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When you finally unwind after a busy semester, your mind starts to follow trains of thought that looming deadlines and dense readings would have stopped. I had such an experience recently. I was sitting at Hammersmith tube station, reminiscing about Euphoria, which I had watched during a post-exams Netflix binge. Nostalgia blended with eagerness for an upcoming trip to Paris, and my thoughts proceeded along these lines: Jules from Euphoria is a trans-woman and a very interesting character; Jules is an androgynous name of French origin; how would Jules, and other non-cisgender people, express their identity in French?
And so, the subject of this article: how does the French language accommodate people who identify as non-binary? I did some digging on this, and it turns out the French themselves don’t really know. That was until the Le Petit Robert French Dictionary formally recognised ‘iel’ as a non-binary pronoun. ‘Iel’ is a combination of ‘il’ (he) and ‘elle’ (she) and equates to ‘they’ in English. The decision to recognise ‘iel’ caused enormous controversy in France. French MP François Jolivet described the inclusion as a symptom of #woke-ism and asked the Académie Française (the official council which regulates the use and development of French) to comment on the issue. Earlier this year, the conservative Académie decided that ‘iel’ “made no sense” and was included by Le Petit Robert as a publicity stunt. Even within the French LGBTQ+ community, whether ‘iel’ has a place in their language is a contentious topic.
But why is the concept of a French non-binary pronoun so controversial? How could it possibly offend French values and beliefs? Why is there such a contrast between the Frenh language and the context it operates in? And what can French learn from ancient and other languages in order to solve their non-binary problem?
To understand this, we’ve got to go back to basics.
French has nine pronouns:
|tu||you (singular)||vous||you (plural)|
|Il/elle/on||he/she/one||ils/elles||they (masculine)/they (feminine)|
So far, so good. However, French differs from English when these pronouns appear in a sentence. Compare the following examples:
|il est content||He is happy|
|elle est contente||She is happy|
In English, the gender of the happy person does not change how the word “happy” looks. However, French adds an –e to the end of the adjective content to show that the happy person is a woman. Linguists call this phenomena ‘agreement’ between the gender of the noun and the adjective. One might argue that, in this context, agreement is not really necessary: since ‘elle’ is the feminine pronoun, we already know that the happy person is a woman. Why is there a need for the adjective content to look different?
This is a difficult question. French inherited gender agreement from Latin, and while it’s useful for deciphering some complex sentences and creating linguistic shorthands, many languages function without it. The simpler (but less scholarly) answer is that French, and many other European languages, have always been pre-occupied with gender. That’s just the way it is. Desk is masculine (le bureau), drink is feminine (la boisson), rock is feminine (la pierre), you get the jist. Gender is important when putting a sentence in the past tense, speaking to someone directly, and especially when taking a grammar test. Saying or writing elle est content, rather than contente, is just bad French.
So, in a language which completely breaks down without gender, how can other people describe a non-binary person with sensitivity and respect? More importantly, how can non-binary people express their identity?
This is where the issue with ‘iel’ rears its ugly head. From a purely linguistic perspective, the Académie Française is right to say that ‘iel’ “makes no sense.” Since it is neither masculine nor feminine, it is grammatically incorrect to say both ‘iel est content’ and ‘iel est contente.’ Moreover, choosing a masculine or feminine adjective ending to describe a non-binary person might be socially insensitive, because it clearly connects them to one of the binary genders.
There is also the problem of non-binary people identifying themselves. Should they use masculine adjective endings, or feminine adjective endings? According to non-binary Francophones on Reddit, there are a few workarounds. In written French, some non-binary people may choose to include both masculine and feminine endings, separated by punctuation: eg. je suis content*e. This style belongs to the French social movement of “inclusive writing” (l’écriture inclusive), which has become increasingly common in progressive, feminist and queer circles. The goal of inclusive writing is to de-masculinise French by including all possible noun and adjective endings, in defiance of the “default” masculine ending. Inclusive writing is also incredibly controversial, with Académie Française member Sir Michael Edwards saying that it “disfigures the beauty of French.”
Alternatively, non-binary people might use a new adjective ending which is neither the standard masculine nor feminine ending. However, this runs the risk of being considered grammatically “incorrect” if it is used without explanation. More commonly, a non-binary person will identify themselves with the endings that they are used to, which normally correspond to their gender assigned at birth, or the gender closest to their presenting gender. Although some might see this as problematic, there aren’t really other solutions. The non-binary French Redditors universally agreed that asking someone’s personal preference is the most important first step.
Ironically, if French stuck to its Latin roots, there might have been a solution. In Latin, there is a third gender called the neuter. Neuter nouns are neither masculine nor feminine, and have their own special endings. They tend to be inanimate objects or abstract concepts: eg. rock (saxum), war (bellum), shore (litus) etc. Over time, the neuter has dropped out of most European languages, but it still exists in German, Romanian and some Eastern European languages like Russian. Non-binary people who speak these languages could choose to identify themselves using neuter endings. You might argue that this is somewhat dehumanising, given that neuter nouns tend to be objects, but this is not always true. For example, in both German and Ancient Greek, the word for “child” is neuter (das kind, τὸ τέκνον).
Unfortunately, French does not have a neuter, and so the country finds itself in a dilemma. What happens when evolving, progressive social contexts collide with a nation’s language and values?
In Australia at least, the language and values usually develop in alignment with the context. Thanks to its flexibility and mutability, English is perfect for this. Think about all the neologisms that developed out of the social context of COVID: covidsafe, anti-vaxxer, covidiot, super-spreader, covid bubble, and, my favourite, Zoom bombing – when your Zoom meeting is disrupted by an uninvited user. All of these phrases appeared in reputable newspapers. They grew out of our human need to describe what the hell was happening to the world, and so we invented new words. Naturally, English had no problem adapting to the increased representation of queer people: nowadays most people have no issue with displaying their preferred pronouns and non-binary people can use the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Admittedly, English didn’t have to worry about gender agreement, since it’s no longer part of the language, but the point stands. English is constantly and rapidly changing as its speakers move through social movements and contexts. The speakers lead the way, and the language follows in step.
France, on the other hand, is far more resistant to changing its language. The French government has a distaste for the dominance of English as a global lingua franca, and a hatred of the Brits which the Hundred Years War can attest to. Therefore, part of the Académie Française’s job is to restrict the use of anglicisms – French words that are too similar to their English counterparts – in the French language. They do this by fining newspapers and websites that use too many anglicisms, by issuing official guidelines on words and even banning some! For example, in no official French document published after 2013 will you see the terms “Facebook,” “Twitter” or “e-mail.” The Académie’s purpose is to protect the beauty of French culture from English/American cultural dominance.
The French have every right to do this. In an increasingly English-centric world, defending their own unique culture is a noble cause. The issue with the Académie is its function as an Orwellian gatekeeper of language. Rather than French-speaking individuals leading the way, any linguistic change must be considered and ratified (often much later) by a conservative institution. A lot of cultural power sits in the Académie’s hands, and, as in the case of ‘iel,’ they do not always permit the official language to mirror the social context of its speakers.
Unofficially, French speakers will still use ‘iel.’ The Académie has no power to regulate how people actually speak day-to-day French. But the Académie’s linguistic conservatism creates a chasm between their romanticised ideals of French culture, and what French culture actually is. Non-binary people are just one of many groups stuck in the divide.
Perhaps, in years to come, we will witness the evolution of the French language so that it aligns with its social context. Maybe French will develop a neuter gender, or some other workaround that we are yet to discover. It was not so long ago that middle English was the norm, and yet English has drastically changed since then. This linguistic narrow-mindedness is endemic: in the same way that we can’t imagine a new colour, we can’t imagine an entirely new English language, or new French language, but every day we move towards such a concept as social tides change. Sooner rather than later, what may have been unimaginable could become real, as history proves time and time again.