LingLunch : M. Flesch, J. Abbou & H. Burnett

Jeudi 14 Mars 2024, 12:00 to 13:00
Karen De Clercq et Ira Noveck (LLF)

LLF – Bât. ODG – 5e étage – Salle du conseil (533)

Marie Flesch (LLF, CNRS - Université Paris Cité), Julie Abbou (Università di Torino) & Heather Burnett (LLF, CNRS - Université Paris Cité)
Gender Inclusive Speaking

In the past 10 years, there has been an explosion of discourse about French gender inclusive language in traditional and social media, in academic publications, and in activist circles. These debates concern not only how/whether to represent non-binary people in the language, but also whether/how so-called “generic” masculines should be replaced with non-masculine marked forms. An important feature of these debates is that they are almost exclusively focused on the written language, despite the fact that the spoken language is just as important for the production and reproduction of gender inequality. The spoken language is also not generally considered in linguists' description of French grammatical gender. This is unfortunate because it ignores the wealth of recent scientific research showing that the grammars of spoken and written French(es) often differ enormously. The main goal of our presentation is therefore to center the spoken language in a way that is not generally done when describing French grammatical gender, and document the ways in which grammatical gender marking is expressed in speech. In order to do so, we present a quantitative study of gender marking in noun phrases referring to humans in the Cartographie linguistique des féminismes (CaFé) corpus (Abbou & Burnett 2024), a corpus of 102 sociolinguistic interviews with feminist and queer activists in three large multicultural francophone cities: Paris, Marseille and Montréal.

The results of our study paint a picture of the oral French grammatical gender system that is very different from the one that descriptions based on the written language provide. In particular, in contrast to common assumptions made about written French, we find that the overall rate of use of masculine marked expressions whose intended referents are not necessarily men is extremely low: only at most around 5% of all the noun phrases in the corpus (and around 10% of noun phrases with gender neutral reference). We show furthermore that the use of these so-called generic masculines is conditioned by social factors including age, geographical location and education in such a way that, for younger less educated speakers from Montréal, the rate of using a so-called generic masculine is even lower: 3.89%. We argue that these surprising results can be understood from arising from three different, unrelated, sources which, together, conspire to almost eliminate so-called generic masculines from the spoken language of feminist and queer activists:

  1. Diachronic phonological processes, combined with the French resistance to spelling reforms, create a situation in which a lot of gender marking present in writing becomes neutralized in speaking in Paris, Marseille and Montréal.
  2. The introduction of person-centered language, following proposals by disability activists in anglophone North America, which replaces noun phrases referring to people headed by property nouns, which are often so-called generic masculines like "les sourds" ‘the deaf’ or "les noirs" ‘black people’, with a noun phrase headed by personne (i.e. "les personnes sourdes"; "les personnes noires"), which are grammatically feminine.
  3. The replacement of isolated so-called generic masculines (eg. "les étudiants") with syntactic doublets ("les étudiants et étudiantes"), which include a feminine form, following proposals by influential gender inclusive language guides.

Two of the three (socio)linguistic phenomena described above have no direct relation to feminist linguistic activism; however, as we will show in the paper, they combine with the doublets to render the spontaneous spoken language of feminist and queer activists highly gender inclusive.