Gender-neutral French: the inclusive writing debate

What is inclusive writing? Why is it causing a debate in France? And last but by no means least, what does it mean for translation? Some argue inclusive writing is essential to truly achieve gender equality, but others think the practice makes language unnecessarily complicated. ‘Écriture inclusive’ has been making waves for a while, and shows no signs of disappearing – in fact, more and more charities and NGOs are now using it.

Why inclusive writing?

But before we get into all that, what is inclusive writing? The Connexion recently described it as ‘various unofficial strategies used by feminists, gender activists and others to make the French language less masculine’. 

A key point here is to understand that French, unlike English, is a gendered language; all nouns are assigned a gender, even random ones like ‘table’ (tables are feminine in France, in case you were wondering!). In French, if you say you’re going to meet a friend, you are grammatically forced to refer to their gender – un ami (male friend), or une amie (female friend). So far, so good; unless of course your friend identifies as non-binary, as French has no official gender-neutral equivalent to ‘they/them’. Unofficially however, there is widespread use of ‘iel’ (a mixture of ‘il’, ‘he’, and ‘elle’, ‘she’), and many other variations are also in use.

The gendered nature of la langue française becomes extra problematic when we consider the rule that “le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin” (“the masculine prevails over the feminine”) in French. Sound familiar? Anyone who has ever studied French grammar will have had this rule repeatedly drummed into them. As France24 puts it, ‘10 French women make up a group of Françaises; but add just one male and they become Français.’

A minefield of middots

In terms of gender equality, the French language has long been entrenched in a male-dominated view of the world. The Académie Française only recently stopped insisting that female presidents be referred to as ‘Madame le Président’, and officially recognised feminised job titles, such as ‘professeure’ for a female teacher. Inclusive writing seeks to redress linguistic gender inequality through using median points or ‘middots’, to prevent the masculine from taking precedence. 

For example, in “les étudiant·e·s sont intelligent·e·s”, both female and male students are referred to through the addition of the feminine ‘e’. The traditional phrasing would be “les étudiants sont intelligents”, implying all the students are men, even if most of them are in fact women.

Using these median points or ‘middots’, and the whole concept of inclusive writing, has predictably caused outrage and scandal amongst the traditionalist Académie. Since its founding in 1635, the Académie has welcomed only 10 women into its ranks, and in 2017 referred to inclusive writing as an ‘aberration’. Earlier this year, France’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer also waded into the debate. Claiming that it would ‘harm’ the education system and cause undue confusion for pupils, he officially banned inclusive writing in schools.

A linguist’s take

At Sure Languages, we’ve noticed that inclusive writing is becoming a more common request for English to French translation, especially for charities and NGOs. We asked one of our French linguists, Daniel Capelle, for his take on inclusive writing as a translator and native French speaker:

This practice aims to put men and women on the same level, which seems more than legitimate (a necessity?) in 2021. Personally, I am for the adoption of inclusive writing, because no one can deny that women are hardly represented on many levels, and it would be a good idea to start with the most fundamental thing: languages. 

Detractors [of inclusive writing] claim that changing the French language is too complex, as it would break up words, therefore complicating its learning, reading (especially out loud) and writing. 

I would say that inclusive writing makes my work more time-consuming, because there is no official norm governing this practice, so you have to navigate between various specialists applying their own rules. It also requires more attention to details (is the “Chair” a woman or a man?). But, it’s definitely worth taking more time to find that equality.

Daniel’s final word on the subject was this:

I leave you with a quote from Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, who wrote The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives: “Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped”.

Thanks Daniel, we think so too!

Daniel is a professional freelance translator, working from English to French, and long-established member of our translation team. Check out his proZ profile here.
Does your organisation use inclusive writing? Need it translated? Get in touch for a quote!

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