A hackathon, the French language and gender-neutrality
Translation by:Ella Hicks
In France, the notion of a more gender-neutral language has been stirring up the country for almost a year now. The French language is structured in a way that favours the masculine over the feminine, and while some people see ‘inclusive writing’ as a great solution, others see it as a “mortal peril” for France’s cultural legacies. I went to a hackathon dedicated to the subject to find out more.
It’s the first hackathon in France dedicated to ‘inclusive writing’, and it’s hosted by Simplon.co, a French start-up that rigorously embraces gender-neutral language. On the evening of Friday the 12th of January around 7pm, men and women arrive little by little in the Parisian suburb Montreuil, slowly filling up the offices of Simplon.co. To Aline Mayard’s surprise, who is leading the event, there are just as many men as women. “I think that we reached gender parity here. There are people of all ages, and many have travelled from cities outside Paris to get here… it’s really encouraging,” she tells me enthusiastically, holding a piece of cake in her hand.
French: A sexist language?
It is now 7:30 pm and the room is filled to the brim. Smiles and hugs are exchanged under the watchful eye of Éliane Viennot – professor of literature and event mentor – while conversations are already focusing on the difficulties of using gender-neutral language in the professional field. And suddenly, the room falls silent.
Aline Mayard introduces the subject by reiterating the origins of Simplon.co’s project. “I wrote a publication on gender-neutral language. Due to a lack of resources, I got in touch with Mots-Clés, the agency who coined the term ‘inclusive writing’. Raphaël (the founder of the agency, ed.) and the rest of the team invited me to a workshop on the subject. Everyone agreed that there was a lack of resources available. This is where the idea of the hackathon originated,” she explains.
After this brief contextualisation, the team sets out to define what inclusive writing is and how it can be used. With a list of questions and supporting examples, different contributors in the hackathon touch upon the principal ideas that discredit this new approach to the French language. After all, if you really want to know how to implement a gender-neutral French, you have to understand what it is and how it works.
Often denigrated as a damaging partisan distortion by its opponents, inclusive writing in French actually has nothing to do with the “feminazi” reputation certain people wish to put on it. As Raphaël Haddad, founder and director of Mots-Clés reminds us, “discourse is the space in which we should engrave societal transformations. With feminism, for example, we can propagate arguments outlining the importance of fighting for a more egalitarian society. But when we look at what is happening with language, we see that there is a discrepancy between these arguments and a language that directly opposes what it is we’re fighting for. [The French language] favours the masculine over the feminine.” Inclusive writing is simply the linguistic transcription of a woman’s place in the written and spoken form. And to counteract the argument that inclusive language has no political or psychological impact, the statistics speak for themselves. “We noticed that in job offers, if you include both the feminine spelling ‘ingénieure’ as well as the masculine ‘ingénieur’ (meaning “engineer” in French, ed.), you will see a 10% increase in the number of female applicants,” Raphaël adds.
Middots and the Middle Ages
The main criticism of inclusive writing is that is often uses middots (centre points or full-stops, ed.) to attach the feminine form of a word, complicating the language. For example, if there is a group of readers consisting of both men and women, it is written as lecteurs (the male plural), even if there are more women than men. Inclusive writing would turn the word into lecteur.rice.s, but the female plural lectrices would only be used if there is a group of female-only readers. But arguing that the latter complicates the French language even more does not necessarily hold. As stated by a Harris interactive study, “any difficulty in reading [inclusive writing] disappears after the second line.”
What’s more, inclusive writing stands for much more than a mere middot, and there are many other ways to make women more linguistically visible, such as the use of neutral nouns or passive voice. “It’s only through writing that you learn to adopt this practice,” Aline explains, “Depending on your audience, you can use gender-neutral pronouns, double flexions, middots… The more you write, the more your writing style evolves and becomes more flexible. Arièle, who works for RTL Girls, is a living example of how a journalist can write inclusively without ever using middots. There are plenty of solutions that don’t overburden the text.”
The Middle Ages proved to be much more advanced when it came to women’s presence in the French language. Back then, most job titles had a feminine and a masculine equivalent. The word “autrice”, the feminine form of “auteur” (”author” in French, ndlr.) was very common. And, as the cherry on top of the cake, the general rule of the masculine trumping the feminine simply didn’t exist. In modern French, an adjective – just as with plurals – must be masculine, even if it describes both masculine and feminine nouns. In the 17th century, however, the adjective correlated with whichever noun it was closest to.
Gradually dismantling toxic masculinity
After the introduction presentation is over and several groups have been formed, the real hackathon begins. It consists of two intensive days during which participants get together and work on ways to facilitate the use of inclusive writing, especially through the use of digital tools. Baki Youssoufou, one of the hackathon mentors, points out how difficult this can be: “What concerns me is how people use digital tools. They are useless unless they can connect with their audience. So that’s why I push groups or projects to focus on their community more.”
During one of the short breaks, the president of Active Generation, a worldwide hacker network, tells me about his own work with gender-neutral language. “Before, I never really saw how women were rendered invisible in the public sphere or language. It took me quite some time to realise it. I gradually dismantled my own ‘toxic masculinity’, as we call it, and I have been working on it for five years now. We are not making any rapid progress, but the inclusive writing has a role in this process.”
The hours go by and many of the projects in the hackathon are starting to improve. There is an abundance of them; a site to promote inclusive writing in schools, a translator called Incluzore – similar to Google Translate – which adapts a sentence by proposing various gender-inclusive options… Raphaël Haddad is delighted to see the abundance of ideas and the plurality of their profiles. “In general, people tackling this issue are rather militant. Here, we have both experienced activists and those who are still discovering the issue. Many of our members can offer technical advice. At the beginning, it was really a leap of faith. We didn’t know if we could get male and female web designers and developers on board.”
The digital aspect of the event turns out to be very convincing and interesting. As a gamer, I myself am particularly drawn by the videogame called La disparition (“Disappearance” in French, ed.), where players act as investigative journalists looking for women who have gone missing. By now, I’m sure you can guess why they’ve gone missing. As Claire, a game developer, tells me: “In looking for clues and by solving mysteries, you get to learn the different rules of gender-neutral and inclusive French. Our goal is to tell people that the use of this style of writing is a way of making women visible again. It is a process, and the idea does not just pop up at the beginning of the game.” Yet their ambition doesn’t end here. “For us, gender-neutral language is an element of a larger concept. In the game, we also want to tackle women’s absence in history and the theory of intersectionality… The goal is to make women visible and to raise awareness of the different mechanisms used to erase and discriminate against women as a whole.” Like many other groups here, this is a recreational project that will keep on being developed after the hackathon.
The two-day hackathon event reaches an end Sunday at 8pm. Participants look tired but satisfied. By the time pitches and results are revealed, the hackathon will have already distinguished itself by its dynamic of learning, collaboration and teaching. This virtuous atmosphere of mutual support – “absent from most hackathons”, a developer whispers to me – does not mean amateurism, quite the opposite actually. Aline Mayard tells me: “We believe these teams are very keen to continue their projects. Many are putting their solutions online, or purchasing a domain name… I’m impressed by their motivation.”
The hackathon has helped raise awareness of an approach which, imperfect as it may be, still tries to promote gender equality. Antoine, a participant, signs up for one of the gender-neutral language converter projects after participating in the hackathon. As a web developer, he “barely heard about this style of writing through media” before coming to this event. “I have learned a lot, and I admit that I didn’t know about this subject until now. I have learned the importance of progress, and especially I have realised that there is a huge potential for digital innovation with regard to this issue. We still have a lot to do.” And to conclude: “It is always nice when your technical skills can support a good cause.”
P.s. If you read this article in French, you will have managed to get through an entire piece using inclusive writing. ;)