Inclusion of Non-Binary Pronoun in Respected French Dictionary Stirs Debate

A non-binary pronoun has been added to an iconic French dictionary, but its inclusion has sparked a fierce conversation.

Le Petit Robert de la Langue Française added the term "iel" to its online dictionary in October. The pronoun is an amalgamation of the French pronouns "il" (he) and "elle" (she) and has seen an increase in usage among the nation's non-binary population. Although quietly added last month, it has become the center of a nationwide debate.

One such dissenter of "iel" is Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who wrote on Twitter that "inclusive writing is not the future of the French language."

Lawmaker Francois Jolivet also opposes the inclusion of the pronoun. He wrote a letter to French language authority Academie Francaise, saying that the actions of Le Robert signify "an obvious ideological intrusion that undermines our common language and its influence."

However, some have praised the decision of Le Robert to recognize the pronoun. Doctoral student Dorah Simon Claude said that "it is very important that dictionaries include the 'iel' pronoun in their referencing as it reflects how the use of the term is now well accepted."

They elaborated on this, saying that "it is also a way of confronting the Academie Francaise that stays in its conservative corner and continues to ignore and scorn users of the French language."

Le Robert's general director, Charles Bimbenet, maintained that the inclusion of "iel" was spurred by increased usage across France.

"Robert's mission is to observe and report on the evolution of a changing and diverse French language," Bimbenet in a statement.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

France Library
Le Petit Robert de la Langue Française added the term "iel" to its online dictionary in October. Above, students work at the library of the university on October 11, 2017 in Mont-Saint-Aignan, near Rouen, northwestern France. Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

In one camp are the traditionalists, including some political leaders, who criticize the move as a sign that France is lurching toward an American-style "woke" ideology. In the other is a new generation of citizens who embrace nonbinary as the norm.

Blanquer, a 56-year-old former law professor, warned that schoolchildren should not use "iel" as a valid term despite its inclusion in Le Robert, seen as a linguistic authority on French since 1967.

Since "the meaning of the word iel cannot be understood by reading it alone," Bimbenet said, "it seemed useful to us to specify its meaning for those who encounter it, whether they wish to use it or ... reject it."

In 2017, the Academie Francaise warned that moves to make French more gender neutral would create "a disunited language, with disparate expression, that can create confusion verging on illegibility."

Gendered languages like French are seen as a particular hurdle for advocates of nonbinary terms as all nouns are categorized as either masculine or feminine, unlike in English.

Not all European countries are moving at the same speed as France. In Greece, where all nouns have not two, but three possible genders, there is no official nonbinary pronoun, but groups who support them suggest using "it."

In Spain, after former deputy prime minister and affirmed feminist Carmen Calvo asked the Royal Spanish Academy to advise on the use of inclusive language in the Constitution, its reply the next year was crystal clear: "Inclusive language" means "the use of the masculine to refer to men and women."

A non-binary pronoun added to an esteemed French dictionary has ignited a fierce linguistic squabble in the country. Above, Jean-Michel Blanquer, French minister of National Education, Youth and Sport, talks during an interview in Tokyo, Japan, July 25, 2021. AP Photo/Johnson Lai, file