France comes to the rescue of civilization again — from Guardian: “Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially ‘fascist'”

4 Nov

French language watchdogs say ‘non’ to gender-neutral style

The Académie Française, France’s ultimate authority on the language, sparks national row after describing inclusive writing as an ‘aberration’

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo flanked by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo flanked by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife. Hidalgo insists on being called Madame la Maire over the masculine version of the title. Photograph: Charles Platiau/AFP/Getty Images

The Académie Française, France’s ultimate authority on the French language, is under fierce attack for describing gender-neutral text as an “aberration” that puts the language in “mortal danger”.

The “Immortals”, as the 40 academy members – only five of whom are women – are known, have sparked a national row after declaring that “inclusive writing” has no place in the country’s grammar books, or anywhere else for that matter.

In a statement full of hyperbole, the academy condemned the increasing use of new spellings aimed at making written French less masculine, arguing that it could not see the “desired objective” of the changes.

French grammatical rules give the masculine form of a noun precedence over the female. Women on an all-female board of company directors are called directrices; if one man joins the board, they are referred to collectively as directeurs. Inclusive writing has them written as directeur.trice.s or directeur-trice-s – admittedly more clumsy but representing both forms of the word. The word students becomes étudiant.e.s; a gender-mixed group of actors would be written acteur.trice.s.

For years, French presidents have addressed citizens as les Français et les Françaises instead of the strictly correct les Français, but the recent row was sparked by a new textbook aimed at primary school children that employs the inclusive style, and came into use for the first time this year.

After a vote last month, the Académie Française issued a unanimous “non” to the new style, deeming it far too complicated.

“Faced with the aberration of ‘inclusive writing’, the French language finds itself in mortal danger,” its statement read.

“We find it hard to identify the desired objective and how to overcome the practical obstacles of writing and reading – both visually and out loud – and pronunciation. This will increase the burden for teachers and even more so for readers.”

Supporters of inclusive writing say the new forms are aimed at use in written communication, not speech or literature. They also point out the Académie is hardly a model of gender equality.

Established by Louis XIII’s chief minister Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, outlawed after the French Revolution and restored by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803, there have been a total of 726 members, only eight of whom have been women. The first, Belgian-born novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, was elected in 1980.

In 2014, the academy opposed the feminisation of job titles, making Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s subsequent insistence on being called Madame la Maire (and not Madame le Maire) grammatically incorrect.

Eliane Viennot, professor of literature at Jean-Monnet University in St-Étienne and author of the book Non le masculin ne l’emporte pas sur le féminin! (No the masculine does not take precedence over the feminine!), said: “They [the academy] are extremely conservative.”

“If you ask people to list their favourite écrivains (writers) they will only mention male authors,” Viennot told France24 television. “It’s not until you ask them to list their favourite écrivains and écrivaines that they think of women.”

In an opinion piece in Libération, she called for France to “pull the plug” on the academy.

“For 30 years they have never stopped trying to torpedo any evolution of the French language towards equality,” Viennot wrote.

Last month the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who described himself as a “feminist man”, opposed the use of the new style and said the row over it was “useless”.

“We must return to the basics of vocabulary and grammar and this just adds an unnecessary complication,” Blanquer told BFMTV.

In 2015, France’s High Council for Equality between Women and Men, published a guide encouraging public officials to adopt forms of communication “without sexual stereotypes”.

See also: The French protect their language like the British protect their currency from 2013 by  where full Barthes quote is cited:

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. [my emphases]  Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.”


Priorities, eh?

That every language offers a world view — not just semantically — but through its very structure, is a crucial observation I think.  The malleability of English is something I always tried to make my students understand and take advantage of (“Well, that’s not really right…but you could probably use it that way and if you were a native speaker no one would think twice about it…”).  The classicism and rigor of French is something entirely different, and there’s no indication it stifles expression in written or spoken discourse, like we like to think — erroneously, or at least simplistically — that Atticizing classicism stifled Byzantine literary culture; I know one grad student, now professor of mediaeval Greek literature who thinks Anna Comnene‘s 11th century Alexiad is written in a “stunningly beautiful” Atticized Greek.

My real issue with this nonsense is not just that “directeur.trice.s or directeur-trice-s” or “étudiant.e.s” are abominably ugly; or that they’re just clumsy: I had colleagues in ESL who used to force students to use “He or she” or “his or her” or the hideous “S/he” when referring to a hypothetical ungendered individual — these p.c. pedants actually used to mark a plain “he” as incorrect!  (One Polish student said to me once: “Can we just use ‘it’?”)

My problem is that, like all identity politics, it’s politically useless.  Run for office; collect signatures; root out and muckrack corruption journalistically when you can, or real injustice, or real inequality; join a union; join a street mob, for fuck’s sake, and throw some Molotovs.  Do anything but sit around discussing this kind of narishkeit.


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