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Sexist grammar: the French and German cases

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Poor adjectives need take their husband's name no more. Sort of. Whilst one French association has attacked a centuries-old 'oversight', the Germans (or at least their moderate feminists) have taken plural forms to task. In all, the debate succeeds in desexualising our common language

Once upon a time in 1676, Dominique Bouhours, a French Jesuit priest and scribe, came up with an almost revolutionary formula: ‘the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine’ His justification was that when both genders meet, the noblest must prevail. However, father Bouhours was not talking about the code of conduct for a meeting between man and woman in real life, though the rule probably holds true there in any case. His interest was with grammar.

French grammar: men and children first

335 years after the sexist language reform’, Henriette Zoughebie appeals for people to sign the petition ‘So that men and women are beautiful’ on her blog. Zoughebie initiated this event with fellow members of the association 'Equality – It’s Not Rocket Science!' (L’égalité, c’est pas sorcier). For non-French people, the outrage in the light of a centuries-old grammar rule is at first difficult to understand. The slogan of the petition demonstrates what it is about: in correct French it should read: ‘Que les hommes et les femmes soient beaux‘, since the masculine adjective beaux (beautiful) takes precedence when choosing the corresponding adjective form. This then leads to such absurd situations; say two hundred women and only one man take part in a meeting, why is the male plural pronoun ils still used when referring to the participants majority female participants? Instead, the slogan uses the feminine adjective belles to say beautiful, and reads Que les hommes et les femmes soient belles.

’This grammar rule shapes a world of beliefs in which the male is seen as superior to the female,’ states Henriette Zoughebie. She reminds us that before the reform of 1676, the rule was that of ‘proximity’ (de proximité in French). This means that if an adjective corresponds to multiple nouns, it may take the form corresponding with the closest noun. Clara Domingues, general secretary of L’égalité, c’est pas sorcier, gives one example: 'These three whole days and nights', or ces trois jours et ces trois nuits entières. As jour ('day') is masculine, the adjectival ending entières (‘whole’) should likewise be masculine, thus entiers. In contrast, through the ‘rule of proximity’ the adjective form would be chosen in correspondence to the feminine nuit (‘night’), which is the closest noun. The petition calls for the reintroduction of this old rule.

Sick German language

This all-too-French problem is not known in Germany where there is just one plural pronoun (sie, 'they'), which can refer to both men and women. Nevertheless, many feminists are of the opinion that the German language discriminates against women. In an interview with national broadsheet Tageszeitung, feminist linguist Luise F. Pusch says that she conducts ‘grammatical research with socio-political relevance’. She advocates making the article freely selectable, as is the case in examples such as die Professor (the professor) or die Kanzler (the chancellor). Both use the feminine article ‘die’ where masculine ‘der’ would traditionally be used. Pusch is convinced that the German language is ‘sick and in need of repair’. Admittedly, the business with freely selectable articles is a step too far for many moderate feminists. However, they do question the disproportional use of generic masculine nouns. The problem is as follows: both the generic and the specific masculine nouns (the terms for male individuals and groups of them respectively) are mostly identical. Out of convenience the generic masculine noun will often be used – it’s just easier to say die Schüler (‘the pupils’) instead of die Schülerinnen (feminine plural) and die Schüler (male plural).

‘The majority of anti-reformists put forward the argument that 'women are obviously included in this anyway'’

‘The majority of anti-reformists put forward the argument that ‘women are obviously included in this anyway’, since the generic plural forms and the masculine plurals are exactly identical,’ criticises Dagmar Buchta in an article for Die Standard, the feminist-oriented ‘sister paper’ of the Austrian daily Der Standard. ‘Passing the masculine plural form off as the neutral plural form implies that men are the norm and women the exception; this, as a result of the negative special status, is simply accepted and overlooked.’ Feminists speak of a ‘male bias’, that men are disproportionately favoured. For many German-speakers the Binnen-I (‘inner-I') serves as a solution: a capital ‘I’ is inserted into feminine plural forms to indicate that a mixed plural form is in use. Teachers who are both male and female are LehrerInnen (the masculine plural is Lehrer, the feminine plural is Lehrerinnen). A mixed crowd of pupils are SchülerInnen (the masculine plural is Schüler, the feminine plural is Schülerinnen). However, KritikerInnen (critics) would then detect a certain ‘female bias’ here.

So the situation in Germany is not such a far cry from the French dispute over Bouhour’s rule after all. Both the initiators of the French petition and the German feminist linguists agree on one thing; language reflects social standards. ‘Language has just as much of an outward effect, such as on social relations, as an inward effect on our consciousness,’ writes Dagmar Buchta. German feminists have at least one small victory over the French: the title Fräulein ('Miss'), perceived as discriminatory, was abolished in Germany as long ago as the 1970s and is something which is still being campaigned for in France.

Images: main (cc) OperationPaperStorm; in-text (cc) Gemma Bou/ both via flickr

Translated from Der Mann als Norm, die Frau als Ausnahme