How many times have we not heard this endless phrase repeated by our French teachers? This rule of grammar is well known to all French speakers and we had to - out of respect for the conventions of the French language - respect it and put it into practice.
Yes, but... for the past few months, more precisely the second half of 2017, things have somewhat started to change. Shaken up, old ideas, put away sexist and macho rules, the French language would seek to emancipate itself from this male domination yet well anchored in our linguistic imaginary.
But has it always been this way? Can we now speak of an egalitarian language? And what about in other languages? Let's embark on a tour of the genders in language!
Has this male dominance always existed in the French language? No. In fact, it wasn't until the 17th century, nearly 800 years after it first appeared - in 842 with the Strasbourg Oaths (see the evolutionary reform of the French language for more information), that a handful of reformers decided to apply in the language the same rule that was then prevalent in society at the time, namely : the masculine, in grammar, must be stronger than the feminine because the man is stronger than the woman, because there is natural superiority of the man over the woman."
Yet, in the early seventeenth century, women occupied a significant place in French society girls could benefit from places of education and women began to make a career in letters. But then why such a change?
It is indeed a question of mentality. The language is above all the reflection of an ideology of an era. Now, in this second half of the seventeenth century, it was time for a change in thinking. According to Éliane Viennot, researcher in French literature :
"For feminine words, there is a particular treatment which is that these people from the seventeenth century have wanted to make a certain number of feminine words disappear.
In particular all the words that designate positions of power in the careers of letters, because the people who do that are men and do not want women to come and walk on their turf. "
Everything is said : the fear of rivalry. This is further confirmed in 1638 by a contemporary of the century of this reform, Jean Chapelain (French poet and literary critic, 1595-1674) when he says :
"There is nothing so disgusting as to set oneself up as a writer (...)and the use of feminization, and the will to stop, by putting an end to it, this new social emergence of women."
Towards an egalitarian language?
Is the desire to return to a more egalitarian language as proposed by inclusive writing viable? First of all, let us look at the very principles of this system :
- Jobs or functions must be granted according to gender;
- The feminine and masculine must be declined, in alphabetical order, to designate a group of people (example : directors and managers).
Other than using mixed generic terms (such as " human rights " instead of "human rights"), one can also resort to the " midpoint " which allows the feminine and masculine to be grouped in the same word (following the example of "teachers" or "drivers ").
Although inclusive writing is not mandatory, it is strongly advised by the High Council for Equality, however it is strongly criticized by some defenders of the French language who find that median inclusion makes sentences difficult to read, or even nonsensical in speech.
Another, more logical option would be "proximity agreement," which, as the name implies, either agrees adjectives according to the gender and number of the closest noun (foreign countries and cities) or according to majority (the feminine overrides the masculine if there are more women in the assembly). Weird? Reformer? No. In the days of Ronsard and Corneille, this was the norm!
And in other languages?
But what about our neighbors? No, French is not the only one to determine a gender to its nouns, Spanish, Italian or even German do it naturally.
What is strange is that the same noun can be of a different gender depending on the language masculine in French (le nez), feminine in Spanish (la nariz), feminine in French (la clé), masculine in German (der Schlüssel).
Ah, German, let's talk about it right now! Here's a quirk of Goëthe's language... Did you know that there are 3 genders in German? The masculine (der), the feminine (die) and the neuter (das)... yes, like in many other languages. But the weird thing is that when you want to translate the word "girl", you would say die... Well, no, you would not. We'll say "das Mädchen". Don't look for it, it's just like that. Have you ever wondered why we say THE table or THE mirror? I still have a vivid memory of one of my Chinese students who asked me: "Who said that it was Mr. or Mrs. table, Mr. or Mrs. mirror? Very good question, still unanswered today...
In Chinese, paternal grandparents are recognized by their title, and maternal grandparents are "the others."
One example among many that the sexism of language is not only the prerogative of French. The road will be long.
It could be said that language is indeed a reflection of the society of an era.
While in Quebec the feminization of professions has been going on for many years, it is still a very recent - and discreet - phenomenon in France. The polemic around gender equality, even at the linguistic level, is raging and the issue of inclusive writing is a hot topic.
The issue of inclusive writing is a hot topic.
Language is constantly evolving and even at the level of equality, it is advancing, as the Swedes proved to us by introducing, in 1966, the personal pronoun "hen," a neutral pronoun that serves to designate asexual concepts or objects, but above all to emancipate language from a vision of gender that is too binary.
The question of gender, in linguistics, would thus be linked to our relationship to the world and would depend on a historical evolution influenced by grammatical factors, certainly, but above all cultural ones...
Illustrations: Inclusive writing
Let men and women be beautiful,
There is no such thing as egalitarian language, Romain Jeanticou, Télérama, 28/12/2017,
Is the French language egalitarian ? , BRUT.Original France TV Info, 18/12/2017
Can language advance equality? Béatrice Bouniol and Christine Legrand, La Croix, 22/11/2017
Why do words have a gender? Marion Maurin, Babbel Magazine
Demasculinizing Language, Catherine Mallaval, Libération, 07/11/2017,
Inclusive writing, YouTube video, La Croix