It's time to get to grips with the difference between biological sex and grammatical genderby Sam Leith / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
If you think we have it hard when it comes to gender-inclusivity, spare a thought for the French. We continue to grapple, most of us in good faith, with the question of pronouns for the non-binary; and we didn’t have much trouble, not really, defaulting to “chair” instead of “chairman.”
But what on earth do you do when your whole language is sexist? Or, to put it less clickbaitily, when a binary understanding of gender is inscribed in the grammar of your language? This is the problem facing the French. When I was six or seven, my very first French lesson involved my teacher listing a collection of objects on the blackboard and cheerily sexing them. The chair was female, he said. The flower was male. And our teacher’s moustache was, he told us with some satisfaction, female.
This has been the status quo in France for a long time. A group of job interviewees is “les candidats” if it contains even one man; and “les candidates” only if it’s all-female. Progressives want to see these replaced with usages such as “candidat(e)s” which removes the default-male assumption. But if you start piling on the adjectives, each of which must agree, you’ll end up with a lot of brackets pretty fast. The Académie française, seeing this as the thin end of a long wedge, is making high-pitched sounds of alarm: “The multiplication of the orthographic and syntactic marks that [inclusive writing] induces leads to a disunited language, disparate in its expression, which creates a confusion that borders on illegibility.”
But this is before we even get into the question of non-binary or trans people: “Candidat(e*)s”? Here’s why this strikes me as interesting. Most of the argument over trans recognition takes place across the borderline between nature and culture; over the question of how gender identification (an interior state of being not susceptible to outside interrogation) should be recognised by public institutions and enshrined in law or language. Crudely, if I’m born with a male body and identify as female, does that make me female?
Physical, chromosomal sex is a biological donné (or, perhaps, donnée): it’s a hard gift from reality. Evolution can alter it; culture can’t. Laws, institutions and attitudes are cultural objects:…