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Tackling inclusive writing in French content

A french copywriter is best placed to write using inclusive language
French inclusive writing can be a grammatical challenge

Gender inclusivity is actually fairly easy in English. You just, you know, don't say anything genderphobic and pay special attention to the usage of pronouns. (Relatively) simple.

Romanic languages have more complex challenges. In French, all nouns have a gender and that gender dictates a lot of grammatical changes. Many french boys enjoyed a not-so-quiet moment of intense satisfaction when their primary school teacher revealed that, should a pronoun or adjective apply to nouns of several genders in the same phrase, the masculine is the winner (cue boys clap, girls roll their eyes). Sometimes, it's kind of funny (you might have heard about the irony of a uterus being a masculine word whilst a moustach remains firmly feminine) and many comedians have created successful stand-up shows on the back of these apparent contradictions.

Jokes aside, it probably explains why France is taking a while to reflect on gender inclusive language. It's not so much that the French aren't happy with people questionning the way we look at gender, but more that they are trying to distinguish a person's gender from a noun's gender because the grammatical implications would otherwise be huge. After all, most nouns could fall under either gender without too much debate. Do we really care if a table is masculine or feminine?

How do the French use inclusive language ?

A few years ago, the Academy Française (the organisation responsible for defining and protecting the French language and the accepted reference for all dictionnaries), was under pressure to officially edit french grammar to make it more inclusive. A first attempt at inclusive writing was made, using a dot · between the masculine and feminine markings at the end of a noun so all genders were covered (I believe Germany tried something similar with an asterisk *).

They ended up publishing an open letter on inclusive writing to explain that the gender associated to a noun is a concept totally unrelated to that of gendered persons, and that the brutal modification of the french language, be it for the good cause of seeming more inclusive, would in fact be counter productive and potentially deter non native french speakers from attempting to learn its already complex meanders. In 2021, they also added the neutral gender pronoun "iel" to the official dictionnary.

This is roughly where the debate still stands, and inclusive writing remains a challenge for french translators and anyone looking to localise their content into French. In the absence of clear guidance, the main stance seems to be to use inclusive language as much as possible in your french content. In other words, find a better way around any gender-specific terms. This not only requires a great deal of creativity but also an evident mastery of french grammar and syntax.

Want some exemples ?

Exemple of French inclusive writing

In English, a teacher is a teacher. They may be cisgender, transgender or non-binary, you can still call them a teacher.

In French, they might be un professeur, une professeure, un enseignant, une enseignante, un maitre or une maitresse. Which is ok if you know who the person you're referring to is and what gender they identify as, unless they are non-binary which is a real grammatical challenge.

It gets a bit more complicated if you're writing a generic document, such as a job advert.

English: Teacher wanted

French (old style): On recherche un professeur

French (old style with inclusive touch): On recherche un professeur ou une professeure

French (inclusive writing): On recherche un·e professeur·e

French (inclusive language): Poste d'enseignement à pourvoir (teaching vacancy)

See what I did there?

Exemple of French inclusive language

I did some french localisation work for a trendy fashion brand recently. Their tone of voice wanted to be modern, contemporary, fun, natural and... gender neutral. The gender inclusivity element was a headache, to say the least. In this very outdoorsy context, the english text was filled with references to explorers and adventurers. Explorers can translate as explorateurs or exploratrices, same with aventuriers and aventurières, but using both can make a sentence very heavy. To avoid overloading the text, I had to paraphrase so I could use epicenes such as exploration and aventures instead, which often implied a complete reshuffle of a sentence.

The french pronoun debate

In november 2021, the Académie Française came up with a new pronoun which might translate the english gender-neutral "they". The suggested "iel" (a porte-manteau word born of the combination of the male pronoun "il" and its female counterpart "elle"). Several spelling variants were also admitted, such as "ielle", "iels", "ills" and "ielles". Unfortunately, this only kicks the can further down the sentence, since many other words such as adjectives or participles need to be adapted to the gender of its subject.

For exemple, the french translation of he/she is beautiful would normally be either il (he) est beau (masculine version of beautiful) or elle (she) est belle (feminine variant). So the question remain, should we write "iel est beau" or "iel est belle" ? Well, I'd probably end up opting for something like "sa beauté est innée" (their beauty is innate). Ta-da!

As a professional french translator and copywriter, I thoroughly enjoy reflecting on how a content might be perceived, what tone of voice to chose and how to use gender inclusive language in content. Feel free to get in touch if you're struggling with yours.

(By the way, I'm yet to see a machine translation platform succesfully and tastefully tackle this... )


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