Language is powerful. Our accents give us identity, and our words allow us to connect with each other. When our speech or writing is unclear, the rest of the world can’t understand us. Similarly, when we don’t have words to describe something, we have no way to tell others about it.
L’Académie Française was created for these reasons. Their job is to protect the French language by publishing the official grammar rules and French dictionary. Sometimes this organization is hard for English speakers to understand, as English has nothing equivalent to L’Académie. We just add extra words when new things are created, and even borrow words from other languages when it fits. Many organizations sell English dictionaries, and some of those different organizations even debate specific grammar rules, such as the Oxford comma.
But for French, especially the French spoken in France, L’Académie rules the language. It began as an informal gathering of intellectuals. But in 1635, Cardinal de Richelieu made it public and gave it its purpose: to create the French dictionary and maintain language standards.
The members of L’Académie are known as immortels (immortals). This nickname comes from the motto given to L’Académie by Cardinal de Richelieu: à l’immortalité (to immortality). There are 40 members allowed, and they are elected for life, although they may resign or be kicked out for misconduct.
Many of the 729 total members in the history of L’Académie have been well known writers, and seven of them have been Nobel Prize recipients. Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Gustave Flaubert, and Jules Verne are among the more famous writers who have made it into L’Academie.
Historically, L’Académie has been a highly respected institution, but recently people thought of L’Académie as outdated, a relic of a different time. This is because of L’Académie resisting a proposed change that would make French less gendered.
In French, every noun has a masculine and a feminine form. For example, the noun writer has two, and only two, singular forms: écrivain (male writer) and écrivaine (female writer). There is also no neutral pronoun, meaning individuals who identify as gender neutral or nonbinary have no way to identify themselves. In English, a person may tell us their pronouns are ‘they/them’ and we can speak of that individual using those words. But in French, there are only two pronouns, and both are gendered.
The current grammar rule dictates when addressing a group of people, the speaker must use the male form of the noun if there are any men in the group they are addressing. So if I am speaking to a group of five male writers and five female writers, I must refer to them collectively as écrivains. If more writers join us and there are now 500 female writers and only five male writers, I still have to address them as écrivains. Only if the five male writers leave and I am speaking to a group of only females am I allowed to call them écrivaines.
The proposal for change is admittedly messy, and would only work for written French. It takes the root of the noun and adds both endings, and the plural, separated by a period. Continuing the example above, the noun writer becomes écrivain.e.s.
L’Académie and others against this change argue this new form is far too messy, and the male root of the noun already functions as a gender-neutral form of the word. In 2017, when L’Académie voted on implementing these changes, they voted unanimously against them, and followed the vote with a statement that said such changes would put French “in mortal danger.”
Advocates in favor of this change claim the masculine form is not neutral at all, and cite L’Académie created the grammar rule ‘masculine over feminine’ in 1647, with the justification that men are simply more ‘noble’ gender. And L’Académie itself is hardly the model for equality. Of the 729 members in their entire history, only 8 have been women, and only elected the first in 1980.
Others claim these changes are necessary for the evolution of their language and also for women’s status in society. They admit a language change will not fix every problem encountered by Francophone girls and women, but they know a change like this is a step in a positive direction.
The opinion of L’Académie is only an opinion, and they have little control over how people speak or write, or which works get published and which don’t. In fact, several books have been written explaining the necessity for a big change and how individuals can speak more inclusively. Some of these publications also talk about how people can speak about themselves and others if they don’t identify as strictly male or female (here’s another resource, this one in French).
Both sides agree that their language is valuable and worth protecting. The only debate is which would harm the language more: resisting change and continuing to teach unequal rules, or writing in a way that isn’t neat and afflicting ‘impurities’ on the language?