Language is a funny thing, so deeply connected to a culture that it is like water to a fish—one rarely thinks of language unless and until one’s native tongue is no longer the medium in which one is navigating life. But 20th century pioneer of linguistics and semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure, recognized language as a building block of culture, and as a result, his understanding of language greatly influenced contemporary social theory.
In her book Changing Signs of Truth, Crystal Downing quotes Saussure as saying, “language changes, or rather, evolves, under the influence of all the forces which can affect either sounds or meaning.” And yet, there are forces at work that resist the evolution of language as well. Those in power rarely acknowledge the way language is used to dominate and control those on the margins, and can resist changes to language that might diminish their sense of power. This is clearly seen in the on-going debate about using “politically correct” language in the United States.
I believe this issue is at the heart of Barthes’s theory about “myth.” In describing Barthes’s concept of myth, Elliot writes, “there is a kind of language which is ideological because it blocks its own relative, artificial status and attempts to pass itself off as transcendent, natural, and universal.” It is a way of using language in a way that makes us feel “socially ‘ordinary’ or natural.’”
The French love their language. So much so, that in 1635 they created the Academie Française,* a national academy dedicated to preserving the integrity of the French language. That academy, which continues to act as the arbiter of the official French language, is so prestigious that those who belong to it are called “immortals.” (Sounds pretty mythological to me!) Perhaps this is because the French believe that to guard the French language is to guard the French culture, the French mind-set, and the French raison d’être. In other words, the Academie Française not only believes that language can and should influence culture, they also strive to protect their language from certain cultural influences. But in so doing, are they protecting a certain “mythology” that favors social structures that ought to be dismantled?
A recent debate illustrates my point. An article published October 27th of this year in the online magazine “The Local” declares, “The immortals are furious about the rise of so-called ‘inclusive writing’ which basically puts the masculine AND feminine forms of nouns in the text.” This was in response to the use of inclusive language in an elementary school history textbook.
The French language has a sexist bent built into its structure. For example, if there were a room full of women, the pronoun used to refer to the group of women would be “elles,” which is essentially a feminine form of the English pronoun “they.” But if there were one male person in the room, even if he was a tiny baby boy among a thousand women, the pronoun used to refer to the group would be “ils,” which is a male form of the English pronoun “they.” There is no gender inclusive plural pronoun in the French language, so when referring to mixed groups, the grammatically correct thing to do is to employ the masculine pronoun.
This gets even trickier because in contemporary French, most nouns that refer to professions have a male and female form. This represents a relatively recent shift in the language, which previously only had masculine forms of such words, reflecting an historical culture where there would have been no such thing as a female farmer, doctor, or teacher. Due to efforts by François Mitterrand in the 1980s, the language evolved to reflect the advancement of women in the workplace—an evolution that was also met with resistance by the Academie Française.
Where the French had previously had only the masculine form of Directeur for director, they now have directrice for a female director. Coiffeur for a male hairdresser, coiffeuse for a female hairdresser. But if there is any doubt, or if one is referring to a non-specified hairdresser, or hairdressers in general, then the masculine form is always the default form. For every profession. Always.
Those who are proponents of inclusive language are suggesting formulations such as coiffeur.euse.s, and directeur.rice.s, when making general references. Such formulations create challenges with pronunciation, and even written they are admittedly awkward—a major concern for a country that takes great pride in the beauty of its language.
And yet, is there a deeper issue at work here, beyond simply wanting to protect the elegance of the French language. Is the Academie Française seeking to perpetuate a male-dominant culture in their resistance to inclusive language?
As a woman in a profession for which there is no feminine form in French***, I applaud those who are looking for ways to make the French language more inclusive. I grew up in a time and a denomination that considered the idea of a female pastor to be an abomination, so despite the fact that I would write sermons and preach them to my dolls, I never dared to dream that I could grow up to be a pastor. The signifier of “female pastor” didn’t exist as a /parole/ in my /langue/, which meant that my imagination was, indeed limited by language. I’d like to live in a world where language doesn’t limit people, but frees them to be all that God created them to be.
*The Acadamie Française has only inducted eight women since its creation in 1635.
** Interestingly, Smith makes a similar accusation of Elliot and Turner’s Profiles in Social Theory. Observing that of the 34 scholars that are highlighted by the authors, 27 are white male theorists, Smith concludes, “Within social theory, it seems, established systems of authority and knowledge production have proven remarkably resistant to change.”
*** There is no feminine form of “pastor” or “priest.” Only masculine. I’m not sure if this is reflective of the French culture or the Christian culture. I suspect the latter.
 Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner, eds., Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory (London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE, 2001). 78.
 Crystal Downing, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012). Kindle loc 1063.
 Elliott and Turner, Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory. 91.
 Elliott and Turner. 90.
 “The French language is in ‘mortal danger’, say its own panicked guardians,” The Local, accessed November 15, 2017, https://www.thelocal.fr/20171027/why-the-french-language-is-in-mortal-danger-according-to-its-own-guardians
 Philip Smith, “The Rescue Narrative in Social Theory,” Thesis Eleven 70, no. 1 (August 1, 2002): 118–26.