Sparks fly as a neutral pronoun included in the French dictionary

Sparks fly as a neutral pronoun included in the French dictionary

Paris – It’s a neutral pronoun that proves anything but: a non-binary pronoun added to a respected French dictionary has sparked a fierce linguistic conflict in the country.

Le Petit Robert introduced “iel” — a merger of “il” (he) and “elle” (she) — in its online version last month. While the term is gaining in popularity among young people, it is still far from being widely used, or even understood, by many French speakers.

Although the change initially went unnoticed, a tumultuous debate erupted this week in a country that prides itself on its human rights tradition but also fiercely protects its cultural heritage from foreign interference. In one camp are the traditionalists, including some political leaders, who criticize the move as a sign that France is leaning toward an American-style “wake up” ideology. In the other there is a new generation of citizens who adopt non-dualism as the norm.


“It is very important that dictionaries include the pronoun ‘iel’ in their references because it reflects how use of the term is now accepted,” said Dora Simone Claude, a 32-year-old doctoral student who identifies with “iel.” “

They added, “It is also a way of confronting the French Academy, which remains in its conservative corner and continues to ignore and disdain users of the French language.”

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer is not in the same camp. He took to Twitter on Wednesday to say that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language.” The 56-year-old former law professor warned that schoolchildren should not use “iel” as a valid term despite its inclusion in Le Robert, seen as a linguistic reference on French since 1967.

François Jolivet, a deputy for President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, also expressed his dislike. He suggested that the non-binary pronouns are a troubling sign that France is adopting a “wake-up” ideology.


Jollivet wrote a letter to the bastion of the French language, the 400-year-old Académie Française, claiming that “Le Robert’s unilateral campaign is a clear ideological interference that undermines our common language and its influence.”

The director general of Le Robert Editions, Charles Pimpent, jumped to the dictionary’s defense Wednesday in a statement. Far from dictating which terms to use, he said, Le Petit Robert had been clarifying the meaning of the word, and now it’s growing in currency nationwide.

Since ‘the meaning of the word iel cannot be understood by reading it alone,’ said Pimpenet, ‘it seems useful to us to assign its meaning to those who meet it, whether they wish to use it or … reject it.’

“Robert’s job is to monitor and report on the development of a changing and diverse French language,” he said.

In 2017, the French Academy warned that moves to make French more gender-neutral would create “a disjointed language, with divergent expressions, that could create almost illegal confusion”.


Gendered languages ​​such as French are seen as a particular hurdle for proponents of non-binary terms as all nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine, unlike in English.

Not all European countries are moving at the same speed as France. In Greece, where all nouns have not two, but three possible types, there is no informal informal pronoun, but groups that support it suggest the use of ‘that’.

In Spain, after former Deputy Prime Minister and feminist Carmen Calvo asked the Royal Spanish Academy for advice on the use of inclusive language in the constitution, its response the following year was crystal clear: “Inclusive language” means “the use of masculine language to refer to men and women.”

___ Associated Press writers Arno Pedram in Paris, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, and Alberto Ars in Valbuena, Spain contributed

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