Qui est-elle?

I can still remember when, in my sixth-grade French class, the teacher explained the rules of male dominance in the language. My female classmates and I were astonished to learn that in French you will address a crowd as male even if there are 99 women and only one man. "But that’s so sexist!" we all said, as the boys in the class sat there and smirked.

Feminists in France have long lamented those male-centric linguistic rules and have debated ways to change those rules and make things more equal. They have faced pushback from everyday people resistant to linguistic changes (or to feminism as a whole), as well as from the Académie Française, a council created in 1635 to protect the French language. The Académie has long been accused of being too conservative, and it wasn’t until 1980 that a woman was on the council. Before the Académie’s creation, in colloquial French it was common to use both the male and female versions of job titles, such as "un professeur" and "une professeure". The default male linguistic superiority was not part of speech. Then, in the mid-17th century, the Académie changed these rules and made the language more male-centric. It wasn’t until last year that the Académie agreed job titles may be "feminized". In the French-speaking Québec province of Canada, this change was made back in 1979.

English is in the category of "gender neutral" languages, though there are exceptions left over from the influence of French on our language. For example, the adjective "blond" is for males, and "blonde" is for females, and some job titles differ by gender ("actor/actress"). Some of these terms are being neutralized. For example, we now say "flight attendant" instead of "stewardess" and "mail carrier" instead of "mailman". This is not so easily done in French.

One proposed solution that has caused quite a stir is the use of a dot with the combination of both male and female terms when writing. For example, instead of calling your male neighbor "un voisin" and your female neighbor "une voisine", the two are combined into "un.e voisin.e". How this would work in spoken French is unclear. In 2017, a new textbook for third-graders was introduced in France that included this dot and taught the standards of "écriture inclusive" (inclusive writing). People were outraged. They claimed the language was in "mortal danger" and decried identity politics influencing school lessons. The Académie Française stated they were in support of the old rule of male linguistic dominance in neutral cases. In response, 314 French schoolteachers signed a letter published in Slate in which they said they would stop teaching this rule because it was sexist and had not always been the norm. So, is there different way to make French more equal and gender-inclusive? Possibly, but it might take a while.

A similar debate is taking place in the English-speaking world. While our language isn’t as gendered as French, there are still questionable grammar rules. It was during the Victorian era that a group of male linguists decided to officially make male pronouns superior, at least in writing. "He" became the default when writing about a person whose gender was unknown. An example would be "someone has left his book behind". To challenge this, some feminists have begun using "she" as the default, but this still leaves out half the population. The obvious, but highly debated, solution is using the word "they" instead of "he or she". One of my favorite comedians, James Acaster, has a hilarious bit about this.

Some languages, such as Finnish and Chinese, get around this problem by having only one singular pronoun that can be used for anyone. The Swedes have been experimenting with the neutral pronoun "hen" to replace the male and female "han" and "hon". It caused quite a stir in 2012 when a children’s book was published using the pronoun, which was first proposed in 1966. After the initial controversy, "hen" quickly became normalized and in 2015 it was added to the Swedish dictionary and began to be used in legal text.

Critics of "they/them" pronoun usage say that it can create confusion because these are supposed to be plural pronouns, not singular. However, this was not something that Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or George Bernard Shaw found confusing, as they all used a singular "they" without issue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this usage dates back to 1375, so it’s not a new thing, but it has become newly controversial. The push for "they" to be more fully incorporated into the language is not just from those who wish for gender equality, but from those who feel their gender identities don’t fit neatly into the man/woman dichotomy, who identify as "nonbinary", "genderqueer", or other terms. As you can surely imagine, the backlash against "they" usage is less linguistic and more trans- and homophobic.

Despite some resistance, the singular "they" is being officially incorporated into written and spoken English. In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard grammar manual for American journalists, declared that "they" can be used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. This had already been done two years earlier by the Washington Post, a publication which uses its own style guide. "They" was the American Dialect Society’s word of the year in 2016 and the Merriam-Webster word of the year in 2019.

We see that gender-inclusive language is useful for LGBTQ people, but there is still the question of if it makes a difference in overall gender equality. We want to look at how language impacts culture, but this is difficult to study academically. The concept of linguistic determinism, which says that language shapes our cultures and our perceptions, is no longer favored by linguists. Some do still agree with the theory’s younger sibling, linguistic relativism, which states that our language influences rather than determines our perception. So far, the research into how language impacts gender equality has only shown correlations, not causations, so we don’t know exactly how much neutralizing language actually helps us.

Either way, languages are tools which constantly evolve to suit our needs, and these change can make some people uncomfortable. Regardless, things will continue to change.