French resist new pronoun “iel” on grounds of spreading “wokisme”

November 29, 2021 • 11:00 am

I don’t particularly have a dog in this fight, as I don’t really object to people choosing their pronouns so long as they don’t choose their biological sex. But the article does stand as a report on both the French character as well as the spread of woke language to Europe—and on Europeans’ fears that they’re becoming like Americans.

Again from the NYT, we hear of a new French pronoun, “iel”, which of course is a combination of “elle” (she) and il (he). As you probably know, the French are very protective of their language—in fact, there is a whole outfit, the Académie française, to maintain the purity of the French language. I know of no other country that has such a thing. And, of course, the Académie doesn’t much like “iel”, which is used to express either someone’s “binary” gender—like “hir” in the U.S.—or to refer to a person of any gender to avoid misgendering.

Read about the kerfuffle by clicking on the screenshot:

Just a small excerpt:

Perhaps France was always going to have a hard time with nonbinary pronouns. Its language is intensely gender-specific and fiercely protected by august authorities. Still, the furor provoked by a prominent dictionary’s inclusion of the pronoun “iel” has been remarkably virulent.

Le Petit Robert, rivaled only by the Larousse in linguistic authority, chose to add “iel” — a gender-neutral merging of the masculine “il” (he) and the feminine “elle” (she) — to its latest online edition. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, was not amused.

“You must not manipulate the French language, whatever the cause,” he said, expressing support for the view that “iel” was an expression of “wokisme.”

Mr. Blanquer is seemingly convinced of a sweeping American “woke” assault on France aimed at spreading racial and gender discord over French universalism. Last month he told the daily Le Monde that a backlash against what he called woke ideology was the main factor in the 2016 victory of Donald J. Trump.

In this instance, however, he was joined by Brigitte Macron, the first lady. “There are two pronouns: he and she,” she declared. “Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.”

The Robert defines “iel” (pronounced roughly “yell”) as “a third person subject pronoun in the singular and plur used to evoke a person of any gender.

Macron’s decrying “iel” is like Jill Biden coming out against the use of any pronoun except “he” or “she”, which of course would lead to her immediate cancellation. But France isn’t as woke, or as resistant to language change, as the U.S. Nevertheless, some gender-nonconforming French people are angry at her pronouncement. Here’s one:

Lilian Delhomme, 24, a gender-nonconforming student of international affairs at the University of Paris 8 who has been using the pronoun “iel” for about a year, was appalled by Ms. Macron’s statement.

“This for me was very violent,” Delhomme said in an interview.

I see they’re already starting to use the term “violence” for certain words. I don’t mind Delhomme choosing her pronoun, but she can’t conflate a pronouncement from the wife of the head of state for a punch in the face. At any rate, Delhomme has been frustrated because although “iel” has declared her preference, fellow students keep using “il”.

Part of the reason for the revival of new pronouns is the male-predominant structure of the language:

For some time, a movement for “inclusive writing” has battled the linguistic establishment in France. It is broadly an attempt to wean the French language of its male bias, including the rule that when it comes to the choice of pronouns for groups of women and men, the male form takes precedence over the female; and when it comes to adjectives describing mixed gatherings, they take the masculine form.

The Académie rebuffed such attempts earlier this year. Its secretary-in-perpetuity, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, said that inclusive writing, even if it seemed to bolster a movement against sexist discrimination, “is not only counterproductive for that cause but harmful to the practice and intelligibility of the French language.”

And so it goes. I suggest that the Germans start considering using “sier” to signify the melding of “er” (he) and “sie” (she).

46 thoughts on “French resist new pronoun “iel” on grounds of spreading “wokisme”

      1. Right, that’s what I thought. But then I googlated and found there is an attempt to even add gender neutral pronouns, not neutral gender. It was weird, a lot of x’s added.

  1. “I know of no other country that has such a thing.”

    Israel has an Academy of the Hebrew Language; you may look it up in Wikipedia. I have not the foggiest idea whether any other countries have such academies.

    1. Spain has the Real academia española. My impression, perhaps mistaken, is that they’re not as overbearing as the Académie française. Speaking of which, I was astounded to learn that Nobel prize winning Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (one of my favourites) was elected to the Académie française. Someone whose native tongue isn’t French! Whatever next? A native English speaker?

      1. The Peruvian-Spaniard Vargas Llosa is not the first member of the Académie française whose native language is not French. Julien Green was US-American, Andrei Makin Russian, Eugène Ionesco Romanian. The novelty is that Vargas Llosa does not write in French.

    2. The Académie française isn’t particularly effective given the prevalence of “le weekend” , “le hotdog” , etc.

    3. All Spanish speaking countries have their national language academy, including the USA (Academia norteamericana de la lengua española), the Philippines, and Equatorial Guinea. They all collaborate under the Asociación de academias de la lengua española,

  2. Iceland is another country where they have institurions to protect their language. They frown on loan words from other languages. Official new words based on traditional Icelandic are crreated for new technology.

  3. So, while in America many aspire to become the language police, in France their allies struggle under the boot-heel of the official French language police! Kind of ironic.

    1. One further point: the Latin words which gave us modern French pronouns did have a third gender, neuter. The French, Spanish, etc., pronouns came from the Latin ille (m), illa (f), illud (n).

  4. I have to say, I am MUCH happier about neologisms for singular gender pronouns to avoid the traditional he/him she she/her ones over using “they/them”…mainly because, as an inescapably literal-minded person, I honestly get confused and disoriented when I read of individuals using plural pronouns. And “iel” has a nice sound.

    1. Yes I agree. The purpose of language is to communicate and it does this less effectively if we deliberately introduce ambiguity. I am happy for people to choose their own pronouns but would much prefer them not to choose one that already has another, different meaning.

  5. Ne pourrait-on pas adopter “wokisme” en anglais?
    Let me add that I favor the use of “they/them” in English as singular personal pronouns, but only for those of us who suffer from multiple personality disorder.

    1. Are you still allowed to call it a disorder? That makes it sounds like a bad thing. Just kidding. Now, though, I would like to see the French film where the psychiatrist and the patient with multiple personalities try to have a conversation with shifting personalities and pronouns.

  6. Hello from France,

    Wokism is here already. A couple of days ago, we had a chat about this at home.

    My eldest daughter is fully aware of « woke » topics and was teaching my wife the difference between « non binary » and « pansexual ». (She even can recognise the various lgbqt flags)

    I was half amused half worried.

    Maybe we were a year late or so, but now we have everything : name calling in « ist or phobe », being trans a popular topic, white privilege…

    Old universalist values are getting out of fashion. What has happened to « treat everyone the same, not taking in account skin color, gender, sexual orientation… »?


    1. Yes that is disturbing. You definitely don’t want to become like us.
      But with that said, I am heartened to see that in France politicians across the spectrum are speaking out against it. Here in the US even “centrist” politicians l8ke our president don’t have the backbone to speak the truth.
      Also hold on to your laïcite as if your life depended on it. And point out, those against it (including the NY Times) are carrying the torch for “good” old days of Inquisition.
      Both our Revolutions owe to men (or can I even use the word) like Lafayette and Paine, and we need to protect their legacy.

    2. What goes around comes around.

      The country which gave us postmodernism in the 20th century can scarcely object when its offspring come calling from the 21st century.

      Fortunately, with restaurants locked down, my HK-born wife will celebrate an anniversary tonight with an altogether different and superior form of wokism.

      1. Indeed the French intellectuals, such as Foucault and Bourdieu, brought on the whole deconstruction of reality trend in academia and so yes, wokeism is the bastard baby coming home. On the one hand, I’m all for breaking out of dualities and binaries and I don’t care what people call themselves or want to be called. The breaking down of gender roles is positive.

        On the other hand, this isn’t just the breaking down of gender roles and expanding what it means to be a man or a woman. It is the denial of human biology, and this is a byproduct of our increasing disconnect from nature. With the exception of super rare cases, we humans either have the equipment to become pregnant with a baby or to impregnate. However you want to define a vagina and a penis–there are two sexes.

        Secondly, I object to the violent, bullying nature by which the woke enforce their ideology with all the silencing, canceling, and firing of anyone who dares question woke dogma. Their tactics are like the church canceling Galileo or the Holy Inquisition’s hunt for heritics. i don’t care if these tactics are coming from the Right or the Left, bullying out others who disagre with you is a major step backwards in the evolution of free and just societies. I find it both fascinating and frightening that the far liberal end of the thought spectrum (which I used to consider myself a part of), is using the most rigid, close-minded, conservative tactics to enforce an acceptance of their ideas.

  7. English already has a perfectly good word that combines all of She, He, and IT. Let’s repurpose it to be an gender-undeclared pronoun. You can even add slashes to give it some flair: s/h/it.

  8. ““This for me was very violent,” [Lilian] Delhomme said in an interview” – apparently oblivious to “homme” in her own name, apparently.

  9. Whenever this topic comes up, for some reason I am reminded of Steve Martin’s “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”. I think that the folks who do not want to use the standard pronouns should have an international congress to make up some new pronouns in every language. I am a lot like Robert in #6 above – at my age, a plural for a singular is quite confusing! 🙂

  10. 1. I am puzzled. Why aren’t French nombinary people satisfied with just using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘on’? Even though ‘on’ has been commonly used in place of ‘nous’ as a first-person plural pronoun in spoken French, it still retain its third-person pronoun role.

    2. It isn’t just their language that they are protecting. I heard that they also legally limit the number of McDonalds restaurants in France.

      1. Exactement. If you called yourself “on” you would literally disappear into the background noise of humanity. And we wouldn’t want that to happen to “special” people, now, would we.

  11. In the Province of Quebec in Canada, there has been for many years the body known a “L’Office de la langue francaise”. It polices the way the french language (the language of the majority of the population, and the Official language of the Province) is used. Grumpy Anglos (who are a minority group) refer to it as The Language Police.

  12. I consider myself to be genderless. That is, I don’t act and I am not whatever I am, according to what I am supposed to be by the gender aligned to my biological sex. I simply don’t care about genders. And I couldn’t care less about the usage of a new pronoun. In fact, probably I would even be annoyed by them. It seems to me like these people don’t have anything else to do and choose to bother with things of little importance.

    I think a good idea would be to start considering that the pronouns he and she should be used not according to someone’s gender but according to someone’s biological sex. In fact, I think most people use them this way.

    1. While ignoring social genders, do you have thoughts on how to refer to people with a natural/biological sex beyond female or male, whether due to extra or missing chromosomes or due to extra or missing genitalia? A German man with two doctorates is referred to as ‘Herr Doktor Doktor Schmidt’; I think a German man with diphallia should be referred to as ‘Herr Herr Schmidt’. I understand that sexually ambiguous births make up less than 1% of the population.

      I think sex and gender are irrelevant in 99% of human communication; gendered pronouns are an artifact of an earlier age. Still, I don’t find it worthwhile to deconstruct and reconstruct our pronoun paradigm. So I guess you and I are on the same page.

      (And yes, I prefer sex de-segregated sports teams, rather than showing special treatment/affirmative action to members of a particular sex. I also want bathrooms and other facilities de-segregated.)

  13. Sweden has used “hen” instead of “han” [he] or “hon” [she] since the 00s.

    “The word was proposed in 1966 by Rolf Dunås in Upsala Nya Tidning with reference to, among other things, the Finnish gender-neutral pronoun hen and has become more widespread during the 2000s – especially since 2013. The word hen was included in the fourteenth edition of the Swedish Academy’s glossary, which was published in April 2015.”

    [“Hen”, sw. Wikipedia]

    there is a whole outfit, the Académie française, to maintain the purity of the French language. I know of no other country that has such a thing.

    Au contraire, I thought it was a generic thing.

    “Richelieu’s model, the first academy devoted to eliminating the “impurities” of a language, was the Accademia della Crusca, founded in Florence in 1582, which formalized the already dominant position of the Tuscan dialect of Florence as the model for Italian; the Florentine academy had published its Vocabolario in 1612.”
    [“Académie Française”, Wikipedia]

    “The Accademia was founded in Florence in 1583, and has since been characterized by its efforts to maintain the purity of the Italian language.”
    [“Accademia della Crusca”, Wikipedia]

    “The Swedish Academy is a royal academy founded in 1786 by Gustav III with the aim of “working on the purity, strength and highness of the Swedish language”.”
    [“Svenska Akademien”, sw. Wikipedia]

  14. This kerfuffle, as you put it, is entirely politically motivated. It comes from the ultra-right sensibilities that would not miss an opportunity to shout how the nation needs to be defended against the dangerous extremists. That remark includes Macron’s government: he has been doing the serenade to the ultra-right for years now, putting extremely reactionary people at key position, including education and interior minister. The linguistic aspect proper is extremely trivial: the dictionary “Le Petit Robert” has long set a descriptive mission for itself. It includes words if it finds they are actually used. Even if it is a very minority use (which it is for “iel”). In which case, the definition is tagged with the mention “rare” (which it is for “iel”). The mission of that dictionary is to provide at any time a picture of the French language. Period.

  15. As for saying that the “Académie Française” defines the French language, plenty of caveats would be needed here. The last official dictionary they produced date back to 1935. No need to say that it is completely obsolete and that nobody has it at home. When French needs to know how to spell a word, there are mostly only two contenders: the “Larousse” and “Le Robert”. The former is a bit more conservative: for words coming from English for example, it will try to make them conform to French word endings, accents, etc, whereas the latter is essentially descriptive: it will give the form that is actually found in newspapers, novels, etc.

    The last grammar the “Académie Française” produced was also nearly a century ago, and it was such a train wreck that it has been shelved.

    Does the “Académie Française” influence the correct usage then? Barely anymore. They have campaigned heavily against the feminisation of job titles for example. But French speakers decided otherwise and increasingly use them. So much so that this is now the French taught at school actually. Because you see, what is taught at school is decided by specialists at the ministry of education, not by the “Académie Française”.

    The key problem of this institution really is that they have no linguist whatsoever. The members are writers, historians, physicians, and former politicians. But not a single academic who researched linguistic. This is contrary to the private firms running the two aforementioned popular dictionaries, “Larousse” and “Le Robert”, which employs lexicographs. The “Académie Française” is therefore incompetent at the job it is supposed to do.

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