The latest skirmish in the culture war over inclusive language has been playing out this week in France, where the senate voted in favour of a proposal to ban the use of less-gendered terms in official documents.
Similar arguments are taking place across Europe and beyond as people – from politicians to parents – debate the role language should play in protecting and promoting diversity, inclusion and representation. In countries whose languages have male and female nouns, the issue is proving particularly challenging.
Opposition sénateurs and sénatrices disagreed with the outcome of Monday’s vote, describing it as a “retrograde and reactionary” text, a view shared by France’s independent high commission for equality between women and men.
To become law, the bill would have to be passed in the Assemblée Nationale and there is no date set for a debate. There are, however, growing calls to make gendered French less sexist – a campaign that has been around since the 1980s but which has been rejected by the powerful Académie Française, the guardian of the language.
What irks campaigners most is that French grammatical rules make the masculine form of a noun the default over the female. So, 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.
This was defended by the president, Emmanuel Macron, this week when he said: “In this language,the masculine acts as the neutral.” (Macron, however addresses citizens as les Français et les Françaises – and not the strictly correct les Français.)
But, as the academy has pointed out, suggestions for inclusive writing can render the written language unreadable, and thus arguably less – not more – inclusive.
The most popular method is the use of the “median dot” to include both masculine and feminine, as in, Cher·e·s ami·e·s (Dear friends), which is sometimes replaced by a hyphen (cher-e-s ami-e-s), by parentheses (cher(e)s ami(e)s), or by slashes (cher/e/s ami/e/s).
According to the academy, all the above not only “offend the democracy of language” but also create difficulties for those with dyslexia and dysphasia, and for non-French speakers who are learning the language.
“Far from attracting the support of a majority of contemporaries, it appears to be the preserve of an elite, unaware of the difficulties encountered on a daily basis by educators and users of the school system,” the academy said in a statement.
Small steps, however, have been made. In 2019, the academy decided it was acceptable to say madame la maire, la ministre, la juge, despite being masculine nouns.
In German, unlike in English, all nouns are grammatically coded as either masculine (der), feminine (die) or neuter (das). A male citizen is a Bürger, a female citizen a Bürgerin, and no one is seriously trying to change that.
But, as in France, there is growing frustration with the fact that the masculine form is traditionally used to refer to groups of people, even if that group is made up of a mix of males and females.
Because Germany does not have a national body to prescribe or standardise language use, people have been free to experiment in order to fix this problem. Attempts to make generic nouns more inclusive have been around since the 1980s but used to be relatively marginal phenomena: the “gender gap” (Bürger_innen) has been used in queer communities, while feminist groups more commonly capitalise the i (BürgerInnen).
Over the last 10 years, however, the use of an asterisk or “gender star” in generic forms (Bürger*innen) has started to be used outside subcultural groups or academic circles. Many universities, schools and some government bodies, such as the federal environment agency, recommend the use of the asterisk in their internal communications.
“The gender star is still not used by the majority of people in German society, but it has seen an impressive rise in a relatively short time,” said Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguist at Berlin’s Freie Universität.
It has also inspired a backlash from political parties on the right, with the populist Alternative für Deutschland putting its opposition to “gender gaga” at the heart of its 2021 election campaign. In the eastern state of Saxony, the Christian Democrat government has banned the use of gender stars or gender gaps at schools or educational authorities, meaning that Schüler*innen would be marked as a mistake in students’ homework.