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How conservative tradition became the French language’s talon d’Achille

The Académie Française, the ancient body meant to protect the French language, has just released an astoundingly regressive document. On Oct. 26, it made a statement on "so-called inclusive language," referring to gender-neutral language, a question both social and grammatical that has torn French society. It says it is issuing a "solemn caution."

Facing the "aberration" of gender-inclusive styles, the French language is henceforth in "mortal peril." (Yes, it says that.) Adaptations such as écrivaine for female writer, or la ministre for a female minister, will end in a "disunified language, disparate in its expression, creating a confusion that verges on illegibility." The new spellings and syntactical signs will burden teachers and complicate reading. The dream of a coherent francophonie – the international community of French speakers – will be annihilated by the additional spellings and complexity "to the benefit of other languages that will profit from this confusion to prevail around the world." ("Other languages," of course, means chaotic, adaptive, absorbent English, the ancient enemy.)

The issue in French is that grammatical gender is impossible to eliminate, and it usually has little to do with actual gender. Forks are feminine and ballet is masculine for no social reason. But the insistence that masculine forms of address are neutral is, of course, false. If ministers and writers are automatically masculine; if any mixed group of people is automatically masculine (according to the ominous rule le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin), then grammatical gender does reinforce social expectations.

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English has the problem to a lesser degree. "Every child should wash his hands" is the old-fashioned way of representing a mixed-gender group, and we found simple workarounds a long time ago to no one's dissatisfaction.

The Academy's position is conservative, intransigent and alarmist. This is confusing to us, as so many members of the Academy are writers, literary writers. They are artists. And the Academy takes it on itself to be proudly and intimately involved in the arts: It administers prizes in fiction, theatre, poetry, short stories, painting, cinema. We have come to expect artists to have unconventional views.

And, by and large, in French history, they have. The social agitator Voltaire, the wild romantics Chateaubriand and Lamartine, the bisexual avant-gardist Cocteau, the absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco … all were academicians. Today the Academy includes the Lebanese-born author Amin Maalouf and the Haitian-born Montrealer Dany Laferrière. I wouldn't expect conservatism from these guys.

They are mostly guys, of course. There are four female members of 34 currently sitting. There have only been eight women in its history, and it was founded in 1635. (The first woman, the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, was elected in 1980.)

The nod in their communiqué to the global power of English reveals an important reason for the very existence of the Académie Française. One of the Academy's most persistent tasks is to agitate for the elimination of anglicisms. The Academy has to preserve the language – an essentially conservative role. Every ritual of the Academy stresses permanence and stability. The members are elected for life and known as Immortals, as the language is immortal. On election, they must give a speech praising the previous holder of their seat – the practice ensures the illusion of a complete unanimity of opinion. It must appear monolithic.

The great lesson of this global competition with English is that English has accomplished its world dominance through taking the opposite tack. English is far more flexible; we hoover up foreign words; we welcome vernaculars. There is no English academy. Our dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. Our usage guides are often written by private enterprises such a newspapers, and they compete among one another until consensus emerges. Now, English is the third-most spoken language in the world. French is 18th.

In English, because we lack grammatical gender to the same degree, our approach to gender-neutral job titles actually consists of eliminating the feminine rather than stressing it. We change actress to actor for the same reason that "doctoress" would be unnecessary. This is not a contradiction in goals: we just have an easier time with this question, because of our grammar. Our articles (the, a) are all neuter. We don't have to struggle with the political implications of gendered articles.

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The Académie Française's role is only to suggest usage, not to enforce it. Its rulings are not binding on government, for example. And they don't seem to be having much effect. Emmanuel Macron is already referring to people in his cabinet as "madame la ministre." The change is going to happen without the Immortals and their rulings will be faintly ridiculous from now on.

I always thought it romantic that poets and playwrights were enshrined as heroes of French culture and given an official role in discussions of protocol. I always thought that made the French cooler than we were. But it turns out that French artists and philosophers given embroidered jackets and admirals' hats become so entranced with tradition that they forget they are deliberating under the giant word ÉGALITÉ.

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