PARIS — Le masculin l’emporte. In the French language, this is the idea that “the masculine form takes precedence” over the feminine form when matching an adjective or pronoun to a plural noun. If there is a group of women, adding just one man to the mix means that all words used to describe that group are accorded as masculine.
This has not always been the case. Until the 17th century, adjectives were matched to whichever noun was closest in the sentence structure, regardless of gender. But as the French High Council for Equality Between Men and Women (HCE) points out, in a piece by French daily Le Monde, language is always bound to be loaded. “It’s precisely because language is political that the French language has for centuries been deliberately turned towards the masculine by groups who oppose gender equality,” the HCE wrote in its 2015 guide to “communicating without gender stereotypes.”
Now, there’s a movement trying to unlock the masculine grip on French grammar. “L’écriture inclusive,” or inclusive writing, has been around for over 20 years, but only gained traction recently as a new wave of feminism focuses on intersectionality and inclusivity. It’s not about a radical overhaul of society, but instead achieving an equal balance of power and representation. With l’écriture inclusive, the way words are written allows for gender neutrality, or at least a better indication of the gender distribution in a group. So instead of calling a group of male and female lawyers “les avocats,” you would write, “les avocat.e.s.” The daily Libération reports that the first school text books have been published that teach students these new writing rules.
The Académie Française — which was founded in 1635 with the purpose of preserving the French language — and other language purists have resisted the movement, arguing that it’s awkward to write and confusing to read or say aloud, especially for small children just learning to read. “This “inclusive” aberration puts the French language in mortal danger, and for which our country is now accountable to future generations,” the Académie said in a statement that spared nothing in some hyperbole à la française.
It’s interesting to note that the latest battle over l’écriture inclusive has come in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which set off a major reaction in France. The French version of #MeToo relies on some strong language of its own: #BalanceTonPorc (“Rat out your swine”). Rather than allowing their (usually more powerful) harassers to silence them, women are loudly and clearly exercising their right to be heard.
Le masculin l’emporte — masculinity takes over. How can a woman feel like she has a voice if she doesn’t even have equal standing in her own language? Yes, the proposed changes are orthographically radical and frankly a bit strange-looking. But awkward transitions on the written page are well worth it for the clear message it sends out to the real world.
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