A new gender-neutral pronoun included in the latest edition of a French dictionary has angered both the French government and stick-in-the-mud language traditionalists across the English Channel. The pronoun – iel – suggested as an alternative to the gender specific il (he) and elle (she) has been defined by the bigwigs at France’s Petit Robert dictionary as a pronoun for the third person which can be “used to refer to a person of any gender”.
The approach to language in France is very different from that in anglophone nations. In Britain, we take a “bottom up” approach, where the development of language comes from the ground up and is led by usage. So, when new words or phrases emerge, dictionaries follow suit rather than the other way around; in fact, in 2020, the Oxford English Dictionary added around 400 new words or phrases to its lexicon.
France, chiefly in order to protect their glorious language from vulgar, Anglo-Saxon and American bastardisation, takes a “top down” approach, with a load of old duffers from the Académie Française ruling on what new words may or may not be acceptable to French sensibilities. Public servants, including broadcasters, are bound by law to adhere to the decrees of the Académie.
François Jolivet, an MP for President Macron’s En Marche party, is not a happy bunny, deploring “this precursor of the arrival of woke ideology, the destroyer of our values. This kind of initiative ends by soiling the language and dividing users rather than uniting them.”
Mr Jolivet’s disquiet has been echoed by Bernard Cerquiglini, an editor at the authoritative Larousse dictionary, who called the new pronouns “pointless”, telling the French newspaper Le Figaro that “in French, the masculine covers the generic. It has worked like that since the times of vulgar Latin.”
Hard-right presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zimmour joined the condemnation, claiming that France is being invaded by “Anglo-Saxon” doctrines.