A more inclusive language: A step toward a more inclusive world

McGill Prof. Catherine Leclerc teaches a trailblazing course on non-sexist inclusive language
Catherine Leclerc, is an associate professor in McGill’s Département des littératures de langue française, de traduction et de création

In 2019, even the Académie française relented. The self-appointed protector of proper French finally consented to the feminization of names – but solely for professions, and after decades of dark warnings about “the mortal danger” to la langue de Molière that inclusive writing represented. We can now refer to ‘une autrice,’ ‘une ingénieure,’ ‘une politicienne’ or ‘une professeure’ with a clear conscience, it would appear.

Thank you, distinguished academicians, although Catherine Leclerc did not wait for approval. After completing her degree in translatology two decades ago, Leclerc began to examine inclusive language more closely.

“The first individuals to speak about inclusive writing used the expression to denote non-sexist writing, which would include women as part of humanity,” said Leclerc, now an associate professor in McGill University’s Département des littératures de langue française, de traduction et de création.

“What was initially called inclusive writing in French used the feminine form as a synonym. For instance, the idea was to talk about ‘une pompière’ and ‘un pompier.’ The English language went the other way. It did not add ‘firewoman’ to ‘fireman,’ but converted the term to ‘firefighter.’”

“English is more gender neutral than French to begin with. French is very gender-specific.”

Inclusive language evolved much faster in English than in French, noted Leclerc – English-language dictionaries, for example, include non-binary pronouns, unlike French-language ones. French took its time, although the practice is making progress. “They” in English to denote a self-identifying non-binary person is much more common than “iel” or “ille” in French, for instance.

To reflect this evolution, Leclerc designed a course entitled ‘Inclusive writing’ as part of the general course Langage et littérature 1, a first at McGill.

“We study language theory, how writers develop them or appropriate them… The first classes focus on history – first and foremost on the history of masculinization. Then on that of re-feminization.”

In French, the rule stipulating that ‘the masculine supersedes the feminine’ has been uncontested. It is grammatically mandatory to say ‘ils,’ for instance, when referring to a crowd of 9,999 women and one man.

“We do three practical exercises in which I ask the students to rewrite texts using this or that inclusive writing strategy. We do some language history, some grammar, and some literary text analysis using approaches that either place the feminine front and centre or blur gender duality.”

Change from the ground up

“I’ve long been interested in the way that marginalized linguistic practices can become legitimized,” said Leclerc. “I was curious: will it happen in French? How? When? Those sparks made me want to teach a course on the subject.”

“The most dramatic success in terms of legitimization is American English, whose norms are widely considered legitimate… On a more modest scale, le joual québécois was severely stigmatized in the 1960s, before being rehabilitated by artists. Now, it’s a sort of record, perfectly appropriate under certain circumstances.”

There were also epic fails.

“Who says ‘gaminet’ for a T-shirt today, or ‘hambourgeois’? Others had phenomenal success: ‘courriel’ emerged in the late 90s and was so popular that it spawned ‘pourriel’.”

“Inclusive writing is similar. We’ve reached a point where there is a path to legitimization of sorts. What’s happening? How is it happening? What’s fascinating is that it didn’t come from language ‘pros’.”

In fact, change was a grassroots progression from various communities and from the spontaneous evolution of language – from an individual who chooses to be called ‘une ingénieure’ or ‘une factrice’, or who prefers the pronoun ‘iel’.

“We must also thank transgender and non-binary people themselves for taking English as a model to a certain extent and coining neologisms in French that can work,” added Leclerc.

French is also evolving quickly now – especially in Quebec as regards professions – which in no way indicates universal acceptance of the principles of inclusive writing.

A vigorous debate persists regarding non-sexist pronouns and other elements of inclusive writing among the 12 students enrolled in Leclerc’s course.

Things have unfolded to the point where the professor can “confidently make assertions now [concerning inclusive writing] about which I was far from sure just two years ago.”

“The most striking example is the use of the middle dot (le point médian in French, e.g., chercheur.e to indicate masculine and feminine). All kinds of devices have been tried to denote feminine and masculine without resorting to doublets (‘étudiantes et étudiants’), which saves space in a text and avoids discriminating against non-binary and gender-fluid people: brackets, hyphens, forward slash… I can confidently state now that of all the devices that fulfil this function, the middle dot will take root.”

In Quebec, ‘auteure’ gained acceptance first, followed by ‘autrice.’

“People said ‘I’m used to auteure, autrice is ugly.’ But I’m sure it’ll stay. It doesn’t suit every circumstance, but it won’t disappear.”

Larger process of demasculinization 

Simply changing words will not solve the myriad problems of sexism, of course. French literature historian Éliane Viennot had a major influence on her thinking, Leclerc noted, showing that the entrenched ‘masculine supersedes feminine’ rule is derived not from a natural and progressive evolution of language, but from a conscious and sustained effort by men in the 17th century to exclude women systematically from certain occupations – and specifically from public service. Consequently, the masculine gender came to be regarded as more “noble.”

Prior to this highly political undertaking, gender designations were spontaneous, arrived at largely in accordance with proximity; in the Middle Ages, bakeries, farms, shoe-repair shops, etc., were generally run by couples. As a result, they were called ‘la boulangère’ and ‘le boulanger,’ for instance, without anyone questioning the gender issue.

Words are an inherent part of demasculinization, but that process, on the whole, is a much more comprehensive enterprise.

Leclerc is thankful for the many initiatives at McGill to hasten that process.

“In the last years, there have been all kinds of [actions at McGill] on all kinds of fronts… There have been numerous measures to reach that goal, whether it be hiring committees or other steps.”

“It’s a question of representation. It takes a Black president for Black children to imagine becoming president. It takes the notion of ‘pompière’ for a sufficient number of women to imagine: ‘I want to be a ‘pompière’.