A group of French teachers have published an article calling out the inherent sexism in Romance languages like French and Spanish, where male-gendered words are often used by default. According to The Telegraph, the 314 teachers have met strong opposition from the the Academie Francaise, which responded to the possibility of changing established grammar rules by stating it would put the language in "mortal peril." The French teachers have been encouraged by the atmosphere of change instigated by the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, and hope to bring gender-neutral language to their students to encourage gender equality in all aspects of their lives.
In the article on Slate.fr, the group said the current rules that mean "masculine trumps feminine" should be overturned, and they would refuse to mark their students' work as incorrect if they used gender-neutral alternatives in the future. Under the exisiting rules, the plural nouns and adjectives used to describe a mixed-gender group are always masculine. For example, a group of male and female friends are described as “amis,” the masculine plural of friends, rather than "amies," the feminine plural. This rule dates back to the 17th century, when linguistic state advisor Dupleix wrote, "Because the masculine gender is more noble, it takes precedence alone against two or several feminines, even if these are closer to their adjective."
There are alternatives, including a new written French style known as “écriture inclusive” that already has the support of the French government but has faced criticism from language purists. In the article, the teachers set out three options. The first is to alter the rules so that adjectives take the gender of the noun nearest to them, as was common in France in the past, even when one is masculine and one feminine. The second is "majority agreement," based on the higher number of masculine or feminine nouns. The third option is to simply let the writer decide.
While changing the way we speak is a small step on the path to true gender equality, our use of masculine-dominated language is part of a larger culture that disregards and de-emphasizes women's voices. Rather than putting the language in danger, these teachers are attempting to expand French to reflect the society it is used in, as languages have changed and evolved throughout history. This is one case where grammar rules were made to be broken.
Header image from Amélie
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Molly McLaughin is a writer who likes pizza, politics and poetry. In that order. She tweets at @mollysgmcl.