France is debating a new non-binary gender pronoun. But language is a living being that can change – .

France is debating a new non-binary gender pronoun. But language is a living being that can change – .

Nearly two hundred years ago, the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote: “the more things change, the more the same is chosen”. The more things change, the more they stay the same. No matter the hour and the tide, the defenders of “tradition” and “purity” will always hold their way, armed with all the clubs at their disposal to repel it. A recent example is the storm of protests that have erupted over the recognition of a non-binary pronoun by a dictionary. Le Petit Robert, one of the leading French dictionaries, has added the word “iel” – a combination of the masculine “il” and the feminine “elle” – to its online wordlist, in an effort to be more inclusive of these. who do not identify as male or female.

The French people are, naturally, fiercely protective of their language and cultural heritage, but the outcry from some over the dictionary’s decision is baffling. Take, for example, what the First Lady of France Brigitte Macron said: “There are two pronouns: he and she… Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate. But how is the beauty of a language diminished if it opens up to welcome those who may have felt excluded before? And who decides how many pronouns are “appropriate”? It surely comes down to those who speak the language, and in the case of French, many non-binary gender people had already used the new pronoun to identify themselves.
And that is precisely why Le Petit Robert decided to include the new pronoun – to reflect the reality that a language, just like those who use it, is a living being that grows and changes over time. To those who rant against this indisputable fact, like the Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer, who would have declared that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language”, we can only say: C ‘is life.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 2, 2021 under the title ‘Pardon our French’.


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