Inclusive writing is not wokeism, it is the future

By adopting genderless language where applicable, kids may benefit from knowing that their gender identity is never an impediment to what they can do

By Gopika Nair

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Published: Sun 21 Nov 2021, 10:09 PM

Most of us don’t think about pronouns. The rules were simply drilled into our heads when we first took language lessons; he, she, you, they. Each served a definitive purpose — one for masculine, another for the feminine; one for second-person, another for referencing plurality. But some rules have changed considerably in recent times, raising much furore.

In 2019, Merriam-Webster made headlines when it declared an innocuous pronoun, one that has been used since the 14th century, as its word of the year: they. It was a year that saw the adoption of more than 640 words and phrases, including popular Internet slang, such as vacay, hustle, whatevs, solopreneur and on-brand.

How, out of those gems, did they snag the top honours? The year 2019 was when Merriam-Webster expanded its definition for the singular they, saying the pronoun could now be used in a genderless — or nonbinary — context, even if the person’s identity may be apparent.

“If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, ‘This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work’,” the American dictionary publisher wrote in a blog post at the time.

That same year, the American Psychological Association told academic writers to adopt the singular they when referring to a person whose gender is unknown instead of defaulting to the so-called generic pronoun he or worse, the cumbersome he/she. The Associated Press Stylebook for journalists also embraced the singular, gender-neutral they, and now, the usage is ubiquitous enough to slip by readers’ notice.

In much of the English-speaking world, gender-specific terms have become less common. It’s firefighter, not fireman; police officer, not policeman; humankind, not mankind; so on and so forth. The change may have felt prickly on the tongue at first, but what did people do? They adapted, as is the expected response to ever-evolving languages.

But the powers that be in France refuse to do that. Recently, Le Robert, a major French dictionary, included a gender-neutral pronoun in its online edition.

The decision to add iel — a combination of il and elle, meaning he and she, respectively — sparked swift outrage, as lawmakers dismissed the entry as US-inspired “wokeism”. The dictionary’s authors were likened to “militants”, with politician François Jolivet arguing on Twitter that the cause had nothing to do with France.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer shared Jolivet’s anger. “Inclusive writing is not the future of the French language,” he said in a Tweet.

Their outrage could’ve been predicted. Earlier this year, Jolivet, a deputy of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, proposed a law to prohibit the use of gender-neutral text in administrative documents, while Blanquer banned an inclusive writing method in schools.

But since when is inclusivity a bad thing to teach or adopt? As a society, we must advance, and progress first takes shape through the language we use.

The French language has long been considered notorious for its gender bias, which feminists argue borders on sexism. A gender-neutral pronoun like they doesn’t exist and the masculine form always trumps the feminine, which means 10 women would take the feminine pronoun elles, but the addition of just one man will turn it into the masculine pronoun ils.

Up until recently, several job titles didn’t even have a feminine form in French, and the ones that do were received with staunch opposition. Though media companies, such as Netflix France, have adopted gender-neutral language, traditionalists and legislators have only criticised these steps. “We’re fed this idea that language rules are sacred and that feminists are undermining our culture,” said historian Eliane Viennot in an interview with France 24. “It’s the kind of talk that stirs emotional responses but simply doesn’t withstand scrutiny.”

Education Minister Blanquer’s main argument against inclusive writing is that it will alienate students when they’re trying to learn the French language by causing unnecessary confusion. But surely, language that has a blatant gender bias is the more prominent issue here.

The logic itself is simplistic; kids may stumble at first when learning new rules, but they will eventually pick up the semantics. After all, no one’s knowledge of a language is limited to what is taught in school. As the world around us changes, so does our language and so, too, must our attitudes towards incongruities.

Inclusive terms aren’t meant to eradicate gendered language; masculine and feminine pronouns will continue to exist and likely prevail. The point is simply to expand our horizons and make space for the in-between. By adopting genderless language where applicable, kids may even benefit from knowing that their gender identity is never an impediment to what they can do.

Languages are complex and true inclusivity may take decades to develop. Even then, attempts might fall short as those in charge confer on what is appropriate and work towards widespread adoption. There will be disagreements, accusations and reluctance. But conversations around gender-neutral language is, nonetheless, a start, one that French lawmakers themselves have recently incited.

The cause, therefore, has nothing to do with US-inspired wokeism and everything to do with unprejudiced advancement.

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