by Rosie Bell
It would be difficult to argue that identity and self expression don't hold importance in the eyes of young people today. Discussions of pronouns and identity have been common over the past few years alongside the popularisation of gender-neutral and neo-pronouns amongst non-binary people. But as the world moves into this age of acceptance for all, languages must develop and change to be able to keep up with the progressions of society. However, it is often easier said than done, with some languages being more resistant to change than others.
For English speakers, a gender neutral pronoun is not particularly difficult to adjust to--we already have one. The pronouns ‘they/them’ are the third person plural pronouns of the English language. But, English speakers will also use these pronouns in the singular, if the gender of the person discussed is not known.
Think about it-- if you were to ask a friend if they (look, I’m doing it right now) were seeing a friend later, but you didn’t know their gender, wouldn’t you ask “are you seeing them later?” A not-so-rare singular they! Therefore, it's easy to see why, despite some resistance, English speakers can fairly easily adopt ‘they/them’ as a third, gender-neutral pronoun. The singular ‘they/them’ of course has its critics--as does all change--but the world moves on without them, as in 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook, a sort of book of standards set for journalists, featured “they” as a gender-neutral form. And jumping onto that bandwagon came the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which added “they” as the pronoun that should be used for a “single person whose identity is nonbinary” in 2019.
However, in languages that include more than just gendered pronouns, the switch can become slightly more complicated. To take French as an example, in terms of the pronouns, you can find not only gendered third person singular pronouns (il, elle), but the continuation of gendered pronouns in the third person plural also. This means that they do not have the same luxury of a nice gender-neutral pronoun, built in and inconspicuous, as English speakers do. The pronoun ‘they’ in French is ‘ils/elles’ depending on the occupants of the group one is describing. If the group is entirely male, or mixed, then one should use ‘ils’ and if the group in reference is all female, then one should use ‘elles.’ Not only does this seem to erase the existence of nonbinary people, but also to an extent women, whose presence is largely dismissed through this grammatical feature. If ‘elles’ are a group of all women, why should the presence of one ‘il’ erase that? What is it about that man that is grammatically overpowering the presence of all the women in that group? Perhaps it is a discussion for another day, but activists who are passionate about changing language to be more inclusive are questioning why it is the masculine that is the universal term, and the feminine that is only used in exceptions. Some French speakers have hit upon a solution of gender neutral pronoun ‘iel’ (or occasionally ‘ille’) which is intended to be a combination of the two pronouns currently in use. This does seem a reasonable rectification for the Pronouns Problem, but unfortunately does not solve the issue with gendered nouns. For this, francophones suggest the inclusion of asterisks to include all genders in the noun; for example, “les ami*e*s.”
Alas, this regrettably does not solve the biggest obstacle facing activists which is the approval of the illustrious Academie Française. Despite the efforts to make the French language a little more neutral, the ancient institution’s grip on the language will not loosen on this occasion, as in a declaration from the Academie on inclusive writing they anointed themselves the “guardian of the norm” against the "'inclusive' aberration.” Following this, in 2017, the French government banned the use of inclusive gender-neutral language in official documents with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe saying “the masculine is a neutral form that should be used in terms applicable to women as well as men.”
So, it’s looking like a “non” from the Academie, mostly on the possibly understandable basis that the addition of the asterisks make French on the whole harder to learn. It must be said though, that despite their great influence, it can be difficult to control a language as it evolves to fit its speakers and their needs, so one may find that gender-neutrality will be this “norm” before long, and will require a solution.