by John Lichfield
Friday, 19
November 2021
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16:30

Brigitte Macron says ‘non merci’ to gender neutral pronouns

Linguists fear 'le wokism' is set to destroy the language of love
by John Lichfield
Non, non, non.

Elle hath no fury like a former teacher of French confronted with distortions of the language of Molière.

The teacher in question is France’s première dame, Brigitte Macron.

Madame Macron, a former teacher of French language and literature, makes few public forays into politics or public controversies. She made an exception yesterday to criticise the de-gendering of the French language — or the arrival of “le wokisme” in one of France’s leading dictionaries.

In its online edition, the Robert dictionary has included for the first time the invented pronoun “iel” — a merger of “il”(he) and “elle” (she) for people who do not wish to define, or be defined by, their gender.

“There are two pronouns, il and elle,” Mme Macron said during an official visit to a college (middle school) in Paris. “Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns is enough.”

She was accompanying the French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, a fierce opponent of all forms of “le wokisme” including the invention of gender-inclusive or gender-effacing variants of French words and phrases.

“No cause justifies the crushing of the French language,” Mr Blanquer said during the same visit. “Feminism is a great cause but not one that justifies the mangling of French.”

Gender inclusive language has become a subject of great controversy in France in the last couple of years — and one which straddles the old boundaries of Left and Right. It is an especially complex issue in a language where all words have genders and adjectives must agree with the gender of their associated nouns.

There is a strong but still minority movement to “inclusify” French — supported by some teachers but not all – through the generation of new words or the annotation of old ones. Thus, in “inclusive French”, you should no longer write “étudiants” to mean both male and female students. You should write étudiant(e)s.

French is complex enough, others suggest (including many foreigners still struggling to write or speak correctly after several decades). Introducing brackets into words is monstrous. And how do you pronounce a bracket anyway?

The Robert dictionary stumbled into this minefield this month when it altered its on-line dictionary to include the he/she neologism “iel”. In English, gender-neutrality can be expressed by using the plural “they” as a singular pronoun. No such option is available in French where “they” can be either “ils” or “elles”.

Hence the invention of “iel” — or “iels” for more than one gender-neutral person. There is also “toustes” for tous/toutes (all) or “elleux” instead of elles/eux (them).

The director of the Robert dictionary, Charles Bimbenet, denied that the recognition of “iel” was a form of inclusive activism. He said that the role of his dictionary was to reflect changes in French as it was actually spoken and written.

“The Robert has not had a sudden serious case of ‘wokeism’ — a word that we promise to define soon,” Monsieur Bimbenet said. “It seemed useful to specify the meaning of iel for people who come across it, whether they want to use it or, on the contrary, reject it.”

Several members of the National Assembly have asked the immortals of the Académie Française — the literary figures elected for life to defend the French language — to rule on the iel question. No rapid judgement should be expected.

Members of the academy have been revising their own master dictionary of French for 35 years. They have reached the letter “s”.

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  • The simple solution to this is that we should all speak Finnish. It has one gender-neutral personal pronoun for all humans: “hän”. There are a mere fifteen cases in the grammar, rather more than the four in German, admittedly.

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