Friday, December 09, 2005


There was a very interesting series of articles published in Le Figaro Littéraire on Thursday concerning the feminisation of the French language. What these articles remind us very clearly is that language is an evolving medium over which we have little control. And when language evolves, it forces us to evolve with it.

The feminisation of the French language is primarily due to the fact that more and more kinds of work are opening up to women. French is a language which records the gender of every noun. 'The table' translates as 'La table', for example, in which the word 'La' indicates the feminine gender. 'The book' on the other hand is 'le livre'.

To a French person I think these genders are fairly transparent. French people don't have to think about whether a book is masculine or feminine, that's just the way it is. The definite article 'le' becomes almost a part of the word 'livre'. Children always write the two words together when they are learning to read and write, unlike English children for whom the definite article is unimportant.

When a foreigner learns French however, they have to invest a huge amount of time adding all this 'gender junk' into their onboard dictionaries, and in addition, they will have to learn how to make every adjective agree. Having done this myself, I have often had opportunity to reflect on why 'la table' is feminine and 'le livre' is masculine. Is it because tables appertain to women and books appertain to men. Not now, obviously, but at some point in the distant past when tables and books first popped into existence?

So, what are the new feminised words that are coming into the French language, and how does this occur? There are some words in which the definite article has simply been adapted, for example 'captain' can now be 'Le Capitaine' or 'La Capitaine'. There are other words that lend themselves to a 'natural' feminisation, for example 'oui, mon colonel' might now be 'oui, ma colonelle'.

There is also feminisation "à la québecoise" where you add a letter 'e' at the end of the word so that 'amateur' becomes 'amateure' and 'vainqueur' becomes 'vainqueure'. Other word endings that can be employed to change a word's gender include '-rice' and '-euse' such as 'boxeur' into 'boxeuse' (boxer), 'violeur' into 'violeuse' (rapist) and 'gladiateur' into 'gladiatrice'.

There is a good example in one of the articles showing why the need to change is so pressing. It takes the form of commentary on the visit of the new German Chancellor, who is a woman, to the presidential palace of Jacques Chirac. As things stand, Angela Merkel has to be referred to as: 'le chancelier allemand'.

In English, there are not that many words that define the male/female role. I have noted down a few:


They all seem to end in '-ess' and they are not that easy to think of. I don't believe that many female poets these days refer to themselves as a 'poetess'. It seems quaint somehow. And how many seamsters do you meet? It seems that English and French are set on different objectives, English to eradicate gender from the language, French to create two alternative languages, one pertaining to the femine world, the other to the masculine.


Andrea said...

If I remember my german classes correctly German also makes a distinction between feminine and male words. MY grandmother spoke german as a third language and always got it wrong. MY grandfather would always chastize her for it.
Took german and french classes and I HATED THIS PART of the language.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Andrea

Yes, I asked my wife about this as she studied German as well. She said in that in German there is also neuter as well. Therefore three different varieties to get confused over...