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Last year, the Académie française (a council constituting the official authority on the French language) expressed disapproval at an emerging tendency to make French more gender-inclusive, claiming that this écriture inclusive is putting the language in “mortal danger”. The debate arose when the first primary school textbook featuring this gender-neutral language was published.

In the standard form of the language, the masculine trumps the feminine; hence an all-female group would be described in the feminine, but a mixed group—even if women are in the majority—would be described in the masculine. Moreover, some nouns for professions do not have a feminine form, even when the person in question is female; for example, until recently the current prime minister Edouard Philippe referred to women in his cabinet as “madame le minister”. Language reformers propose the inclusion of a “point médian” (middle dot) to indicate when a group is of mixed genders rather than using the masculine as default; for example a group of male and female musicians would be “musicien·ne·s”.

 They also advocate the feminisation of job titles for women in professions where the default is masculine—hence “une écrivaine”, “la présidente”. This is already more common in other francophone countries such as French-speaking Canada. Interestingly in English-speaking countries, the exact opposite trend can be noted also in the name of inclusivity and equality—take, for example, the trend of many actresses wishing to be referred to as “actors”. The Académie is not alone in opposing the change. The minister of education has accused it of complicating and degrading the language, and philosopher Raphaël Enthoven has compared it to the dystopian, brainwashing language of Orwell’s 1984.

However, supporters of l’écriture inclusive point out that feminine versions of professions which are now masculine as default were in fact common until they were removed from the dictionary in the 17th century. Professor of French Literature Elaine Viennot remarks that the grammatical rule of the masculine overriding the feminine was only solidified when it was argued that language ought to echo the social order; Nicholas Beauzée, for example, claimed that masculine noun forms were inherently “nobler” because of the superiority of men over women.

Applicants for Modern Languages or Linguistics should consider how language can change and evolve with a changing culture, and whether they think this should be encouraged or not. Students may also wish to think about the idea of Linguistic Determinism, a contested theory which argues that the language you speak shapes the way you think.

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