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Inclusive language: we can do better.

It all started off three years ago, in October 2014, when a brawl started in the French National assembly over the use of “Madame le Président” by one of the representatives when addressing the acting president, Sandrine Mazetier. This may seem absolutely normal and banal, but let me assure you: it is not.

"The French are divided" (Photo credits: Franceinfo)

18th-century French causing turmoil

In fact, in French, most words (like adjectives) vary depending on the gender of the person being referred to. In this case, the rule would have been to feminize the word "president" and address her as “Madame la Présidente”. This conflict, apparently puerile, comes from a rule of the French Academy that the feminine for titles and professions refers to the wife of the person bearing this title. In this sense, female “présidente” would refer to the wife of the male “président”.

Euphemistically, French, as it has been spoken since the 18th century, is very misogynist - masculine takes over feminine when in a group, one should not feminise occupation names, and humans are referred to as “man”.

It is in this context that the term “inclusive writing” appeared in 2017. This new form of writing is based on three main objectives: • feminising occupations and titles; • use masculine and feminine by enumeration or using epicene (non-gendered) words; • and end the use of “man” to refer to humanity (e.g. use “Human Rights” instead of “Rights of Man”).

As expected, this created a huge division between those who believe in fighting gender inequalities to its roots, and those who perceive this as a waste of valuable time and energy.

Is inclusive language the solution?

First and foremost, it seems crucial to acknowledge that it is impossible to achieve gender equality in a society whose language is misogynist and sets aside over half of the population. As many put it, we need to tackle the issue of gender-based bias and inequalities at its root, so it is necessary to address this linguistic issue. Just as every thought we express is controlled and influenced by language (as it is with Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984), how can one successfully achieve gender-equality when using a gender-biased and misogynist language? How is it fair that little girls can only identify with occupations as a "wife-of-someone"?

In fact, it seems that a language must reflect the uses of its speakers. In this sense, the language should adapt to the speakers and not the other way around. Therefore, if we, the people, believe that including women through the feminization of professions is necessary for their inclusion in our society, then it should be considered the new norm. Languages have changed throughout history, seeing their vocabulary modified, some words being abandoned while others arose. This would just be one of the many adaptations of a language to the reality of our 21st-century society – a more inclusive, equalitarian one than ever before.

However, how do we, as a modern, 21st-century society, fix this problem? And here’s where inclusive language plays a crucial role. Although I wholeheartedly agree with the necessity for a more inclusive language, some of the proposed solutions (especially the middle dot or the hyphen) seem fastidious to write and complicated to read. In fact, with the accumulation (on almost every single adjective) of these endings, it makes it less fluid and the reader quickly stops paying attention to their existence. Therefore, I would follow the French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe’s vision that inclusive language should not be used for legal documents especially as it would only multiply pronouns (by adding "she"), which in my opinion does not make much sense.

Furthermore, the French Academy recently published a press release condemning inclusive language as a “deadly peril”. This scathing remark, however, was taken collectively by Academicians after a debate on this question and is even supported by female members of the Academy. Once again, each measure must be looked at individually: what is being pointed out by the Academicians in their letter is that inclusive language is “massacring and making our language more complex.” In fact, in an interview on French radio, Dominique Bona, a female Academician against inclusive writing, argued that “French language is beautiful because of its clarity, its limpidity, thus it is a shame to make it more complicated.” Another one of her arguments, which I agree with, is that “by breaking the rhythm of the sentence, by fracturing words in two, [French] is imperilled.” And let us be honest, who would use this complex writing on a daily basis? Despite my support for feminism and gender-equality, I would not.

On the other hand, opposing the feminization of titles and professions, as the French Academy did in 2002, is purely out-dated and discriminatory. Here, the meaning of individuals’ life is at stake and their gender should be recognized when designating a specific person. This would also allow us to break away from gender roles - if we refer to male and female nurses, doctors, and writers specifically, boys and girls alike would be one step closer in overtaking gender-roles. In recent years, the use of feminized titles or professions have increased and the question should be raised again, considering current circumstances, to the French Academy.

Nevertheless, as the title says, we can do better. Because we can do better than this overall complexification of language, creating yet another rule in the French language. As Peggy Sastre has shown in her Slate article, shaping our language differently will not suddenly cause individuals to consider gender equality a necessity. Furthermore, and here I set aside feminization and the end of the use of “Man”, this inclusive writing would still ignore the existence of other non-binary genders. This form of expression also seems highly unsuitable for day-to-day writing as keyboards do not provide for these symbols (the middle point is nowhere to be seen) and it would, again, just complicate an already difficult language. This relative complexity is even seen in resounding flops such as that of French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon who, in an attempt at tweeting using inclusive writing, wrongly applied the rule and defeated the purpose of this writing.

And to these who either want to call me a “reactionary” or someone who is afraid to see the “sexist order” change, I have to say that I do not think this is the only solution and that it should not be. In fact, I believe that this should be yet the first step of a wider and more widespread change in societal behaviour and consideration of genders in language.

For a more radical position, one could refer to the previous President of the Republic Nicolas Sarkozy who, in his tribute to Jean Domerson, a recently deceased member of the French Academy, referred to inclusive writing as “the revenge of the Molière’s Affected Ladies”, as a ridiculous and useless tool.

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