Gender forms an integral part of French Grammar. Pronouns, nouns and adjectives ‘agree’ with the objects to which they refer, all of which have a gender – be it a table or a human woman. French students are traditionally taught that ‘le masculin emporte sur le féminin’, meaning that the presence of one man in a crowd of women classifies the entire group as masculine. And in terms of nouns, especially those related to occupation, feminine forms are often more complex and are derived from their male counterparts. But to what extent does grammatical gender actually affect the thought processes of language user?
According to linguistic relativity theory, significantly. Simply put, the theory argues that the language which you use influences the way you think. This means that rigid grammatical gender structures may, subconsciously, force thinking in gendered terms. In a society that is beginning to refer to a spectrum of gender as opposed to a purely biological concept, thinking in binary oppositions could have a significant impact. It could also be argued that keeping the French language traditional reflects society’s gender bias. Within linguistic representation, women are often made to disappear. As previously mentioned, the use of masculine gender pronouns even when women outnumber men may make women feel forgettable and undervalued compared to their male counterparts.
Language failing to reflect society is an issue which has been previously addressed. Many activists have pointed out that before language reforms in the 17th century, adjectives took the gender of the noun closest to them rather than the leading noun, meaning that phrases such as ‘ces trois jours et ces trois nuits entiers’ would change to ‘entières’. L’écriture inclusive, developed by French feminists, aimed to make language more gender-neutral through placing a ‘point médian’ in words (salarié.e.s, for example), rendering the gender ambiguous. This was rejected in 2017 by l’Academie Française, who refused to allow the language to become a matter of political sociology. Perhaps, then, the way forward lies in the use of gender fair expressions: Spanish, for example, has adopted the use of ‘x’ instead of ‘o’/’a’, resulting in neutral adjectives such as ‘latinx’. In English, the rise in the use of the personal pronoun ‘they’ reflects a move to stop people thinking in binary terms – and our only nouns which carry gender are those relating directly to it.
However, many have referred to this as feminist activism masquerading as linguistic science, as there is very little substantial proof which suggests that language use of this kind actively shapes thinking. It has been suggested that fundamental changes within the French language is perhaps a step too far; there are, after all, far more pressing issues for feminism. Some argue that it is difficult to understand why feminists are choosing to focus on arbitrary changes to language when closing the pay gap or increasing female presence in managerial roles would more likely have a practical impact.
The use of a second word for job titles has also been debated in many languages other than French. Is it derogatory or empowering to call oneself an ‘actrice’ instead of an ‘acteur’? Using the masculine form as the neutral could mark a step away from constantly differentiating between men and women and thinking in binary terms. Ultimately, language evolves alongside its society. Lexis and grammar are constantly evolving and it is more than likely that the next few years will bring a shift in French to a more gender-neutral way of speaking – although it remains unclear how far this will go.