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28 November 2017

How a small dot has sent the French language establishment into uproar

But one man turning a group of ten women into a male noun is fine. 

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Masculinity is a fragile thing. Here in the UK, men are still reeling from John Lewis’s decision to put gender-neutral tags on children’s clothes. How will boys know how to be boys without the correct labels to guide them?

Across the Channel, things are even more dire. At this very moment French men and boys are threatened with total emasculation via the use of the middot, an item which might look like a tiny dot in the middle of a word, but is in fact a weapon of mass gender-neutralising destruction, aimed at ending the dominance of the masculine over the feminine for good.

The middot, or median-period, works by allowing users to combine both masculine and feminine endings on nouns and adjectives. This overrides the rule whereby if a group of any size contains just one male member, agreement reverts to the masculine.

For instance, a group of primary school teachers would ordinarily be described as “instituteurs”, even if most members were female “institutrices”. Under new inclusive writing directives, the correct plural noun would be “instituteur·rice·s”.

According to Éliane Viennot, the professor of Renaissance French who launched a petition to end the dominance of the masculine in French grammar, a move to gender neutrality matters because of how language shapes the way we think: “Telling children the masculine form wins over the feminine cannot contribute to shaping egalitarian minds”.

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Alas, not everyone agrees. Last week prime minister Édouard Philippe issued a ban on inclusive writing in official texts. Sounding not unlike a gender-flipped parody of gender-flipped parody @manwhohasitall, Philippe primly declared that “the masculine form is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women” (or as Chief Dictionary Editor, Angela B might put it, “the term ‘womankind’ is completely gender neutral. End of story”).

The Académie Française has been similarly riled by inclusive writing. In response to a primary school publisher issuing a school textbook using gender neutral grammatical forms, it declared that “the multiplication of the orthographic and syntactic marks that it induces leads to a disunited language, disparate in its expression and creates confusion which borders on illegibility”. I don’t know about you, but I think this is a messy, long-winded way of claiming inclusive writing is just too messy and long-winded.

So what is the language establishment so afraid of? Can it really be those innocent-looking dots? Personally, I can’t help thinking there are huge similarities between this and the recent anxiety over gender-neutral clothing. Those most resistant to change insist that they’re not the ones with the political agenda; they just want to keep things the way they are, because the way things are is, by definition, “normal”. Actively interfering with the rules is confusing and besides, how can words themselves be sexist?

Philosopher Raphaël Enthoven has called inclusive writing “an attack on syntax by egalitarianism, a bit like the Mona Lisa being slashed with a fair-trade knife”. Obviously, we are supposed to think, it must be purely coincidental that in a world where a man’s voice is ten times louder than a woman’s, one man’s presence should alter the very words we use to describe ten women.

Perhaps it is apt that it took a French woman, Simone de Beauvoir, to write the definitive text on the insidious power of the male default. In The Second Sex, she noted that “man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male”. Or as Katrine Marçal puts it in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, “man is the norm and humanity becomes synonymous with masculinity”.

As a feminist who works on language textbooks – albeit not in a feminist capacity – I find the male default ever-present in the way grammatical structures are formed and taught. Male pronouns appear before female ones in verb tables; female adjectives are taught second, as an adaptation of male ones. It is inconceivable to me that this evolution is unrelated to power relations between women and men.

The feminine is the male modified, with a little bit added or removed. Female experiences and bodies are no more than adapted male ones. Such thinking is even present in non-verbal communication. The male toilet door shows a person, the female one, a person in a skirt; the male bear in my children’s picture books is simply a bear, the female one, a bear with a bow on her head.

Man is the one, woman, the adaptation, and while this may be dismissed as a fringe issue – why fuss over adjective endings when women are getting killed? – changing this is essential to creating a world in which women are seen as full, complete human beings in their own right.

Language is a living thing and as such it is not objective. According to Viennot, the dominance of the masculine in French is itself the result of political meddling. Speaking to The Local, she argues that “it was only in the 17th century that the grammar rule that the masculine takes precedence over the feminine came into effect and […] the decision was about the superiority of men over women”.

Today, in comparison to the use of the middot, reversion to the masculine feels most straightforward. Then again, I can remember a time when conservative English speakers were up in arms about the use of “chair” rather than “chairman”. “But it’s a person, not a chair!” they’d cry, as though somehow one might get confused and decide a meeting was being led by a piece of furniture. We all got through those dark times, with no undue expectations placed on Ikea merchandise in the process.

I believe it is possible to do the same with boys in skirts and French nouns with dots floating in the middle of them. Have courage, default men. Language can be used to oppress; it can be used to mask oppression; or it can be used to liberate, by changing how we see ourselves and others. Surely it’s time for everyone to adapt.