Should the French language be more feminine?
That’s the claim of 314 education professionals, who have have launched a petition calling for changes to grammatical rules which they say echo the prejudices of a patriarchal society.
Une règle de proximité?
Their issue is this. When there’s a mixed group of masculine and feminine nouns, adjectives in French that describe the group take the masculine form. For example:
Les femmes sont belles.
Les hommes sont beaux.
Les hommes et les femmes sont beaux.
Why should this be? The petitioners propose an egalitarian rule where:
- if quantities are involved, numerical superiority wins
- if there are no quantities, the adjective agrees with the noun that is closest
The French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, no less, responded by ruling out la règle de proximité for official documents. Rules need to be clear and stable, he said, arguing that the agreement of adjectives refers to gender not sex and that in the case of a mixed group, the value of the adjective is the equivalent of the neutral gender found in languages such as Latin or German.
But the case may not be quite as clear cut as Philippe and others make out.
Prior to the 17th century there were no strict rules on the matter and in contemporary Spanish and Portuguese, for example, there is free choice on how to make adjectives agree when a group is mixed.
Furthermore, the codification of French was an explicitly political project designed to reinforce the monarchy and those deciding the rules did not invoke concepts of grammatical neutrality. This, for example, is Scipion Dupleix in Liberté de la langue françoise (1651):
Parce que le genre masculin est le plus noble, il prévaut seul contre deux ou plusieurs féminins, quoiqu’ils soient plus proches de leur adjectif.
La féminisation des noms de métiers
If the government is holding the line on adjectives, it does promote the feminisation of job titles.
In the not so distant past, a job title was masculine irrespective of the sex of the post holder: le premier ministre Édith Cresson.
Today practice is that the office holder decides how they wish to be called and a majority of women opt for the feminine form, for example: Laurence Parisot, ancienne présidente du Mouvement des entreprises de France.
An exception is Hélène Carrère d’Encausse le secrétaire perpétuel of the Académie Française, the institute whose role is to codify the French language.
Les immortels of the Académie Française have historically opposed feminine job titles, while acknowledging the right of individuals to choose how they wish to be addressed.
But following the wave of reflexion on gender issues that l’affaire Weinstein has provoked, the Académie is re-examining its position and will report back soon. The Académie is an officially recognised body but its role is purely advisory.
If the feminisation of women’s job titles is now commonplace, there remains the question of how to describe a job when the sex of the occupant in unknown.
Le Haut Conseil à l’Égalité entre les femmes et les hommes suggested putting a median point between the masculine and feminine versions.
But when a school text book recently adopted the convention, there was opposition from traditionalists, from those who said it was unreadable and from those who couldn’t find le point médian on their keyboard (there isn’t one!).
Here too the Prime Minister has intervened, opposing l’écriture inclusive but favouring a long form. For example, when a job is offered, official documents should speak of le candidat ou la candidate rather than le/la candidat(e) or le·la candidat·e.