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The French Resist Another Revolution … of Words

Le Petit Robert, a popular dictionary of the French language, recently created a gender-neutral pronoun. The word is “iel,” a merging of the masculine pronoun “il” with the feminine pronoun “elle.” But, it isn’t sitting well with many French folks.

Some see the move as an export of American wokeism into French culture, while others hail it as a travesty, an abuse of the French language. After all, French, like other Romance languages, is very gendered. Most nouns are either masculine, such as “book” or “hat,” or feminine, such as “table” or “coronavirus.”

This isn’t the first attempt to degender French or the other Romantic languages. These endeavors tend to go nowhere, except for those proposing the changes. For everyday speakers or official language guardians, there’s simply too much to change or too much at stake. This is especially true for the French. As one article put it years ago, attempts to de-gender the language of love “make (French) look like algebra.”

The defense of gender in the Romance languages isn’t just a clinging to tradition or living in the past. Many believe the gendered reality of French is an essential part of its beauty. For example, Brigitte Macron, wife to French President Emmanuel Macron, said, “Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.”

Every noun, from professions to household objects, is either masculine or feminine in French, as are the articles preceding them. In the case of things that actually come in both male and female, like people and animals, gender-specific articles and endings clear up any possible confusion. Thus a male political candidate is “le candidat,” while a female one is “la candidate.” 

In defense of its new pronoun, La Petit Robert, claims their suggested change is a way of reflecting the world as it now is. Since language is evolving and changing, the country of France needs to adapt as well.

But is it really? Are we really moving away from male and female? Or are some just trying to, but failing? Is this about language reflecting reality, or is this change more an example of using language to force a new understanding of reality?

According to Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French Minister of Education, the answer is the latter. He tweeted last month that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language.” Others, like French Parliamentarian Francois Jolivet, see the move as nothing less than an attack on France itself, accusing the authors of the dictionary of being “militants of a cause that has nothing French about it: le wokisme.” And, many in France are looking to the L’Academie Francaise, a 400-year-old gatekeeper of the French language, to undo what Jolivet called a ”solitary campaign” – an obvious ideological intrusion to undermine France’s common language and influence.

It’s hard not to be impressed by these French officials committed to defending their language. Those who push for gendered pronouns aren’t concerned about linguistic sense, nor do they care how now-dead folks like Victor Hugo once thought about life and the world. They’re concerned with advancing a way of seeing the world… one rid of gender differentiation.

Attempts to degender language in the United States certainly aren’t met with this same level of passion, not to mention this same level of thought. Here, inventing gender-neutral pronouns was so 2016. In fact, we’ve now moved on from inventing gender-neutral pronouns to determining God’s pronouns, and replacing terms like mothers and pregnant women with “birthing people.” We’re teaching first graders to declare their pronouns, and telling teens to replace boyfriend or girlfriend with “partner.”

Most Americans, out of a desire not to offend (or maybe because they’re scared out of their wits about their employment prospects) comply, failing to realize just how much is at stake. They’ve overlooked, or are unaware, of just how much of a culture’s collective thinking is shaped by language.

French officials, on the other hand, seem clear about what’s at stake, and how a seemingly silly thing like gender-neutral pronouns indicates a serious worldview shift. Christians should be clear as well. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about.”

Scripture describes God’s words as creating the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. As His image-bearers, our words also have incredible power. We cannot create ex nihilo, but our words either properly describe reality, or they distort it. In that sense, our words have the power to create impressions, beliefs, and even consequences. In a sense, our words are an essential aspect of the human ability to create entire worlds out of the world that God made. Defending language, like these French officials, is a move to recognize the structure of Creation, as God has designed and organized it, and our roles within it.

Any worldview that denies that the world is a creation of God inevitably sees reality as more pliable than it actually is. In the Biblical account, this world is a place we inhabit and steward for the glory of God. Today, reality is increasingly seen as a place we construct and control. In that view of the world, there are no words higher than our own, not even God’s.

Because so much is at stake, we ought choose our words wisely.

Publication date: December 14, 2021

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Bet Noire

John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.

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