Updated: December 2, 2021 9:47:17 am
Nearly two hundred years ago, the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. No matter what time and tide bring, defenders of “tradition” and “purity” will always stand its path, armed with all the cudgels at their disposal to beat it back. A recent example is the storm of protests that erupted over the recognition of a non-binary pronoun by a dictionary. Le Petit Robert, one of the leading French dictionaries, has added the word “iel” — a combination of the masculine “il” and the feminine “elle” — in its online list of words, in an effort to be more inclusive of those who do not identify as male or female.
The people of France are, understandably, fiercely protective of their language and cultural heritage, but the outcry by some over the dictionary’s move is mystifying. Take, for instance, what France’s First Lady Brigitte Macron said: “There are two pronouns: he and she… Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.” But in what way is the beauty of a language diminished if it opens up to accommodate those who may have felt excluded before? And who decides how many pronouns are “appropriate”? Surely that comes down to those who speak the language and, in the case of French, many gender non-binary people had already been using the new pronoun to self-identify.
And that is precisely why Le Petit Robert decided to include the new pronoun — to reflect the reality that a language, much like those who use it, is a living thing that grows and changes over time. To those who fulminate against this incontrovertible fact, like education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who reportedly said that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language”, one can only say: C’est la vie.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 2, 2021 under the title ‘Pardon our French’.