Masculin Féminin

Every French noun is either masculine or feminine. For instance, a table—une table—is feminine while a coffee—un café—is masculine. Adjectives, too, have feminine and masculine versions depending on the noun they are describing. An interesting man would be intéressant and an interesting woman intéressante. French learners and speakers are all too aware of this omnipresent sensitivity to gender.

But did you know that until recently, most jobs titles in French were automatically masculine? It was odd that in a language so sensitive about assigning gender, your boss—whether male or female—would be chef. The only point of differentiation would be in the article, le chef for masculine and la chef for feminine, but there was no feminine version of the word chef itself.

In a historic turnaround this past February, the Académie Française—the exclusive French council that moderates the use of the French language—announced that it would add feminine words for all professions and job titles.

The Académie’s report on the change notes that the rapid and general transformation in the place occupied by women in society and in the professional world has resulted in “an expectation on the part of a growing number of women who wish to see the feminine name of the profession or office they hold, and who aspire to see filled what they feel is a gap in the language.” This gap was especially evident in more senior job roles.

Now, the French language is filling in the gap to more accurately reflect lived realities. In most cases, the names of professions and job titles will add an e at the end, without a change in pronunciation. In other cases, the change to words will be organic and develop over time.

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Despite the guarded and diplomatic language of the Académie’s report, this change is revolutionary. Language purists, including members of the male-dominated Académie itself, have vehemently resisted such changes for years, calling them a danger to the French language or insisting that the masculine form is neutral and should be maintained.

A related issue being hotly debated in the Francophone world is that of inclusive writing or écriture inclusive. According to the rules of French, a group of people with both men and women in it is referred to in French as ils—the masculine version of “they”—as if the women didn’t exist at all. This problematic rule holds true even if a group consists of, say, 100 women and 1 man. They would still be referred to ils.

There is backlash: in 2017, over 300 French teachers signed a petition declaring that they would no longer teach the rule emphasizing masculine over the feminine in their classrooms. Earlier, in 2015, France’s High Council for Gender Equality released a report recommending 10 ways the French language could be made more gender-neutral. France now has its first elementary school textbook promoting inclusive writing to schoolchildren.

What do you think about these proposed changes to the French language? Do you believe that language can impact the way we think about gender roles?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.