French gender-neutral pronouns: Just a dream or an achievable reality?

French gender-neutral pronouns: Just a dream or an achievable reality?

by Audrey Sivadier

Updated November 9, 2022

French is often referred to as a romantic language, but it can also be quite sexist. As with some other romantic languages, it relies heavily on words that have either feminine or masculine genders. And in today’s world where things can evolve rapidly, languages like French can have a hard time evolving to keep up. 

The use of gender-neutral pronouns in French is a good example.  In French grammar, there is no gender-neutral pronoun like “they” in English. So how will French evolve to represent all existing human genders? Is this a distant dream or an achievable reality? Let’s take a look at where gender-neutral words are already used in everyday French, and where there’s still debate on the topic today.

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Gender-neutral pronouns in French: Does a neutral pronoun already exist?

First, what is a pronoun? A “pronoun” is a word you can use to replace a noun (a pro-noun). And French is full of different pronouns you can use.

The most commonly used pronouns in French are subject pronouns: je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, elles. Only ” il, elle ” and ” ils, elles ” are gender pronouns.

Of these, the pronoun “on” is the most similar to a neutral pronoun. 

  • It mostly means “we”. The pronoun “on” = “nous” but in a more informal language, in slang for example.
  • Or it is used to designate people in general or a person whose identity (and therefore gender) is unknown:

–   En France, on mange du fromage. In France, people eat cheese. (“on” = the French)
–   On frappe à la porte – Someone is knocking on the door (but as I didn’t open it yet, I don’t know who is behind it. A boy? A girl? So I use the pronoun “on”)

Gender-neutral first names and nouns in French

A lot of French first names are gender-neutral. These are called mixed names or “epicene names” if you want to put it more formally.

So if you are going to meet someone called Camille, Sacha, Eden, Noa/Noé, Lou, Morgan, Charlie, Alix or Loïs for the first time, you might not know which gender that person identifies with.

Concerning French nouns, you can find some instances of sexism when it comes to certain professions in French, because they were carried out by exclusively men for centuries. For example, high-ranking professions rarely have a female version:

–   Un docteur / un médecin
–   Un juge
–   Un professeur
–   Un ministre
–   Un pompier (fireman)

However, some of these professions do have a female or inclusive version nowadays, for example:

  • Un auteur / une autrice
  • Un écrivain / une écrivaine
  • Un avocat / une avocate
  • Un professeur / une professeure

Let’s not forget that the masculine was never neutral, it was chosen as a dominant gender.

Fun (or rather sad) fact: we say: “une femme de ménage” (a cleaning lady)! And there is no such thing as “homme de ménage” (a cleaning man)… 

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The gender-neutral pronoun iel

These debates resurfaced as recently as November 2021, when one of the most widely used French dictionaries, Le Robert, added the non-binary pronoun “iel” to its online edition.

It’s a contraction of the masculine personal pronoun “il” and the feminine “elle”, il + elle = iel. This pronoun is used to refer to a person regardless of gender. Thus, the gender of the person referred to can be masculine, feminine, or undefined, especially for those who call themselves “non-binary”, i.e. who do not identify as male or female.

There are other pronouns other than iel that you can use, such as:

ol ols

But you might think: what about the agreement between the adjective and the subject? Indeed, in English, a non-binary pronoun can work, because the rest of the sentence is not affected. Well, in French it’s possible too. To do so, you just need to use the inclusive language, which involves the use of the “point médian” for example:

  • Iel est souriant.e (They are smiley)
  • Iel est élégant.e (They are elegant)
  • Iel est intelligent.e (They are clever)

But you can also write in a grammatically neutral way and use epicene adjectives. In this case, no need to make the agreement between the subject and the adjective!

Here are some examples:

  • Iel est agréable (They are smiley/pleasant)
  • Iel est chic (They are elegant/chic)
  • Iel est perspicace (They are clever/perspicacious)

Inclusive writing: A long road ahead for the French language?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves! As already mentioned above, there are many ways to write gender-neutral.  

On one side, we can use a “median point” (point médian or point milieu in French) to mark the gender of words. When we read “Les Français mangent du fromage”, we do not necessarily imagine men, women and people of diverse gender, but rather men, because the word “Français” is in the masculine form. When we read, “Les ouvriers ont fait grève”, it’s the same, we visualize only men. Now, if we use inclusive writing, we use the “median point” :

–   Les français·e·s mangent du fromage.
–   Les ouvrier·ère·s ont fait grève.

Do you now also visualize French women eating cheese and women workers going on strike? Good, that was exactly our intention!

Those who don’t see them and who absolutely don’t want to are the members of the Académie française, known as the Immortals, who have described inclusive writing as a “mortal danger“. Luckily for us, the Académie française has more like an observation role nowadays and is not the “guardian of the French language” as people mistakenly think. Dictionaries like Robert or Larousse are the ones you want to turn to if you want to know more about the evolution of the French language.

However, we don’t necessarily need to use this “median point” or any gender-neutral pronouns to make our writing gender inclusive. All you need to do is use epicene writing or non-sexist writing.

Here are some examples:

  • Use “être humains” instead of “hommes” (“human beings” instead of “men”)
  • Quiconque” instead of “celui qui” (“anyone” instead of “the one who”)
  • Les personnes de nationalité française” instead of “les Français” (“people whose nationality is French” instead of “the French men”)
  • You can use gender-neutral nouns like: les spécialistes, les journalistes etc. (specalists, journalists)

Or you can also address male and female genders in the same sentence:

  • Les collaborateurs et collaboratrices (male and female collaborators)
  • Les auteurs et autrices (male and female writers)
  • Etc.

As you can see, depending on your target audience, there are plenty of ways to write in a gender-neutral way.

In summary: French gender-neutral pronouns

Yes, the road to inclusive writing in French might seem long and full of pitfalls. And there may be continued debate along the way. But it’s important to remember that inclusive language methods, like adopting gender-neutral pronouns, using the median point and writing in a more neutral way, are born out of a need to change mentalities about gender equality through language.

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Audrey has been a French teacher for more than ten years now, and a cheese-lover all her life. She comes from the west of France, and after living 2 years in Spain and 4 years in Oxford (UK), she has just settled in the heart of France, in Auvergne, a land of cheese, rugby, Michelin tires and ancient volcanoes (she definitely prefers the first one). She speaks French, Spanish and English and doesn’t intend to stop there! Find out more about her on her website and LinkedIn.

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