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We need to talk about l'Académie Française

Updated: Sep 29, 2022


[For the purpose of this post, I have colour-coded markers (pronouns, suffixes, etc.) for the gender of French words. Orange for masculine, purple for feminine. I use examples for the sake of context. Since the following content is not a scientific article, I will not be going into deep semantic and morphologic arguments.]


A few months ago, French president Emmanuel Macron named Élisabeth Borne Prime Minister. An immediate yet unsurprising debate arose: how should we address her? Madame la Ministre or Madame le Ministre? Is she the Premier Ministre or Première Ministre? The so-called problem being, French word ministre was deemed a masculine word until recently, and the person at this position is a woman.

French common nouns tend to either be feminine - une chaise (a chair), une plante (a plant), une maison (a house), une voiture (a car) - or masculine - un avion (a plane), un arbre (a tree), un salon (a living-room), un verre (a glass). Sometimes, the choice of gender for a word is arbitrary, as it would be for many objects. In other cases, for instance for some job names, the social gender has a direct impact the noun: le boulanger/la boulangère (the baker), l’instituteur/l’institutrice (the primary school teacher). It so happens that jobs that are traditionally associated with one social gender tend to only be use under one form:

  • feminine - une assistante sociale (a social worker), une esthéticienne (a beautician, a salon worker), une sage-femme (a midwife)

  • masculine - un écrivain (a writer), un médecin (a doctor), un professeur (a professor)

Within the realm of government, it so happens that most occupation names only exist in the masculine form, for these were restricted to men for so long: un président, un ministre, un député. In the 1990s, with more women occupying these positions, a national conversation about feminising occupation names took place. In most cases, the process is quite simple: change a pronoun and add a feminine marker: une présidente, une ministre, une députée.


Why do these simple changes spark such controversy in France?


“Controversy" is not an exaggeration: in France, linguistics often make national news. The beginning of the pandemic saw us arguing for weeks about the gender for “covid”. It appeared the majority of people naturally started to use the masculine gender - possibly deriving it from masculine French noun un virus. However, the French body for settling French language matters, l’Académie Française, jumped in: because “Covid” is an acronym, and most acronyms take the gender of the core word (FBI - the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Bureau fédéral d'investigation is masculine because of Bureau, CIA - Central Intelligence Agency or Agence centrale de renseignement is feminine because of Agency). The core word for covid is disease - coronavirus disease 2019, or maladie à coronavirus 2019. Maladie is a feminine word. Therefore, one should say la covid instead of le covid.

Circumvoluted enough for you? From a linguistic perspective, this explanation does not really hold up. Indeed, linguists tend to observe the usage of a word, in a descriptive approach (“We notice that this word is being used in this context. Let us observe its behaviour.”) and stay away from a prescriptive approach (“One should say Y instead of X!”).


To sum up, most French people settled on le covid quite naturally. The Académie Française came up with a way to challenge that, which created a huge debate. In the middle of a serious health crisis and general governmental indecisiveness, the general debate focused on one question: should one say le covid or la covid?


There is a lot to uncover here but I don’t want to keep you too long. Here’s the thesis for this post: l’Académie Française is an outdated institution that takes away from French by fostering linguistic insecurity. It does so by reinforcing conservative perceptions of the French language by its own people. The Académie likes nothing better than prove French-speakers that they are wrong. Composed of a miscellaneous bunch of writers, former politicians, and other characters more or less related to the field of literature (sometimes quite far removed), the Académie is more importantly populated with rich old men that love to make public statements about how wrong the youth of today uses its own language. None of them are actually qualified to make educated decisions about linguistics.


The issue of feminine and masculine ended up snowballing into a public outcry when, in 2017, conservative newspaper Le Figaro castigated a school textbook for using inclusive language - that is, a language that represents men and women equally. For example, using inclusive language would be talking about a workers’ revolution by stating la révolution des ouvriers et des ouvrières, including women in the struggle and therefore being more historically accurate. L’Académie, already on edge by the “threat of English”, screamed everywhere that the French language was facing a “deadly Peril”…


The following text is an opinion piece written by multiple linguists in response to that statement. While explaining the issue clearly and accurately, it also clears the air and places the ownership of a language where it belongs: to its speakers.


_____________________________


[This opinion piece was published by Ballast magazine on 28 November 2017. Translation is my own, posted here with the paper's authorisation.]


May the Académie hold its tongue, not ours


The debate has been raging ever since Hatier [a French publishing house specialising in scholarly works and educational materials] published a textbook using inclusive spelling [1]. Was it a simple measure for equality, an implementation of the recommendations stated in the Guidelines for Gender Stereotype-Free Public Communications, published by the High Counsel for Gender Equality? Is it a “deadly peril” for our language, as claimed by the Académie Française - which does not have one single linguist in its midst? Or, more plainly, is it a meaningless debate? Over 70 French-speaking linguists have decided to raise their voice in order to clarify the terms of this debate, and to reject the Académie’s incompetence and irrelevance. They have one common wish: that the French language becomes the subject of a general conversation.


As experts on contemporary French or on the history of French, we celebrate the magnitude of these current linguistic debates, be it in cafés, at family dinner, on the news or on social media. These are a testament to the vitality of our language, shared by over two hundred millions French speakers on all continents. There has always been debates over vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, grammar, or, more broadly, over what the proper rules are in terms of linguistic behaviour; such debates will always go hand-in-hand with this lively language, written and spoken by so many. However, sometimes, it so happens that these controversies make the front page, as it is the case today.


“Whether you like it or not, this isn’t just about linguistics. It is also about politics.”


The current controversies over the use of gender in French have existed for centuries and they will go on for as long as the gender of words referring to humans (pronouns, adjectives, names) will be associated with the person’s social gender. The situation is similar for all roman languages - and so are the debates. As long as we keep saying “elle, une danseuse talentueuse” (her, a talented dancer) when identifying a woman, and “lui, un danseur talentueux” (him, a talented dancer) when identifying a man, gender will remain non arbitrary, and we will need to develop answers to questions on how to use it. But how do we talk about a group where we have identified twenty women and one man, or the opposite, twenty men and one woman? Is it right to say “ils” for such diverse groups, or should we use a pronoun in agreement with the majority? How do we talk about a very large group of people: is it enough to say “les ouvriers” (“the workers”) when expressing concern about forced part-time employment and maternity leave? Are we not clearer when saying “les ouvriers et les ouvrières”? There is nothing straightforward in answering these questions. And implying that usage spontaneously solved the problem by imposing the “masculine over feminine” rule [2] is showing boundless hypocrisy. This was an operation by 17th century Académiciens, designed to influence the (then highly) malleable linguistic practices, and not at all a settlement by usage. It is therefore quite acceptable to issue miscellaneous recommendations in order to reform this guideline: an agreement with the closest word, an agreement with the majority…


Whether you like it or not, this isn’t just about linguistics. It is also about politics. For people feeling smothered by the man/woman dichotomy, there is so far no neutral pronoun in French: the “iel” form, as well as other new forms, is spreading out and could fill that gap. Current grammars do not have an answer to everything, and when they do, these answers can be politically questionable or obsolete. That is why these questions are more noticeable in the news than in grammar books. It is important to us to let people know that prescriptive grammar, the one organising language, relates to the politics and the social organisation of the people that share it; there is nothing permanent about it - unlike Newton’s law of universal gravitation or the Earth’s motion around the Sun!


There are several competing linguistic rules, because people’s way of speaking and writing is not the same everywhere. The institution in charge of education might put pressure on these continuously competing rules by attributing prestige on one variant rather than another, or by accepting the variation, depending on cases. But this process is endlessly renegotiated. It shall always be so, and there is nothing to be worried about. All we have to do is ensure that as many people as possible can contribute to these debates. After a while trends will start to show, dictionaries and grammar books will take them on, and the debates will eventually settle… before taking off again, thirty or fifty years later.


The stands recently taken by members of the Académie Française show their ignorance of the mechanisms involved in linguistic change, which is not surprising. Knowing how to use a tool does not necessarily mean one knows how it was built. One may have opinions on its efficiency, its use, and even its aesthetics, still without knowing its structure. Although, the massive spread of the use of the feminine form to name jobs and positions occupied by women, in spite of the Académie’s recommendations, should have taught the Immortel·les [3] a lesson and encouraged them to more measured and cautious standpoints. In language, a recommendation is a mere advice, that may or may not be followed. Assuredly, coherence between institutions is always preferable: when the French High Counsel for Gender Equality pushes for an evolution of linguistic usage towards more equal and less sexist practices and when, in the mean time, another institution - the Académie Française - puts its foot down to counteract said recommendations, understanding the rule might prove difficult. However, no-one in particular is entitled to the final say, or, to be more exact, everybody is. Language does not evolve solely based on the “proper usage” determined by all sorts of institutions, but also because its speakers make it their own. With time, in historical hindsight, we observe that linguistic changes are sometimes initiated - more or less successfully - by an elite, and sometimes brought upon said elite by majority usage, which is untouched by institutional control.


“Talking about language triggers a lot of childhood emotions. It questions our sense of community belonging, our relationship of identity to History and heritage.”


One of the numerous examples supporting this is the evolution of register in some words: “bouquin" [4] was originally an upper-class term, which then became common, even casual. Sometimes, these changes happen over period of time so long that the debate simply never arises; other times, like in gender agreement, a discussion arise (and the 17th century was subjected to it as much as the 21st). These discussions are always heated: talking about language triggers a lot of childhood emotions. It questions our sense of community belonging, our relationship of identity to History and heritage. When looking over the miscellaneous controversies of the last century, be it the expression of gender, spelling, or the use of English words, the same arguments arise, and the same analogies: language becomes simultaneously weak, beautiful, and untainted woman. And that woman should be protected from becoming “ugly” and “disfigured” (as stated by the Académie); according to Michael Edwards, she is even “inflicted by a disease covering the page like eczema”, and her “flesh […] is attacked”. However, if analogies help our understanding of the world, let us no forget they are comparisons and not reality. “Whatever is well conceived is clearly said”, they say. A language does not have a face; it is a system made of rules - sometimes arbitrary, sometimes motivated. When these rules no longer fit our linguistic needs, they change, whether the purists agree or not. Observing emails, flyers, official statements, and even some political manifestos, one cannot help but notice that changes are already happening. Should it be endorsed, hindered or encouraged? The discussion is heated. No-one should dismiss it, no-one should take it away, not even the Académie who recently published an alarmist statement - that could have easily been mistaken for a satyre! - to warn French speaker against a sudden and mysterious “deadly peril” hovering over the French language (statement of 26 October 2017).


We claim it without the shadow of a doubt: the French language is not in any danger. All the green flags are here: spoken on all continents, French is a language of culture, of everyday life, of learning, of skill (professional, administrative,…) for millions of people around the world. Changing a few rules won’t harm it. In the contrary, the recent proposal for a proximity or a majority agreement could improve the written skills of many speakers. Once again, the Académie is missing an opportunity to show relevance. There is nothing stopping it from encouraging an evolution of the rules, and it has done so multiple times - as stated by its website. As a gatekeeper, it could chose to impulse reforms if only it noticed that usage is knocking at the door (we, too, enjoy the occasional bold metaphor). Moreover, its members too are knocking, in their books: if they had to implement all their self-issued “Dire / Ne pas dire” provisions [5], or keep within the limits of words accepted by their dictionary, many pages of their literary production would have to be taken out. The non-metropolitan French-speaking writers that would eventually be welcome in La Coupole [6] will not deny it: their virtuosity lies in that happy marriage between spoken usage and the (proper) written usage. The debate on rule evolution is already printed on their pages, and spoken in their character’s mouths. The debate on feminine agreement for profession names, titles and grades has finally just been officially recognised by the Académie; the one on proximity agreement won’t fail to emerge eventually.


“The French language will be in a deadly danger the day we stop debating it.”


How could we avoid a debate in every single area where French is spoken? And more importantly, why avoid it? Is that here the function of the Académie, writers, and even of some linguists who forgot their basics, gathering in its wake those who trust them so much they do not even verify their statements? Isn’t freedom of speech, relating to the very language used to exercice that freedom, “sacred”? Such disinformation, backed with metaphors as wrong as they are violent, is the backbone of polemic discourse, but isn’t acceptable coming from an institution and people who claim to be authority figures. This is why we hereby call all French speakers to join in on the debate freely and peacefully, to educate themselves with reliable sources, including historical sources, in order to understand its mechanisms. The French language will only be in a deadly danger the day we stop debating it. The Académie shall disappear the day we stop listening to it. If anything should be in a deadly peril today, it should be the Académie.


_____________________________

[1] Inclusive spelling is the equal representation of men and women within a language. Multiple features can be used: feminising occupation names and titles, double inflection (for students: les étudiants et les étudiantes), or the use of an interpunct (les étudiant·e·s). The later example is a recent addition to spelling and is the one that fuelled the biggest controversy.

[2] In French, the masculine gender overrules the feminine when it comes down to agreement. For example, les ouvriers et les ouvrières sont allés à la manifestation (the workers went to the protest). A proximity agreement, as suggested further in the piece, would be les ouvriers et les ouvrières sont allées à la manifestions. In the second sentence, the verb agrees with the closest noun group, hence the term "proximity".

[3] “The Immortals” is one way to refer to members of the Académie Française. Immortel would be used for a man, and Immortelle for a woman. The choice of spelling used in this text is one of the proposed “inclusive spelling” solutions, with an interpunct (·) between the masculine marker and the feminine marker: Immortel·les. The members of the Académie Française have repeatedly expressed their disdain for this spelling.

[4] Colloquialism for “book”.

[5] The infamous “dire / ne pas dire” (say X, do not say X) section of the Académie’s website regroups numerous exemples of widely spread phrases and expressions that are deemed "improper".

[6] La Coupole is the room in the Institut de France that hosts the Académie's gatherings.

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