It's time to get to grips with the difference between biological sex and grammatical genderby Sam Leith / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.”