Building inclusivity into the French language, one classroom at a time

A beginner French class cycles through the basics of the language: numbers, greetings, family members — but unlike the English language, it will also cover gender.

In French, understanding grammatical gender is fundamental to achieving language proficiency. Its grammar is constructed using a male/female binary, and each noun, whether proper or common, must be categorized as masculine or feminine. Adjective endings are also conformed to the gender of the noun they're describing.

According to Dr. Caroline Lebrec, assistant professor of teaching and language program director of French in the department of French, Hispanic and Italian studies at UBC, one simple rule prevails over all the complexities of the language’s grammar: “the masculine will ‘win’ over the feminine in any case.”

This rule ensures masculine grammatical agreements are dominant when referring to groups, as even a singular masculine presence means the group must be referred to using the masculine case.

However, the rule is divisive. Lebrec is part of a global Francophone community that views this rule as problematic, and is aiming to push the French language towards a more inclusive future.

Lebrec said the current gender rule in French “doesn't work with the 21st century's values of inclusivity in the classroom.”

They are challenging a centuries old status quo and intentionally selecting gender-neutral language in a gendered language.

A political linguistic choice to masculinize

Lebrec explained how the masculine-centred grammar rule is inherently political.

The rule can be traced to a 1647 language update made by grammarian Claude Favre de Vaugelas, a member of l’Académie Française, the oldest governing body for the French language.

As masculine was seen as the most noble, Vaugelas argued that it should logically dominate the feminine when presented together. The modification was accepted and continues to exist in grammar today. The update also eliminated many feminine forms of words, including all job titles, leaving the masculine as the neutral and only option.

France has an official body that makes decisions about the language, but over time, it began to lose its ironclad grip on the French language and other francophone nations like Canada began creating their own guidelines and standards.

Until the 19th century, the exclusion of feminine forms was normalized and naturalized, with any efforts to reintroduce being shot down by the academy.

L’Office québécois de la langue française is the leading Canadian authority on linguistic and grammatical questions. The office publicly supported feminizing writing in 1979 and published their first guide in 1981. Switzerland and Belgium would follow Canada’s lead in the 1990s and re-introduce feminine versions of professions, but Francophones would have to wait until 2019 to see France do the same following a 2016 movement from a coalition of French linguists led by Éliane Viennot..

Moving beyond the binary

While remaining an important step towards inclusivity, feminization efforts can often fail to move beyond the masculine/feminine binary, which still excludes people who do not feel comfortable using the personal pronoun il (he) or elle (she).

Iel — a combination of il and elle, translatable to the singular “they” in English — has become a popular means of addressing this gap.

Undoubtedly, iel remains a step forward, but Lebrec said it is important to remember that some do not find it perfect as it combines two existing gendered pronouns rather than developing an entirely new, neutral one.

Like in the feminisation debate, l’Académie Française is vehemently opposed to non-binary inclusive language, stating it made the language incomprehensible and calling it a grave error — “aberration” — in a 2017 statement.

Lebrec explained how “in debate, the [academic] would say ‘no, it doesn't exist in the language.’ The language is not made for that … [But,] they were in the dictionary and they were used.”

Nevertheless, iel was introduced into the pages of major French dictionary Le Robert in 2021.

The inclusion and recognition of the pronoun struck a divisive chord among French politicians. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the then French minister of education, and Brigitte Macron, the first lady of France, voiced public objection to its inclusion.

For Lebrec, the key to accepting and normalizing inclusive language is to introduce it alongside other traditional pronouns at the beginner level. In her FREN 101 classes, Lebrec teaches students about iel alongside its gendered counterparts and speaks in an inclusive manner.

“I introduce [iel], and students love it … They get it no problem. I didn't hear that it seems complicated for them. They just take it for granted. And they're happy to use forms that can identify everybody.”

Another challenge that Lebrec noted is the gap between oral and written usage of inclusive language.

While strides have been made with written language, the oral dimension is another challenge for Francophones — creating gender-neutral word endings alters the pronunciation which can affect the language’s oral comprehension. In the standard binary, you often can’t hear the feminine case when spoken out loud. Both remain clear in writing.

Lebrec is not alone in thinking about these difficulties. Inclusive writing is one of the topics currently at the forefront of French grammar, with many academics and linguistic organizations tackling the topic.

In future discussion of inclusive language, Lebrec emphasizes the importance of collaborating with and consulting the non-binary francophone community to avoid research existing only in the “ivory tower” of academia.

“They want to use it, they need to use it. They don't want to speak about themselves using another gender. So there's the research and there's what's on the field. And we need to partner to feed off of each other … we [need to] connect with the reality on the field, which is completely diverse,” said Lebrec.

Despite the heavy workload ahead, Lebrec said she is excited to see how the language will change in the coming decades.

“We are in a new evolution of the language, which is trying to include and recognize and acknowledge that there are several gender identities, and we need to recognize them when we speak and when we write.”

This article is a part of The Ubyssey's 2023 language supplement, In Other Words.