Last month, somewhat unusually, the English-language media acknowledged that debates on inclusive language are not confined to the English-speaking world. What caught their attention was a story from Germany, where the Interior Ministry had rejected a Bill drafted by the Ministry of Justice. The Bill dealt with insolvency, and made reference to various categories of people including employees, landlords, consumers and debtors. But instead of using masculine forms like ‘Verbraucher’ (consumer) and ‘Schuldner’ (debtor), the draft used the feminine forms ‘Verbraucherin’ and ‘Schuldnerin’. As the New York Times helpfully explained, it was as if the author of an English legal document had used ‘actresses’ to mean ‘actors and actresses’.
The proverbial Martian visitor might wonder why that was a problem. ‘Verbraucherin’ does literally include ‘Verbraucher’, whereas the reverse is not the case (the same is true of many English feminine forms—for instance, ‘shepherdess’ includes ‘shepherd’ and ‘hostess’ includes ‘host’). But humans know the rule is the opposite. In German as in English, ‘actors’ can be used to mean thespians in general, but ‘actresses’ refers exclusively to female members of the profession.
That asymmetry was what bothered the Interior minister Horst Seehofer. He was concerned that the law as drafted might only apply to women, making it unworkable and potentially unconstitutional. Eventually the Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht capitulated, and the Bill was rewritten using the conventional, masculine forms. A spokesperson explained that this had been done to solve a linguistic problem, and was not intended to make a political statement:
The generic feminine for use for male and female people has not yet been linguistically recognized. This applies completely independently of whether a certain social state is desired.
Yet disagreements about the wording of the law were rather obviously political. Support for the use of feminine forms came from left-of-centre politicians like Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat, and the Green Party, while opposition came from those on the right, like Horst Seehofen of the Christian Social Union and the extreme right AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland). This is not and never has been a purely linguistic debate, either in Germany or anywhere else.
In Britain, the principle that masculine terms should be interpreted inclusively for legal purposes was formalised in 1850, when Parliament passed an Act of Interpretation stating that ‘Words importing the Masculine Gender shall be deemed and taken to include Females…unless the contrary is expressly provided’. But in practice, as Dennis Baron recounts in his book What’s Your Pronoun? this provision was not applied consistently.
In 1868 the Representation of the People Act superseded an earlier statute which had specified that only a ‘male person’ could register to vote. The new law replaced ‘male person’ with ‘man’, prompting questions about whether it might be ‘taken to include Females’. But when some women put that to the test, the judge unhesitatingly ruled against them, saying
There is no doubt that in many statutes “men” may properly be held to include women, whilst in others it would be ridiculous to suppose that the word was used in any other sense than as designating the male sex.
To the judge it was obvious that ‘man’, in a statute dealing with voting rights, could only have the sex-specific meaning ‘male person’. Yet if ‘man’ appeared in a statute dealing with taxation or crime, it would be just as obvious that the law applied to women too. This difference had nothing to do with grammar, and everything to do with ‘whether a certain social state was desired’.
But in any case, declaring the masculine inclusive by fiat does not, for most language-users, make it so. I once taught a student who recalled that as a child she had been puzzled by the saying ‘a dog is man’s best friend’. Did ‘man’ mean a human, or did it mean, well, a man? Eventually she asked her teacher, who said it meant a human. But she remained unconvinced: even after this conversation, what came into her mind whenever she thought of the saying was an image of a male person with a dog. Numerous experiments have shown that this is typical: supposedly generic or inclusive masculine forms are commonly interpreted as sex-specific.
By the time the student told this story (the late 1980s), many mainstream linguistic authorities—teachers, editors, handbook and style guide writers—had accepted that this was a problem. For English, the solution most of them advocated was a shift to ‘gender neutral’ language. Writers were advised to avoid ‘man’ words by substituting genderless terms (e.g. ‘chair(person)’ for ‘chairman’ and ‘humanity’ for ‘mankind’), and to get around the generic ‘he’ problem by recasting sentences in the plural (e.g. ‘readers must judge for themselves’ rather than ‘the reader must judge for himself’).
I have pointed out before that merely using formally neutral terms does not guarantee that women will be included. But in English, a language whose modern form makes very little use of gender-marking, it is not difficult to produce at least the surface appearance of inclusiveness. In German, by contrast, and many other languages (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Hindi) the same strategies will not work. When all nouns have a gender, and when gender must also be marked on the adjectives and articles (and in some languages, verbs) that go with them, you can’t easily avoid the issue.
In these languages, the approach feminists have mostly favoured is not gender neutralisation, as in English, but gender specification (also sometimes called ‘feminisation’ or ‘the visibility strategy’)—using feminine forms alongside masculine ones so that women are explicitly included. One way of doing this is by ‘doubling’, conjoining the two forms with ‘and’, as in the German phrase ‘Studenten und Studentinnen’ (‘students (masc.) and students (fem.)’). In writing an alternative strategy is ‘splitting’, using typographical devices like slashes (‘Student/Innen’) and parentheses (‘Student(inn)en’) to avoid repeating whole words.
Different devices have been favoured in different languages. In Spanish, for instance, doubled forms like ‘amigos y amigas’ (‘friends (masc.) and friends (fem.)’) have sometimes been replaced with the split form ‘amig@s’, since the @ looks like a combination of -o and -a. More recently, as the concept of gender inclusivity has broadened to encompass people who identify as neither men nor women, some writers have adopted the form ‘amigxs’, where X signifies ‘all genders and none’.
In French there are numerous options. One currently much-discussed splitting device is the ‘point médian’, a centrally-positioned dot, as in ‘les étudiant·e·s’ (‘students’), which is sometimes treated as the defining feature of ‘écriture inclusive’ (‘inclusive writing’). But in fact it’s only the latest in a series of conventions which have been used for the same purpose over the years, and which in many cases are still being used: they include parentheses (‘étudiant(e)s’), hyphens (‘étudiant-e-s’), and the ‘point’ (full stop, period) in its normal position (‘étudiant.e.s’). Doubled forms are also possible (‘étudiantes et étudiants’)—some writers order the forms alphabetically while others make a habit of putting the feminine first.
These inclusive writing strategies are more ‘in your face’ than the neutral terms favoured in English, but they’re intended to address the same concerns about male bias. You may have heard that grammatical gender languages are different, and that the gender of a noun in French or German is just an arbitrary formal feature; but if the noun denotes a person or group of people that argument does not stand up. Experiments with speakers of grammatical gender languages have demonstrated the same effect as in English: masculine forms of nouns which refer to people tend to evoke mental images of males.
There’s also evidence that inclusive writing makes a difference. For instance, studies done with children and adolescents have found that if you present them with a grammatically masculine occupational term they will say that men are more likely to succeed in that occupation, but if you present them with paired masculine and feminine terms the male bias is significantly reduced. It isn’t always reduced to zero, because judgments in this area are also influenced by cultural stereotypes. But research suggests that linguistic gender marking can strengthen or weaken our preconceptions.
Nevertheless, inclusive writing provokes resistance. If you follow these matters you may be aware that the Académie Française opposes any deviation from the traditional rules. The same is true of its Spanish counterpart, and of most language academies which have had occasion to consider the question. But you may not know that opposing écriture inclusive has become a pet cause of the French political right.
I found this out a few weeks ago, when I was asked to sign a letter responding to a group of language scholars who had denounced inclusive writing. When I asked a friend to explain the context—who were these scholars, and why had they chosen this moment to attack?—she told me they were aligned with the right, and pointed me to the text of a proposed law which some right-wing deputies (including the Front National leader Marine Le Pen) had put before the French National Assembly. This proposal seeks to prohibit the use of écriture inclusive by anyone in receipt of public funds–which would include, among others, academics and school teachers, since they are public employees.
France is not the only place where far right politicians have taken up this cause. In Brazil, following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the new right-wing government took action to outlaw any future use of the title she had used while in office—she had styled herself ‘Presidenta’ (fem.) rather than ‘Presidente’ (which in traditional standard Portuguese has no feminine form). And in 2015 a high school teacher’s use of the inclusive form ‘alunxs’ (‘pupils’) sparked a media firestorm in which X-forms were said to promote a ‘gay marxist agenda’.
It’s true, of course, that conservatives have always resisted progressive efforts to change language. But the people I’ve just been talking about are not really conservatives: rather they belong to the radical right, which is populist, nationalist, racist and in some cases outright fascist. On the face of things it isn’t obvious why they would care so much about the arcane details of inclusive language. But in fact it’s an excellent target for their purposes—something they can use to whip up outrage about a whole range of ‘culture war’ issues.
In some places (Brazil is an example) hostility to inclusive language is linked to the recent obsession of both the Catholic Church and right-wing evangelical protestant groups with what they call ‘gender ideology’ or ‘gender theory’, meaning both feminism of a fairly traditional sort (the sort that demands equality and reproductive rights for women) and the newer politics of gender identity. Inclusive language makes a convenient target because it directly symbolises what the religious right objects to: feminised titles like ‘Presidenta’ symbolically reject the supposedly God-given precedence of the male/masculine over the female/feminine, while ‘alunxs’ rejects binary gender distinctions entirely.
In other places the targeting of inclusive language has more to do with nationalism and populism. The preamble to the proposed French law, for instance, declares that ‘the French language is a fundamental element of the character and heritage of France’, and reminds readers that in 1539 François I decreed that French should be the language of law and administration. The relevance of this detail is obscure, since there is no reason why French should not continue to fulfil its historic functions while also being written more inclusively. It’s just a nationalist dogwhistle, framing écriture inclusive as a threat to the status of French and therefore France.
Attacking inclusive language also allows you to take pot-shots at one of the new populists’ favourite targets, ‘the elite’. By which they mean not themselves and their wealthy supporters, but rather the left-leaning intellectual and cultural elite made up of academics, media folk, literary writers and other luminaries of the arts. Associating inclusive language with these high-profile users allows populists to argue that it’s elitist and exclusionary, at best offputting and at worst incomprehensible to people outside the charmed circle.
The elitism issue is one I take seriously. You can’t build a socially diverse mass movement if your language is so abstruse people need a degree in gender studies to decode it. But I don’t think it follows that you should just stick to the language most people are familiar and therefore comfortable with. If that language is male biased, there’s a good feminist argument that you should try to change it for everyone. If that’s your aim, however, a degree of elitism, or ‘vanguardism’, may be unavoidable. The kinds of changes feminists advocate tend to be adopted first by people with a strong ideological commitment to them—a group in which highly educated people are probably overrepresented. But where they lead, others will eventually follow.
I am old enough to remember when English gender-neutral terms like ‘chair’ (for ‘chairman’), ‘police officer’ (not ‘policeman’) and even ‘head teacher’ (rather than ‘headmaster/mistress’) were derided as clumsy, unnatural and ‘politically correct’; today they are unremarkable. Similarly, the photos in this post show French écriture inclusive being used by ordinary people in everyday informal contexts. The fact that an innovation initially encounters resistance does not mean it will never be accepted, and the fact that it started in an elite group does not mean it is inherently ‘elitist’.
The conclusion I draw from the evidence we have is that the benefits of inclusive writing in languages like French and German outweigh the disadvantages. The main disadvantage is aesthetic: doubling and splitting are obtrusive strategies which some find ugly or cumbersome (though so far, research has not supported the claim that they make reading slower and more effortful: it has found that people adjust to them very quickly). It’s also true that they don’t all transfer to the spoken language; but inclusive language norms have always been primarily designed for writing, and particularly for writing institutional documents (like job ads) where inclusiveness may be a legal requirement.
It’s hard to ignore the evidence that in practice the so-called generic masculine is understood as simply masculine. If inclusive writing can counteract that bias (and there’s some evidence it can), that’s surely a strong argument in its favour. And as an added bonus, by embracing inclusive language you can annoy pedants, conservatives, religious fundamentalists, populists, nationalists and fascists.
Many thanks to Heather Burnett, who contributed not only information and insights from her research, but also the photographs reproduced in this post. Merci! For information on Brazil I’m indebted to Rodrigo Borba. Obrigada! As ever, the opinions are mine and so are any errors.