Even the first lady has joined in the debate over dictionary Le Petit Robert’s decision to include the gender-neutral pronoun ‘iel’ in its next edition, as an alternative to ‘il’ (he) or ‘elle’ (she). “The French language is so beautiful. There are two pronouns: il and elle, and that’s a good thing,” Brigitte Macron said last week during a visit to a Paris school in the company of Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. The latter had been angry before. “Inclusive spelling is not the future of the French language,” wrote Blanquer on Twitter.
Le Petit Robert defines ‘weed’ as a way of referring to a person regardless of gender. In English, non-binary persons use the word ‘they’, but in French the third person plural does not work: you then arrive at ‘ils’ or ‘elles’ again. Hence iel, as in: “Iel habite à Paris.”
Publisher Le Robert has defended itself against the outcry. The word ‘weed’ is not yet widely used, according to director Charles Bimbenet. That’s why it says ‘rare’. But there has been strong growth in recent months. Moreover, the word is not easy to understand. Therefore, we thought it useful to clarify its meaning for those who come across it. Everyone is then free to use or reject the word.”
English sneaks in
Tampering with the French language is always sensitive, even if attempts to ban the use of English words seem to have given up altogether. Even the French railways today use corrupted names like Ouigo (‘we go’) and Izy (‘easy’) to advertise their trains.
The gender of words has always been a tricky problem because in French traditionally the masculine always takes precedence, for example to indicate professions (professor, author). The Académie Française, which watches over the French language, decided in 2019 that the feminization of words ending in -eur poses no threat to the French language. Professeure and author, but also écrivaine and autrice, have since been admitted.
It is more difficult with le point médian, the intermediate point. Especially in left-wing circles it has been customary for some time to use points in the salutation of a letter or email for inclusivity. Dear readers, for example, Cher.es becomes lecteur.rice.s. The Académie Française called those dots a “deadly danger” to the French language in 2017, and Education Minister Blanquer has banned their use in schools this year.
The Académie has not yet commented on weediness, but MP François Jolivet (who earlier this year also demanded a ban on intermediate points) has written an angry letter asking the institution to take a position. For iel, Jolivet writes, “is the harbinger of the ‘woke’ ideology that seeks to destroy our values.”
The right-wing media and politicians in France have been obsessed for years with ‘wokism’ and ‘cancel culture’ (a French translation has not yet been found), which they believe are a threat to French identity. But if the Académie speaks out, it remains to be seen whether that will have much effect. The institution’s influence is waning, as witnessed last year’s decision that it should be ‘la Covid’, while almost everyone in France is saying ‘le Covid’.