French dictionary adds non-binary pronoun

The term ‘iel’ has ignited a linguistic debate in France

Kate Ng
Friday 19 November 2021 15:42
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A French dictionary has added a gender-neutral pronoun, sparking debate among French speakers in the country.

Le Petit Robert introduced the word “iel” to its online edition in October. The word is a combination of “il” (he) and “elle” (she).

Its addition to the dictionary went largely unnoticed, until French lawmaker, Francois Jolivet, accused it of “wokeism” on Tuesday.

Jolivet, who is from president Emmanuel Macron’s party La Republique en Marche, said in a tweet: “Le Petit Robert, a dictionary that we thought was a reference, has just integrated on its site the word ‘iel, ielle, iels, ielles’.

“Its authors are therefore militants of a cause that has nothing to do with France: #wokisme”

Other political leaders, including education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, also expressed anger at the new entry and tweeted that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language”.

He warned that schoolchildren should not use “iel” as a valid term despite its inclusion in the Le Petit Robert dictionary, which has been considered a linguistic authority on French since 1967.

A spokesperson for the French government, Gabriel Attal, told a press conference on Wednesday that the government’s position was “not to use inclusive writing in all official documents and administrative documents”.

But many French citizens are embracing the gender-neutral term. Dorah Simon Claude, a 32-year-old doctoral student who identifies as “iel”, told the Associated Press: “It is very important that dictionaries include the ‘iel’ pronoun in their referencing as it reflects how the use of the term is now well-accepted.

“It is also a way of confronting the Academie Francaise that stays in its conservative corner and continues to ignore and scorn users of the French language.”

The 400-year-old Academie Francaise is the principal French council for matters related to the language.

In 2017, the council warned that moved to make the French language more gender neutral would create a “disunited language, with disparate expression, that can create confusion verging on illegibility”.

Charles Bimbenet, general director of Le Petit Robert editions, defended the dictionary in a statement on Wednesday.

He said that far from dictating what terms should or shouldn’t be used, Le Petit Roberts was explaining the word’s meaning as it is growing in usage nationwide.

Bimbenet said that since "the meaning of the word iel cannot be understood by reading it alone, it seemed useful to us to specify its meaning for those who encounter it, whether they wish to use it or reject it."

“Robert’s mission is to observe and report on the evolution of a changing and diverse French language,” he added.

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