World / Social Issues

France's ban on gender-neutral language sets off national debate

Reuters

France has banned the use of gender-neutral language in official documents, cheering defenders of linguistic tradition and angering feminists who see it as a setback for equal rights.

Word declensions in the highly regularized French language mean the ending of many words signals whether they refer to men or women, and so-called inclusive writing had been used to get around this and make some words gender-neutral.

But in a memo to ministers Tuesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe banned inclusive writing, saying: “In official documents, the masculine is a neutral form that should be used for terms applicable to women as well as men.”

The move split opinion in France, which takes the preservation of its language and tradition very seriously.

“Excellent decision,” prominent journalist Jerome Godefroy said on Twitter in reaction to Philippe’s decision. “The linguistic over-reacting of the politically correct, bourgeois-bohemian left can bugger off.”

Inclusive writing was recommended by the state equality commission in 2015 and has increasingly been adopted by ministries, universities and school textbooks.

It essentially inserts punctuation in the middle of words — for example “ami(e)s” or “ami·e·s” instead of “amis” — to make the word “friends” cover both genders, as opposed to the masculine that normally takes precedence.

The initiative has sparked fierce criticism, with the Academie Francaise, a centuries-old institution and guardian of the nation’s language, saying that inclusive writing constitutes a “mortal danger” to French.

However, advocates say it promotes gender equality and smashes stereotypes.

“It is interesting to note that the use of the feminine form causes no objection for jobs such as cook or nurse, while for chancellor or prosecutor it is anathema,” Danielle Bousquet and Francoise Vouillot, two members from France’s High Council for Gender Equality, told the newspaper Le Monde earlier this week.

Gender-neutral language has also stirred debate in Britain, where furor erupted after Natasha Devon, a former government mental health champion, told the heads of leading girls’ schools on Tuesday they should stop calling pupils “girls” or “ladies” because it reminds them of their gender.

“Britain is losing its mind,” tweeted British talk show host Piers Morgan on Wednesday, in reaction to Devon’s speech.

In Germany, where nouns also have specific genders, the justice ministry said in 2014 that all state bodies should use gender-neutral language in official documents.