated Press says the French pronoun is (somehow) causing a stir in France at the moment.

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