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Wednesday, July 1, 1998 Published at 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK


Feminising French

Why a table is feminine remains a mystery

France's Education Ministry is trying to overturn centuries of what it sees as institutionalised sexism by giving people their proper genders in the French language.

In French, almost all things are either feminine or masculine but people such as doctors and teachers are masculine.

That means they take the direct article "le" not "la", regardless of what sex the occupant of any particular post happens to be.

[ image: Lionel Jospin, with
Lionel Jospin, with "la Ministre" for Labour, Martine Aubry
But all that is about to change. Under rules to be implemented next month, the Education Ministry wants a woman teacher to be "la professeur". A woman doctor would be "la docteur".

While that may be obvious enough for students of the language, things do get more complicated.

Under the draft circular from the ministry, an engineer who happened to be female would stop being "un ingenieur" to become "une ingenieure" - adding an extra "e" - and a female director would be transformed from "une directeur" to "une directrice".


It is part of a process of recognising the increasing number of women in what have been traditionally male-dominated professions.

The equivalent in English would be not assuming that an unnamed lawyer, say, is a "he", or that a nurse is "she".

The cause is espoused by the socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, whose father began his career as a French teacher.

But it has upset the diehard defenders of the language, l'Académie française. Members had already complained after Mr Jospin, who is married to the feminist philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, insisted that the eight women in his 29-member cabinet should each be referred to as "Madame la ministre".

The head of the academy, Maurice Druon, who has been making bitter remarks about Mr Jospin being "nagged" by a "harem" of women advisers, has called an emergency meeting to decide what can be done about this latest attack on tradition.

As it happens, l'Académie, like the country itself, is linguistically feminine - even though only two of its 40 members are women, the first of them joining in 1980 after almost 350 years of male domination.

French women were among the last in Europe to win the right to vote, in 1944.

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