Spirited public debate over language is a very French passion.
So it’s no surprise that when the online edition of Le Robert, the famous French dictionary, chose to include the gender-neutral pronoun “iel” – a combination of the French pronouns “il” (he) and “elle” (she) that corresponds to the singular “they” in English – a furious controversy erupted.
MP François Jolivet accused the dictionary of succumbing to “wokism” by including the pronoun and its defintion, while the minister for education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, tweeted: “Inclusive writing is not the future of the French language”.
When asked for her opinion on the issue, the president’s wife, Brigitte Macron, incorrectly remarked that there are only two pronouns in the French language. (As well as the uncontroversial “on” meaning “one” or the casual “we”, La Grande Grammaire du Français mentions many more.)
Yet contrary to the assertions of the most emotional commentators, the editors of Le Robert do not constitute a “militant armada” determined to abuse the French language, but simply a team of lexicographers who, with patience and method, observe changes to the lexicon and then decide whether to include new words in their editions.
The dictionary does not impose
In a clarification issued after the “iel” decision went viral, the director-general of Le Robert, Charles Bimbenet, wrote:
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Le Robert’s mission is to observe the evolution of a diverse French language in motion and to report on it. Defining the words that describe our world helps us understand it better.
The reality is more simple than the critics of Le Robert make out: first of all, if the occurrences of “iel” remain rare, they are sufficiently regular to merit this entry – like a multitude of other technical or regional terms that are used in specific contexts, without creating a stir.
And as Bimbenet pointed out, the fact that “iel” is in the dictionary does not mean that it is imposed on speakers. Many words are in the dictionary without being used. The purpose of the dictionary is not to force the use of words, but simply to propose an inventory of common, widespread and emerging linguistic practices.
How words become controversial
French linguists have made significant efforts in recent years to expand the public understanding of how language evolves and to remind us that there is not one but many French languages spoken not just in France but all over the world.
But these initiatives are clearly not always enough to calm the passionate reaction when a simple pronoun makes an entry into a dictionary.
The problem goes beyond “iel”. Debates about the French language tend to replay old quarrels between societal evolution and normativism – in other words, a clash between old and new, or conservatives and progressives. In recent years, the appearance of the word “kiffer” (to like or enjoy something) has provoked debates because of its slang origins, while “start-up” has been accused of being an English import.
For a linguist like me who specialises in discourse analysis, it is not so much “iel” itself that sparks interest, but the conversations that are built around the pronoun, notably on the side of those who are angered by it.
Words can always be used to satisfy various intentions – in this case political ones. These uses lead to the transformation of words into what literature scholar Marc Angenot called ideologemes, a term that explains how certain words can become loaded with ideological meaning to the extent that they can no longer be considered neutral.
Thus, if “iel” becomes an ideologem, it is not so much as a pronoun – it was conceived and proposed to respond to obvious grammatical deficiencies that do not exist in other languages – but as a linguistic practice understood through social and political presuppositions it is given.
In other words, it is the way opponents of “iel” denigrate it that transforms it into an object of ideological controversy, while its creation constitutes a simple contraction designed to fill a grammatical gap.
Iel is a choice
No one is forcing people to use “iel” with a gun to their head. But paradoxically, by making the pronoun the focus of attention, its critics are inevitably helping to make it more popular.
Of course, everyone has the right to dislike the pronoun, to find it useless or unattractive – speakers’ judgements about their own language are an inevitable and perfectly normal sociolinguistic fact.
But this judgement should not prevent other speakers from creating and using new words – as has been the case for as long as languages have existed. All words are literally invented at some point.
“Iel” is not a paragon of “le wokisme” – an increasingly common word in France which is not yet in the dictionary itself, and is a direct import of the English “woke” with a suffix allowing it to be Frenchified (the famous “-isme”). It’s interesting to note in this context that the most fierce opponents of this maligned pronoun accuse it of being an anglicism, all the while invoking “wokisme”.
This is proof, if any were needed, that languages evolve by influencing each other, mutually enriching one another for the greater happiness of the speakers.