This week we're going to talk about gender inequality in my French conversation group.
When you first started learning French and even now you are confronted with the fact that in French nouns have a gender. French nouns can be feminine or masculine.
There are also pronouns that mark the gender in French such as: il / elle in the singular and ils / elles in the plural. And there are also grammar rules related to the feminine and masculine.
Because of this, we sometimes notice weirdness, strange things that can make us think that the French language is sexist towards women. Is this true? Let's see it right now, here we go!
This is a subject that can be discussed for hours, so I will try to be concise and bring you the information that I find most interesting.
In the French language, nouns have a gender, let's say: une chaise / un livre, etc.
But that's not really shocking and I don't think there was a voluntary choice on that. On the other hand, other elements can make us think that the French language is sexist.
Several French words in the masculine form have the meaning they should have and in the feminine form they take on another meaning which is pejorative, unfavorable.
For example: “un gars” it's a familiar word for a man. A “garce”, the feminine of "gars", it's an insult to women.
It's also evident in the names of animals: un chien, (a dog), it's indeed un chien (a dog). But, une chienne (a female dog) is the feminine of dog means a female dog, but it is also an insult to women.
Un chat is a cat. But, "une chatte" (a female cat) is a pejorative term for a woman's sex.
Of course, on this, it was not the original purpose of these words to have this meaning, but it is us humans who gave this meaning to these words.
Another thing, in France, from a very young age we learn that in grammar: the masculine always wins over the feminine.
For example: if there are 99 men and one woman in a group, I will designate them by the pronoun “ils”. And if there are 99 women and one man, I will always refer to them by the pronoun “ils”.
Also, I will say: Antoine et Marie sont grands. And not grandes.
What is very surprising, surprising, is that before the 17th century, this grammar rule of the masculine prevailing over the feminine did not exist!
Before, the rule of proximity was used, that is to say that the noun closest in the sentence to the adjective was granted with the latter.
So, in the sentence: "Antoine et Marie sont grands”, with this rule it would have given : Antoine et Marie sont grandes” or “Marie et Antoine sont grands”.
It was during the standardization of French by the French Academy that it was decided that the masculine always prevails in French. To justify this choice, a grammarian, a specialist in grammar, stated that :
« Le genre masculin, étant le plus noble, il doit prédominer toutes les fois que le masculin et le féminin se trouvent ensemble » / "The masculine gender, being the most noble, must predominate whenever the masculine and feminine are found together.
The French Academy has recognized the masculine gender as the neutral gender.
That's why when we talk about a group in general, we will always use the masculine gender.
If I talk about the inhabitants in France, I will say" habitants” in the masculine form, which includes men and women who live in France. Whereas, there are more women than men living in France. In French, the quantity does not prevail, it is the masculine which prevails.
There is another thing that provokes a great debate in the French language. These are the professions, the professional titles.
Why doesn't the Académie française accept that we write "une professeure" with a -e while we say "une Française" with a -e ?
Once again, before the 17th century, there was no problem with feminizing the French professions. There were : doctoresses, des chirurgiennes, des autrices, and event médecines (of women who were doctors).
The use of the feminine form for professions disappeared in the 17th century, especially for professions that were considered noble: doctor, author, minister, etc.
And even if at the time you could hear “pharmacienne”, for example. Une pharmacienne did not mean a woman who worked in a pharmacy. No. Une pharmacienne referred to the pharmacist's wife.
Little by little, we can notice that the feminization of professions is appearing again. In Quebec, Belgium and Switzerland in particular, it is much more common to write une professeure (with an -e).
In France, it's more complicated, we still have this French Academy that decides if a word is correct or not. Even today, if a woman is appointed minister or president she will be called : “Madame le Ministre” or “Madame le Président”. However, it's quite possible not to accept it:
Nowadays, we hear more and more about inclusive writing.
Inclusive writing is based on three main principles:
- the agreement of jobs, professional titles according to gender (une maire, une autrice, etc.);
- At the end of the masculine which prevails on the feminine, we will then write "les habitant·e·s"or say "les habitants et les habitantes".
- We should also avoid using the word "Homme" which today designates all humans: men and women included.
Inclusive writing is not yet standardized in France and it is controversial. In Quebec, however, inclusive writing has been adopted.
We must keep in mind that a language is alive and especially that a language reflects our society.
At certain times in French history, the place of women was not very favorable, this was reflected in the French language. Today, the French language is evolving and will continue to evolve.
Of course, there are people who are reluctant, who are not in favor of changes and who think that a language cannot be modified.
However, we have seen throughout history that language is a communication tool that reflects our current reality. The language must be in accordance with the human beings that we are today and with our current social evolution.
I'll see you soon for new adventures, in French of course! 🇫🇷