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: change can be willed and campaigned for. A language sits somewhere in between these things: on the one hand it’s a made thing and it changes all the time; on the other, it behaves like a hard gift from reality. Linguistic change is a rolling referendum; it is—pace the Académie française—not something which can be imposed from the top down; nor, by definition, can a small group of users effect systemic change. It’s effectively a majoritarian tyranny.
And, the key thing: the vocabulary (crudely, the content) can change pretty fast but the grammar (crudely, the form) changes very slowly indeed. A change of social attitudes can extirpate or repurpose the “n-word” in most speech communities in a generation; but getting rid of a case, or a tense, or an aspect of the inflectional system, takes hundreds of years—and gender is pretty well baked into French.
The saving grace is perhaps to reassert the difference between biological sex and grammatical gender. That moustache, after all, is female. In German, turnips are female and young ladies are neuter. (Mark Twain has a funny bit in A Tramp Abroad where he purports to translate from a German school book: “Wilhelm, where is the turnip?” “She has gone to the kitchen.” “Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?” “It has gone to the opera.”)
There’s no swift way to remove grammatical gender from the French language, then; but we need not be too sensitive about associating it with the human kind. And we can take encouragement from the Nigerian language Fula, which has 24 different genders or noun-classes—none of them based on sexual difference.