Can The French Language Adapt To Gender-Neutral Pronouns?

The gender-neutral pronoun ‘iel’ was added to a major French dictionary recently. Strong reactions have ensued.
couple walking down the street smiling french pronoun iel

For many languages that don’t already have gender-neutral pronouns built into their grammar — the most common exceptions being languages like Indonesian and Turkish, which only have one pronoun for everyone to begin with — gender-neutral pronouns are often fairly recent inventions that are in various stages of gaining traction and widespread acceptance. When Babbel Magazine compiled a guide to various gender-neutral pronouns in other languages in 2018, the most commonly used non-gendered pronouns in French included iel and ille. At that time, they were not likely to be recognized outside of LGBTQ+ spaces. Though they’re still used by a minority of French speakers, the paradigm is shifting very quickly after iel was added to Le Robert, a major French dictionary, in October 2021.

The reactions to the decision have been anything but neutral. It actually looks as though three letters are doing a lot of work to illustrate the current generational divide in France. Young people are more likely to support the move toward a more inclusive French, while older people are more likely to decry it as a desecration of the language.

Much of the pushback has come from prominent politicians — like François Jolivet, a centrist French Parliament member — asserting that nonbinary pronouns are the import of an American “woke” ideology (referred to as wokisme in French). After banning the teaching of inclusive writing in schools earlier in 2021, French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer also tweeted that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language” and that the dictionary entry should not be considered a valid reference for schoolchildren.

There is a long tradition of conservatism around the French language. This is largely thanks to the influence of the nearly 400-year-old Académie Française (“The French Academy”), an institution that sets linguistic standards and acts as a gatekeeper of the language, mostly to protect it from foreign influence. In 2017, L’Académie Française warned that attempting to make French more gender-inclusive would lead to “a disunited language, disparate in its expression, which creates a confusion that borders on illegibility.” That same year, then-Prime Minister Edouard Philippe banned gender-neutral French from all official government documents.

Thomas Liano, DE&I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) expert at Babbel and PhD candidate in French literature, says this discussion is part of a “much broader discourse on inclusive writing, which has been [at] the forefront of French media for 5 to 10 years now and monopolizes the same players: the French Academy, a very conservative body [that has owned] the French language since the 17th century, a rather socially conservative government that is obsessed with ‘it being too complicated for the children,’ and a mediatic landscape where linguistics matters are often publicly discussed.”

How Iel Made It Into The Dictionary

Iel is a portmanteau of the masculine pronoun il and the feminine pronoun elle (iel is pronounced like “yell”). The term has been gaining traction for years on social media and in various texts. It was precisely this “increasing usage” that led Le Robert to create an entry for it.

As Le Robert’s managing director Charles Bimbenet explained in a statement, “Le Robert’s mission is to observe the evolution of a French language in flux.” He added, “the meaning of the word iel cannot be understood by reading it alone…it seemed useful to us to specify its meaning for those who encounter it, whether they wish to use it or reject it.” Bimbenet added that the majority of feedback has been positive so far.

This is completely in line with the rationale dictionary editors all over the world use to decide which new words should be added to the dictionary. If a new word has been around for a few years, is catching on quickly or becomes rapidly legitimized through some other means, dictionary editors might choose to give the word “official” status. Ultimately, a dictionary is meant to serve as a navigation guide for the language as it actually exists in real life.

“I think the point of a dictionary is to reflect the state of language, not to guide its evolution,” Liano said. “I also think that this whole discourse alarmingly forgets that what is at stake is the life of real people, who do exist, not just linguistics. And that even if it is obvious for everyone that this is a political debate, the framing of it as a linguistic one is very problematic.”

The Case Of The Swedish Hen

It can help put things in perspective to consider that one of the most successful case studies of a language incorporating a new gender-neutral pronoun also, at first, involved a reactionary pushback.

The Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen is believed to have been coined in the 1960s, and in the decades since (particularly since 2000), its use has become commonplace in the media, parliament, everyday speech and official texts. Though it was met with skepticism at first that its use would muddle the clarity of who was being referred to, almost everyone in Sweden understands hen today.

Of course, you can’t make a perfect comparison between Swedish and French, either linguistically or culturally. In French, there is no neutral grammatical gender — all nouns must be coded as masculine or feminine. Swedish only has two grammatical genders: common and neuter, which don’t correspond to human gender. The nouns for “man” and “woman” actually have the same grammatical gender, but people are still referred to as han (he) and hon (she) — and now, in some cases, hen (they).

Still, hen originally started out in a similar fashion to iel. For decades, it was mostly only used within small academic and activist circles, and it didn’t break into mainstream awareness without launching a major cultural debate first. In Sweden, some people believed the acceptance of a gender-neutral pronoun would threaten the very foundation of their world order. Or at best, it was seen as an unnecessary intrusion in the name of making a political statement.

But in addition to giving nonbinary people a way to recognize themselves within their own language, the adoption of hen also proved extremely useful for all those times one might need to refer to a third person whose gender is either unknown or irrelevant to the conversation.

The Issue With French

There are a few specifically French reasons why part of French society is so resistant to the idea of gender-neutral pronouns. These involve both the grammatical obstacles embedded in the French language, as well as a more culturally motivated resistance to what is seen by some as an American form of identity politics.

Éric Gillaux, Content Marketing Manager at Babbel, said at least some of this is being used as a wedge issue to influence voters ahead of the upcoming election.

“The iel conversation is not a debate, from what I can perceive, but rather another ‘wokisme’ topic, another subject that politicians are waving around like a scarecrow [with] only four months to go before the elections,” says Gillaux.

However, nonbinary pronouns also present a threat to France’s idea of itself as a universalist, colorblind, egalitarian society.

““France is very strongly against identity politics. In this context, anti-racist, feminist or queer discourses are often read as excessively identitarian and consequently opposed to French universalist and democratic values,” says Liano. “So, in some ways, this is also a sort of catalyst for an anti-trans discourse that isn’t really far from the U.K. TERF discourse.”

“Aside from that, it is a societal question: as third and fourth-wave feminism did not really happen in the mainstream, France’s conception of gender is often very narrow. Even progressive people tend to not know what to do with nonbinary identities, as a large part of the left is still very focused on the gender binary.”

As Yale lecturer William Ravon explained to the Yale Daily News, opposition to iel doesn’t fall neatly along the political spectrum — it implies such a monumental reconstruction of the language that some French queer cisgender people reject it as well.

Finally, it’s not as easy to integrate iel into the French language as it has been for “they” to become more commonplace in English. In French, grammatical gender extends beyond pronouns to adjectives, verbs, nouns and past participles.

“Using iel still leaves open the question of what is to be done with the rest of the sentence, structurally speaking,” explains Liano. “So the use of iel raises significant linguistic questions and opens the door to a significant rethinking of French linguistic structure.”

“And also, I think by fighting iel, we are refusing to embrace what might be the most interesting feature of a language: its capacity for evolution, for invention and for adaptation to its speakers’ needs and reality,” says Liano. “It’s the very point of literature, and I regret that a country with such pride for its cultural heritage refuses the very principle that made its literature so relevant for centuries.”

Learn to express yourself in a new language.
Try Babbel