Unlike English, the French language relies heavily on grammatical gender. While we can use the pronouns they/them, the only French equivalent is ils/elles (plural male/plural female). There are many other challenges facing the French, with many unwilling to change the language. The innovation of neutral pronouns like iel or ille are, therefore, only small ripples. Gender is no longer a given fact, assigned at birth, it is found/made/discovered. This has great consequences for widely spoken languages like English and French. Thus, internationally, the structures of languages are facing a revolution.
The revolution is underway in English, but our task is not as great. For one, English being an old Germanic language already had three classes of grammatical gender: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Inflection endings have also been mostly abandoned since the late fourteenth century. In French these still dominate with étudiant (m) and étudiante (f), for example. There also exists a masculine bias, where the masculine variant of “they” is used if a group of people contains at least one male.
My knowledge on French grammar and its issues are limited, so I am not entitled to speak beyond brief summaries. The push for inclusive writing in France will likely set conservatives and progressives into a bloody war. Earlier this year, sixty French MPs (close allies of the President) spoke out against inclusive writing, claiming “[t]he advent of inclusive writing makes the learning of the French language harder”. To summarise, opposition to écriture inclusive is based on a ‘this is how it has always been, to change would be too confusing’ mentality. A mentality that basically says no to any change because the world is already perfect.
This is not to dismiss the struggled with pronouns. It is difficult but managable (in English) to retrain your brain to separate gender from sex. It is easy to misgender someone because they possess an afab (assigned female at birth) biology. My mum once asked me not to get upset if she accidentally slipped.
– Why would I get angry, mum? Change cannot be expected overnight.
I and others like me have our issues with the existing inclusivity in English: They/them is (formally) plural and comes across as impersonal; gender-neutral titles like birthing person, child, and sibling are very robotic, lacking that homely feeling.
And in comes neopronouns to save the day. But which one do we choose? We can choose any? Now, that is confusing. It would perhaps do the movement better to agree with officials on one or two of these pronouns. My argument drifts close to the sixty French MPs and so I must tread cautiously. We need an agreement for ease of communication, for fear of alienating those we need to win over. We don’t want to seem ridiculous, overwhelming, or just confusing people who are unaware of the large variety of neopronouns. Having seven or eight gender-neutral pronouns seems superfluous.
I am sick of having to be called son, nephew, brother. When I gave up he/him, it wasn’t just a political expression. I do not want to be seen as male. Being referred in this way is similar to someone calling you by some other name, especially when you remember theirs. Adopting anything else, for now, will only raise confusion. I must make do.
Do not feel like we are making you out to be a bad person. If someone is, they are probably speaking out of line. Misgendering can be an innocent mistake. The division of sex and gender is one of the greatest shifts in language. It will take some time to settle. Mistakes happen. We are only offended by laziness.
– Why can we not just return to when things were simpler?
Well, male-female or straight-gay are umbrella terms. They cover a vast amount of difference, and within assumptions thrive. Assumptions lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. When I am dating, I know now a demisexual requires a strong emotional bond before sexual attraction. No one’s time is wasted. The communication is clear: it is not worth attempting sex with them without such a bond.
The understanding do not expect you to know every sexuality. Not everyone knows Cape Verde is a country. A quick google solves that. These words do not exist because Generation Z are useless children, who still live in their fantasy worlds. These words exist to help you communicate. They/they describes my conflicting identity perfectly and frees my mind from its masculine confines. So, why would we choose the simpler option, if not out of laziness? If language is about communicating, then it is important to ensure that it communicates well.
The task for the francophone world (and other like languages) is a great. However, as English speakers we are privileged to be able to introduce these changes without shaking up an entire learnt language. And for those who subscribe to the simple world rhetoric, grunting is always simpler, but we have outgrown that. We need a distinction between sex and gender. Identity does not rely simply on my penis. If it did, I probably would not be so useless at manual labour. I’m sure someone else, regardless of their genitalia, might be better suited to that role. The language revolution will take time, and you should not criminalise yourself (or be criminalised) for accidentally falling into the rhythms that you grew up with.