French dictionary accused of ‘wokeism’ over gender-inclusive pronoun

by Dylan Lee.

Education minister condemns use of ‘iel’, saying inclusive writing is not the future of the French language.

Image source: Twitter.com

During the last month of my exchange study in France, French lawmakers were revolting against the inclusion of a “non-binary pronoun” into the French language by the newest edition of the Le Robert online dictionary. The controversy is the latest example of pushback in some French quarters against cultural theories on race and gender that have been embraced by younger generations in particular. Critics deem them American imports that aim to pit people with different identities against each other, chipping away at the French ideals of unity and equality.

“Inclusive writing is not the future of the French language,” tweeted Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister of Education. “Hence, even though our students are consolidating their fundamental knowledge, they cannot have this as a reference.” MP François Jolivet accused the dictionary of succumbing to “wokeism” by including the pronoun and its definition.

Le Petit Robert, a well-known dictionary (otherwise called the Petit Robert), was founded by Paul Robert in 1967. The dictionary has since published four editions and is used widely over francophone countries. “Iel”, the new pronoun that was published, is a gender-neutral merging of the feminine “elle”  and masculine “il” personal pronouns. The dictionary describes it as a “personal subject pronoun of the third person singular and plural, used to refer to a person regardless of gender.”

The recent decision of the popular French dictionary include a new gender non-conforming pronoun has highlighted the controversy around the efforts to make the romantic French language more inclusive. New discussions surrounding the topic vary from positive to negative, with French politicians fighting it and some supporting it. 

Needless to say, the new pronoun has sparked new controversy, especially in French politics. “You must not manipulate the French language, whatever the cause,” French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said in a New York Times interview. Many believe that French is a language that needs to be protected because of its romanticism and refinement. “There are two pronouns: he and she,” France’s first lady, Brigette Macron, said in a New York Times interview. “Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.”

Throughout the arguments in France, many teachers at Ecole Perceval were coming out in support of the new publishing. Some teachers have even been using “iel” in their classes already. Their personal belief is that it is great that Le Robert is documenting current shifts in the French language, because languages are living and ever-evolving, so it’s only natural that some things will change as people and prominent values change from era to era.

Most students at Ecole Perceval are also in support of the new pronoun as well. Many feel that the addition of “iel” helps them feel more comfortable and accepted in a classroom setting.

Petit Robert’s publishing has not yet been accepted by the Académie Française (French Academy), and as such is not widely used in French teaching. The Académie Française was founded in 1634 to protect the linguistic purity of the French language, and many believe that without its approval, “iel” will never be fully accepted. 

As [the pronoun is] not yet officially acknowledged, it doesn’t appear in school textbooks; however, many students have asked about it more over the last couple of years and teachers at Ecole Perceval are always happy to share anything they know about the most recent developments in this discussion. As Waldorf teachers, they value teaching that involves continuously revising the curriculum to reflect what is current.

Even before Petit Robert published “iel”, teachers at Ecole Perceval were happy to use non-binary pronouns for their students. Like our teachers at WSP, many teachers there believe that using appropriate pronouns is necessary to create a healthy and inclusive environment in the classroom for their students. In any case, the students and teachers there understand that it’s important to hear both sides of any story. Even in the new controversy that this publishing has created, teachers at Ecole Perceval believe that it’s important to value this discussion but respect differing opinions at the same time which can be a challenging factor in a culture and language that is as complex as the French.

However, this change could cause a trickle-down effect that would change the French language. For example, when considering past participle and adjective agreement, the impact of a non-binary pronoun could be quite extensive, so from that perspective, as a non-native Francophone, I can understand why the proposed change is overwhelming to some French speakers.

When the topic came up at the dinner table at my host family’s home, my host mother Marielle Roussilhe explained, “The world’s changed, people have changed, the generations are changing, and that change is part of the whole process of life.” As the world evolves, the French language is evolving with it, and hopefully, the general French population is ready to move with the changing times. 

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