France is the home of the well-known motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. And yet, while the expression is touted as forming the pillar of the République Française’s ideology, these concepts do not seem to hold true with certain aspects of the French language. In fact, at times, this attitude can look paradoxical.
These inconsistencies are also present in the field of language describing the professional world, where it seems sexist attitudes are rooted in the grammatical structures of the language associated with things like job titles.
To understand the issue at hand, we need to note that French nouns, pronouns and adjectives take on the gender of the subject in question. Therefore, an important distinction is made between the masculine and the feminine versions of a word. For instance, in translating the job title of a vendor, at least two possible versions exist: “le vendeur”, the masculine, and “la vendeuse”, the feminine. Nevertheless, there is a semantic imbalance between the masculine and the feminine version of certain names of professions since, for some, there is a telling lack of feminine names for higher-tier jobs. This creates a gaping hole in the language, because of its failure to account for the rise in status and visibility of females within the world of work.
The presence of this potentially sexist element in French linguistics is a product of the historical genesis of the language. Historically speaking, the absence of the feminine version of professions, such as “le ministre” (the minister) or “le juge” (the judge), is explicable given the tiny number of women in these fields. In addition, those areas of the professional world in which women were allowed to operate in were almost entirely limited to gender-stereotypical jobs, hence these professions still remain the only ones with an officially recognised feminine version, like “l’infirmière” (the nurse) and “la nourrice” (the child minder).
By default, the vast majority of job titles are reserved for the masculine grammatical gender only. Language is an instrument complicit in the subtle promotion of gender bias by embodying the sexist prejudices of the historical periods that shaped the dynamic of the professional world encoded in that language. Nevertheless, although this biased mindset was widely acceptable in the past, it is by no means acceptable in the present.
As articulated by the academic linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Language shapes the way we think”. Hence, gender inequality in the world of work will never truly be eradicated if the very language we use for expression is peppered with phrases that whisper into the ears of the user the outdated concept that the masculine takes precedence over the feminine.
This requires reform.
Through feminisation of words in traditionally male-dominated professions, the French language should accommodate and even embrace the revolutionary change in gender roles within French society by erasing any residue of male chauvinism from the language.
Under the instruction of the Académie française, who have raised a white flag to the century-long fight of feminism, the French language should soon shed its linguistic patrimony by introducing “inclusive writing”. By simply adding a mid-point and an “e” to the end of various key words, the ascribed gender of the job title can be converted, as in the examples “le professeur” and “la professeure”.
However, as a sluggish excuse, traditionalists from the Académie française argued that in some professions such a shift may hinder the meaning behind the word, as in the example of “le médecin” (the doctor), upon standard conversion would be transformed into “la médicine” (the science of medicine). Hence, an alternative was proposed, that in such cases we might exchange the definitive article in front “le” for “la” or “un” for “une”, to highlight the gender of the subsequent job title. Taking the same example “le médecin” would become “la médecin” with its semantics being completely conserved.
Purists label “inclusive writing” as an “attack on syntax” in the name of “egalitariasm”. This is the contention of the contemporary philosopher Raphael Enthoven, who has gone as far as to compare the proposed change to “the Mona Lisa being slashed with a fair-trade knife”. Nevertheless, the feminisation of these job titles is not a destructive force which is eroding the French language, causing its deterioration; rather it is in fact a change which simply constitutes part of the natural evolution of linguistics in its pursuit towards gender equality.
The French language will hopefully be allowed to flourish and become a more ideal version of itself - something it could and should be.