Try to imagine explaining to a 2003-era conservative who says “freedom fries” that there is an international culture war between France and the United States over arcane, postmodern theories being “exported” from “universities” and that one of these countries has made it a major, cross-partisan political issue to repel the foreign invasion of nonsense such as “positionality theory” and other descendants of relativism. You won’t find it hard to do — you will just find it impossible to imagine that the country that is determined to reject the postmodern claptrap is France. Yet, here we are. According to the New York Times, “When a French dictionary included the gender-nonspecific ‘iel’ for the first time, a virulent reaction erupted over ‘wokisme’ exported from American universities.”
The new word “iel” is a combination of the pronouns “elle” and “il” for “she” and “he,” and it was recently included in one of France’s two most authoritative dictionaries. French people reacted with what the New York Times calls a “furor.” Education Secretary Jean-Michel Blanquer “is seemingly convinced of a sweeping American ‘woke’ assault on France aimed at spreading racial and gender discord over French universalism.” Meanwhile, first lady Brigitte Macron said, “There are two pronouns: he and she. Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.” It is amusing to consider that we argue over whether there even is such a thing as wokeness in America, when all the way from France, “le wokisme” is perceptible. Per the New York Times, “Mr. Blanquer has identified ‘an intellectual matrix’ in American universities bent on undermining a supposedly colorblind French society of equal men and women through the promotion of identity-based victimhood.”
People who identify as gender nonbinary should be treated with respect, warmth, and basic human decency. Everybody should. The question they raise for users of language who wish to accommodate them is, however, not simple in English and even less simple in almost every other major world language. In English, we have only a bit of gendered verbiage. There are pronouns, as well as words specifically referencing sex and gender, such as the words “boy” and “woman,” and words for genitalia. There are also norms around referring to boats and countries in the feminine and mixed groups of people in the masculine. These all raise tricky enough questions in terms of how to modify speech to balance the concerns of the nonbinary against the need to sound normal.
But these issues are fairly isolated in English, whereas in a Romance language, almost every single word spoken or uttered is gendered. The gendered nature of words in these languages has little to nothing to do with actual gender, with the French or Spanish or Italian words for fireplace or abstraction or electron or cloud all being male or female. There are some neuter words, but they are the exception. The word “neuter” itself comes from the Latin for “not either,” which should send us thinking about how deep the relationship of words to the gender binary runs.
For Romance-language speakers, the attempt to neuter language is unlikely to catch on with most people because it solves a problem that doesn’t exist. Even if inclusivity were a concern that outweighed all others, it serves little to no purpose in terms of addressing that concern to take the gender out of the way French or Spanish or their related languages are spoken. As a French lexicographer who works at a dictionary that declined to adopt “iel” put it, the masculine pronoun used for unknown or nongendered things “plays a generic role, that’s just the way it is, and has been since vulgate Latin.” Could it be different? Sure, but it isn’t. It would make more sense for nonbinary people to work within the reality that language is communicable only based on shared norms about grammar and meaning and to accept that nobody is denying or attacking their identity by reading Elle magazine or saying, “Hola, amigo.”