Does language impact the expression of identity if an individual is non-binary, that is, if they don’t classify themselves as male/man or female/woman? Our planet has many different languages, some of which are non-gendered or genderless (like Chinese, Estonian, and Finnish), some of which are “natural gendered,” meaning that they distinguish gender through pronouns for people, but not for inanimate objects (e.g., book, house), as in English and Swedish, and some of which are gendered (like Spanish, German, and French). The French language, one of Canada’s official languages, has a significant number of gendered descriptors which “must” be used to express the language “properly”. In French, words like “le” (masculine) and “la” (feminine) are used to refer to inanimate objects (le livre [the book], la maison [the house]), but does it make sense to refer to inanimate objects as masculine or feminine? Things get even more complicated when using pronouns: “elle” refers to a girl/woman (“elles” in plural), and “il” refers to a boy/man (“ils” in plural). But this situation lends itself to the following question: If a person does not identify as male/man or female/woman, then how would one use these descriptors? Would these terms be potentially harmful to someone who is non-binary? Should this method used to describe or identify items and people be updated?
Non-binary individuals can find themselves in an uncomfortable position when presenting themselves or when others try and communicate with them in gendered languages. Unfortunately, in many cases, there are no alternative options apart from masculine or feminine descriptors in French, and this gendered language may also shape our thoughts about other people (Pappas, 2012). “It’s impossible to [find words that work] in a neutral way, you have to choose. Even the non-sexuated word ‘personne’ has a gender, which is feminine” (De La Marnierre, 2017).
I asked the following question to some Queen’s students: “For those of you who speak French fluently, how do you tackle the issue around speaking with non-binary gendered individuals in order to be inclusive?” I had many responses, most of which included that it would be very challenging, that there aren’t words to replace gendered nouns and pronouns etc., and that it is almost impossible. A friend of a student, Peter Buck, who is a fluent French-speaking officer cadet in the military stated that “it would be extremely difficult and [I] have no idea how [I] would be able to actually speak to someone if they wanted to be referred to in gender-neutral terms” (Buck, 2019).
During an interview, Queen’s student, Ally Forbes (2019) stated, “I feel bad for anyone that’s not cisgendered trying to navigate their identity when they don’t have the same freedom the English language provides.” The pronouns available in the French language are extremely limited and “masculine or feminine descriptors [are] in almost every noun” (Crouch, 2017). In my interview with Rodrigo Palau (2019), he considered my question but couldn’t offer a good answer and stated that “in English ‘they’ can be used as a non-gendered alternative, but [there] is no good option for French.” In a discussion on Reddit for the topic of inclusive language, a contributor also stated “There is no well-known equivalent of the gender-neutral they. The French language was “not made in consideration of non-binary people” (Paolog – Reddit contributor, 2018).
It’s even a challenge for those trying to go ‘against the grain’ and attempt to find a way to be inclusive in their spoken language:
“We Francophones culturally give ourselves great pressure to speak quality French, much more than other languages. If you start messing with the most elementary grammar, you might look uneducated. People will assume you don’t speak like the norm because you don’t know the norm. You would always have to explain to yourself why you are not following the standard model” (De La Marnierre, 2017).
He goes on to explain that the French language doesn’t work well for people who do not assign themselves to the gender binary (De La Marnierre, 2017).
For those wanting change, there is even resistance from the French Prime Minister who is refusing to alter their language to make it more inclusive (The Guardian, 2017). He opposes the idea of creating change and stated that the French language “should not be exploited for fighting battles, no matter how legitimate they are” (The Guardian, 2017). Thus, this refusal to create change is shaping the culture of French-speaking people and “can actually shape our cognitive understanding of the world around us” to which leads to greater challenges for those fighting for inclusivity (Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, & Laakso, 2011).
A study by Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, & Laakso (2011) demonstrated that having gendered language can not only impact the interpretation of the world around us but, findings suggest gendered language speaking countries have less gender equality overall in comparison to those speaking a natural gender language. Another study demonstrated gendered language created higher levels of sexism when students were given passages to read in a gendered language and completed a questionnaire afterwards (Pappas, 2012).
According to Crouch (2017), in highly gendered languages like French, agender people (i.e., those who do not use a gender to refer to themselves) struggle the most to express their identity. This language “doesn’t allow for a lack of gender; you always have to pick something” (Crouch, 2017). In Finnish, which as a genderless language, there is only one pronoun, and it is genderless. But this is not always a great alternative either – and gender inequality is still seen in Finnish society as well, possibly due to an assumption of masculinity over femininity (Crouch, 2017; Pappas, 2012). Still, though, it does prevent some assumptions to be made about a person, and there are genderless pronouns available (Pappas, 2012).
Ultimately, gendered languages like French, do not provide flexibility to allow non-binary people to identify themselves or within social contexts. However, in English, there are multiple pronouns (like “they”) a person could use (Crouch, 2017). However, it is important to note that the English language is still not perfect; some people, for example, cringe at the fact that “they” would be used to refer to a single individual, even though the singular “they” is used more often than they might be aware; for example, if you find a phone at a coffeeshop, you can state, “Hey! Someone left their phone here!”
There are some steps being made for the French language, though: Microsoft Word released an edition that is attempting to improve inclusivity in their French writing option (Tismit, 2017). The company explained that this new feature “targets gendered language which may be perceived as excluding, dismissive, or stereotyping,” and encourages “using gender-inclusive language” when possible.” (Tismit, 2017).
So, the answer to my initial questions: There are unfortunately not many options available to attempt to use non-gendered nouns and pronouns in French, and for those who do not fit the gender binary, this language can be harmful to one’s identity. Many French-speaking individuals take significant pride in the specifics of their language, and there is a lot of resistance to any change – even if it would mean that it would be more inclusive. But we must ask ourselves the big picture question, is it better to be proud of tradition or proud of being able to allow everyone to express who they truly are and to feel inclusive in society?
Mandy Patterson, Queens University
Buck, Peter. (Officer Cadet) in discussion with the author, March 2019.
Crouch, E. (2017, September 07). When You're Genderqueer - But Your Native Language Is
Gendered. Retrieved March 14, 2019, from https://medium.com/the-establishment/what-happens-if-youre-genderqueer-but-your-native-language-is-gendered-d1c009dc5fcb
De La Marnierre, T. (2017, April 14). What pronouns do non-binary French people typically use? Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://www.quora.com/What-pronouns-do-non-binary-French-people-typically-use
Forbes, Ally. (Queen’s University Student) in discussion with the author, March 2019.
Pappas, S. (2012, February 21). Gendered Grammar Linked to Global Sexism. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://www.livescience.com/18574-gendered-grammar-sex-inequality.html
Palau, Rodrigo. (Queen’s University Student) in discussion with the author, March 2019.
Paolog (Reddit contributor). (2018). R/French - Gender neutral pronouns in French. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://www.reddit.com/r/French/comments/89vg5w/ gender_neutral_pronouns_in_french/
Prewitt-Freilino, J. L., Caswell, T. A., & Laakso, E. K. (2011). The Gendering of Language: A Comparison of Gender Equality in Countries with Gendered, Natural Gender, and Genderless Languages. Sex Roles, 66(3-4), 268-281. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0083-5
The Guardian. (2017, November 21). No more middots: French PM clamps down on gender-neutral language. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/ 2017/nov/21/no-more-middots-french-pm-clamps-down-on-gender-neutral-language
Timsit, A. (2017, November 27). The Push to Make French Gender-Neutral. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/inclusive-writing-france-feminism/545048/