On Thursday, the notoriously male-dominated Académie agreed that there was now “no obstacle in principle" in adapting the feminine equivalent of job titles, functions and professions.
The change came about after a report was submitted by Gabriel de Broglie, Michael Edwards, Danièle Sallenave and Dominque Bona – the latter two being the women of the group.
The declaration, was voted in favour by a majority of the 40 members, known as the Immortels, (the immortals in English).
It’s the first the time the Académie has gone this far in changing its rules to acknowledge the feminisation of job titles; a practice that was common in the Middle Ages, but cast aside for centuries.
While French people have feminised profession informally for years, the official nod from the Académie means more emphasis will now be focused on ‘inclusive writing’ in state documents.
History of the Académie française
The French have long revered their language for its melody and form, which is likely why the institution was eventually created back in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XII.
The year 1635 is considered a date when the role of the French language finally took its place as an important player in society and the concretisation of its nation.
However, following the 1793 Insurrection of the French Revolution, the Académie was shut down. It was later restored in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte as a division of the Institut de France, one of five French academies dedicated to the flourishing of French culture.
Since then, the Académie française has been behind the rules and regulations – and all those exceptions – of the French language.
In the French language, the default for most job titles is the masculine form, apart from a few exceptions such as nurse.
The Académie for years had been fiercely opposed to any institutionalised changes, calling such a move at inclusive writing in official government documents nothing more than an “aberration” that ultimately puts French in “mortal danger”.
France’s current Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, sometimes credited with pushing to make French more female-friendly, was insisting just last year that the “masculine [form] is a neutral form which should be used for terms to apply to women”.
In the introduction to the report on feminising words, the 20 page document submitted by l'Académie takes note of the rapid changes across the world at the start of the 21st century “particularly in France, and in other either entirely or partially French-speaking countries,” of the role of women in society and in their professional careers.
Such a strong and growing presence of women “want to see the feminine form of the profession that she exercises to fill what she feels is a language gap.”
How to feminise – a few pointers
French is, as previously mentioned, riddled with exceptions, including on how to feminise words or pluralise them.
Most words can easily be made feminine by adding an ‘e’ to the end, such as professeur (teacher) which can now become professeure.
But certain jobs will pose a problem.
Doctor in French, is medecin. But if you add an ‘e’, it become medicine, which already means the science of medicine.
But other French-speaking countries, such as Canada, Switzerland and Belgium have already found ways around such problems.
A female medical doctor will be une medecin, or une docteure, thereby depending on the feminine definitive article ‘une' rather than ‘un’ to define the gender of the profession.
Other solutions are simply employing a more gender-neutral term all together, such as ‘firefighter’ as is the case in English.