Sparks fly as a neutral pronoun included in the French dictionary


FILE – Jean-Michel Blanquer, French Minister of National Education, Youth and Sports, speaks during an interview in Tokyo, Japan, July 25, 2021. A non-binary pronoun added to an estimated French dictionary sparked a fierce language feud in the country. Le Petit Robert introduced the word “iel” – a fusion of “he” (he) and “she” (she) – in its online edition last month. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer took to Twitter on Wednesday November 17 to declare that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language”. (AP Photo / Johnson Lai, on file)


It’s a neutral pronoun that proves anything but: a non-binary pronoun added to a reputable French dictionary has sparked a violent linguistic dispute in the country.

Le Petit Robert introduced the word “iel” – a fusion of “he” (he) and “she” (she) – in its online edition last month. While the term is gaining ground among young people, it is still far from being widely used, or even understood, by many Francophones.

Although at first the change went mostly unnoticed, a heated debate erupted this week in a country that prides itself on its human rights tradition but also fiercely protects its cultural heritage from foreign interference. . In one camp are the traditionalists, including some political leaders, who criticize this decision as a sign that France is moving towards an “awakened” American-style ideology. In the other is a new generation of citizens who are embracing non-binary as the norm.

“It is very important that dictionaries include the pronoun ‘iel’ in their referencing because it reflects how the use of the term is now well accepted,” said Dorah Simon Claude, a 32-year-old doctoral student who identifies as “iel”. . “

“It is”, they added, “also a way of confronting the French Academy which remains in its conservative corner and continues to ignore and despise the users of the French language”.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer is not on the same side. He took to Twitter on Wednesday to say that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language.” The 56-year-old former law professor warned that schoolchildren should not use “iel” as a valid term despite its inclusion in Le Robert, considered a linguistic authority on French since 1967.

François Jolivet, a member of the centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron, also expressed his disgust. Non-binary pronouns are, he suggested, a worrying sign that France is adopting an “awakened” ideology.

Jolivet wrote a letter to the stronghold of the French language, the 400-year-old Académie française, claiming that Le Robert’s “lonely campaign is an obvious ideological intrusion that undermines our common language and its influence.”

The general manager of Le Robert editions, Charles Bimbenet, defended the dictionary on Wednesday in a press release. Far from dictating which terms should be used, he said, Le Petit Robert elucidated the meaning of the word, now it is more and more prevalent throughout the country.

Since “the meaning of the word iel cannot be understood by reading it alone,” said Bimbenet, “it seemed useful to us to clarify the meaning for those who encounter it, whether they wish to use it or… reject it. “.

“Robert’s mission is to observe and report on the evolution of a changing and diverse French language,” he said.

In 2017, the Académie Française warned that measures to make French more gender neutral would create “a disunited language, with disparate expression, which can create confusion bordering on illegibility.”

Gendered languages ​​like French are seen as a particular hurdle for advocates of non-binary terms, as all nouns are classified as male or female, unlike English.

Not all European countries are advancing at the same speed as France. In Greece, where all nouns have not two, but three possible genders, there is no official non-binary pronoun, but the groups that support them suggest using “that”.

In Spain, after former Deputy Prime Minister and assertive feminist Carmen Calvo asked the Royal Spanish Academy for advice on using inclusive language in the Constitution, her response the following year was clear like crystal: “Inclusive language” means “the use of the masculine to denote men and women.

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