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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Langue. Si, si, hommes et femmes sont égales


Language. Yes, yes, men and women are equal

Translated Friday 10 April 2015, by Sonia Govindankutty

A petition submitted to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem calls for a re-look at French grammar rules.

Ever since the Académie française set down the rules of the French language three centuries ago and established that one gender would take precedence over the other, "the masculine gender has outweighed the feminine". These words, this rule, this pronouncement can be found in every grammar book and has been drilled into every schoolchild on a daily basis. "When two genders come into the picture, the nobler one has to take precedence," was the justification offered by the grammarian Father Bouhours in 1676. A hundred years later, his counterpart Beauzée clarified the notion: "Given the superiority of the male over the female, the masculine gender is considered to be nobler than the feminine."

Be that as it may, before the 18th century, the French language was much more liberal and definitely less sexist. An adjective used to describe more than one noun would agree in gender and number with the last, the one closest to it, even if the noun were feminine. Thus, "men and women could be beautiful (with ’beautiful’ agreeing with the gender and number of the noun ’women’)". No one had a problem with that. Just like many authors before him, the great poet Agrippa d’Aubigné wrote: "Carrying to their palace, innocent arms and hands" (with ’innocent’ agreeing with ’hands’), since the so-called proximity rule was in use right from ancient times. This rule was prevalent in Latin, Greek and Old French.

"We don’t want to move from one hierarchy to another, but we do want to put an end to an outmoded notion that is no longer relevant", explains Henriette Zoughebi, Vice President of the Île de France Regional Council who, along with L’égalité Association, C’est pas sorcier and the Ligue de l’enseignement, took the lead in sending the petition (via change.org) to the minister. The signatories demand that the proximity rule be recognized "because it challenges the hierarchical position between feminine and masculine" and would, according to them, help in the cause of promoting the concept of equality among children and youth. They are asking Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to bring out a new circular on the subject - a step that would not involve any expenditure and requires only a minor modification. A Ministry of National Education circular dating from 1976 already recommends that educators make allowances, especially in cases when it is difficult to justify a grammatical rule. "We have to change with the times", feels Henriette Zoughebi, and not let ourselves be guided by spell-checkers on our computers that are decidedly conservative.

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